Among the great modern artists, some seem to possess a boundless vitality, a spiritual extravagance that, even in the face of life’s hot suffering, causes them to profess their gratitude for the very fact of existence and to pour forth their praise of nobility, goodness, beauty, fortitude, love. Goethe, Beethoven, Victor Hugo, and Tolstoy are perhaps the foremost such figures.
Admirers of Wagner might place him, too, among the life-enhancers; yet he could write, at the age of thirty-nine, “I lead an indescribably worthless life . . . [F]or me, enjoyment, love are imaginary, not experienced.” Flaubert, who consecrated himself to a prose so beautiful that no real life could touch it, found himself exclaiming with envy at the sight of a bourgeois family enjoying a picnic, “They have it right.” In bitterness of heart, Kafka let loose with “I am made of literature,” meaning he was unfit for life.
And then there is the case of Marcel Proust (1871-1922), whose 3,000-page novels À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) outshines the masterworks of Wagner, Flaubert, and Kafka but whose life makes theirs look unattainably bold and merry by comparison. Proust may have been the greatest novelist of the 20th century, but he is almost singlehandedly responsible for turning the term “exquisite sensibility” into a jeer. Everyone knows about the madeleine that Proust’s narrator, Marcel, dunks in his tea, triggering a monumental reflux of childhood memories; the asthma that hounded Proust to an early death; the silent, cork-lined room that he rarely left. Speaking to William F. Buckley, Jr. at the height of the cold war, a prominent European intellectual upheld the honor of European manhood by declaring, “We’re not all a bunch of little Prousts over there.”
Sickly, homosexual, addicted to the social whirl, the real-life Proust seemed, to his contemporaries, irreparably frivolous, terminally brittle. Everyone recognized his brilliance, but no one thought he would forge anything lasting out of it. An 1893 portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche, who was to make his reputation by painting artistic eminences, depicts Proust as a ludicrous dandy in wing collar and cravat. His forehead has a greenish cast, like a week-old bruise, while the rest of his face is waxen. The flower on his lapel, which picks up his facial coloring, bears a disturbing resemblance to an out-sized malign insect. The eyes, though large and alert, do not reveal anything remarkable behind them. There is nothing to indicate that this young man might be more than a fop smitten with his own elegance. The only hint of otherworldliness is in the morbid tints of his face, which suggest that life is already beginning to prove too much for him and that his days are numbered.
To be sure, modern art has made room for, has even become the preserve of, wayward and misshapen souls. In 1918, with his masterpiece largely finished, Proust himself wrote that contemporary reality yielded its subtlest favors to the debauched and the incurable, and (referring to certain 19th-century artists) that “an unknown part of the mind or an additional nuance of affection was bursting with all the drunkenness of a Musset or a Verlaine, with all the perversions of a Baudelaire or a Rimbaud, even a Wagner, with the epilepsy of a Flaubert.” Suffering has its perquisites, and Proust took them for everything he could.
Yet he was also to prove himself a titan. Two identically titled new biographies help us see how, from unprepossessing beginnings, he did it. Both William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life1 and Jean-Yves Tadié’s Marcel Proust: A Life2 provide moving and cogent accounts of a life that ultimately had a single raison d’être.
The two books differ somewhat in approach. Carter, a professor of French at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is more considerate to the American reader, deftly filling in the social and political background of Proust’s life and work—as in the case of the Dreyfus affair, which figures so prominently in Proust’s novel. Tadié, who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris and is widely acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on Proust, takes it for granted that his reader knows things that most Americans do not. His book, which appeared in France in 1996 and which Carter cites repeatedly and respectfully, is the superior work of scholarship, but it is studded with impedimenta that sometimes make for tough going. (Tadié will record who wrote a review in a certain newspaper on a given day, for instance, but not what the review said, or set down the guest lists for parties that Proust attended, without a clue as to who these people were.) Still, there is much that Tadié knows that one is grateful to have between the covers of a book, and taken together Carter and Tadié constitute a treasure trove.
Marcel Proust was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent Parisian doctor, and his wife, born Jeanne Weil. The father was Catholic and the mother Jewish. Although she herself refused to convert, Jeanne agreed that their children would be raised as Catholics. As it happened, however, neither parent practiced his faith and, once Marcel had made his first communion, his church-going days were pretty much over.
Jewish religious law holds that the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew, but Proust never considered himself one, and neither did his friends. Still, his parentage occasionally presented difficulties. Once, as a young man, he stood silent and unresponsive when a revered mentor, Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, delivered an anti-Semitic tirade in the company of friends and then asked Proust for his opinion on the 1894 conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, who had been tried for treason on the charge of selling military secrets to the Germans. The next day, Proust wrote to Montesquiou that he had not said anything because, although he himself was Catholic like his father and brother, his mother was Jewish: “I am sure you understand that this is reason enough for me to refrain from such discussions.”
Whether Proust’s private frankness made up for his public reticence is a vexing question, and all the more so because he went on to confide that he was “not free to have the ideas I might otherwise have on the subject.” Proust’s tacit fear, in other words, was that if he defended the Jews he would be taken for a Jew, and what he wanted above all was to be thought of as a Christian gentleman. He even seemed to leave open the possibility that Montesquiou might be right: that only filial piety forbade him from thinking as Montesquiou did. In Carter’s view, “Proust stated his position and his independence, but he might have been less ambiguous about the ethical implications of racist remarks.” Carter is too kind. Proust was only as forthright as his social cowardice—his fear of sacrificing his respectability—would allow.
He was to find his courage when events made it easier to be courageous. By 1898, more and more people had become convinced that Dreyfus had been railroaded, and an uproar ensued that was to shake French society for years. The salon of Mme. Genevieve Straus (the widow of the composer Georges Bizet), where Proust had been a habitue for several years, turned into a Dreyfusard hotbed. Old friends of the anti-Dreyfus persuasion, including the painter Edgar Degas, stalked off and never came back. Drawing strength from those around him, Proust now joined in the growing drumbeat for a retrial that was led by the novelist Emile Zola. He was even to boast that he was the first of the Dreyfusards, because he secured the signature of his literary hero Anatole France on a petition. Still, when an anti-Semitic newspaper numbered him among the “young Jews” who defied decency and right thinking, Proust, who at first thought to correct the paper’s misapprehension, decided to keep quiet, lest he draw any more attention to himself. He must have known that, in the eyes of anti-Dreyfusards, his political affiliations only served to confirm the sad fact of his birth.
If the Dreyfus affair exposed the moral cretinism that extended into the upper echelons of French society, this hardly deterred Proust from wanting a place in that world. His social career had begun during his last year of high school, when, thanks to the mothers of some of his school friends, he gained admission to certain exclusive Parisian salons. His chum Jacques Bizet, whom he had tried to seduce, without success, made it up to him by serving as his ticket to the beau monde. At the salon of Mme. Straus, young Bizet’s mother, Proust became acquainted with artistic and aristocratic grandees like the composer Gabriel Fauré, the writer Guy de Maupassant, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Princesse Mathilde, the niece of Napoleon I. In time he became a regular at Princesse Mathilde’s as well, where the old-line nobility rubbed shoulders with arrivistes, and distinguished Jews mingled with those who detested them. (The writer Léon Daudet, to whom Proust would dedicate a volume of his novel, confided to his diary after one party: “The imperial dwelling was infested with Jews and Jewesses.”)
Another hostess conquered by the high-flying young Proust was Mme. Madeleine Lemaire, renowned for her musical gatherings. It was she who introduced him to Montesquiou-Fezensac, the aristocratic poet whose opinions on Jews Proust was willing to overlook for the sake of the Count’s artistic and social cachet. And there was something else: Montesquiou was boldly aboveboard about his homosexuality, at a time when, as Carter writes, “few Frenchmen dared, if they cared for their reputation and social standing, to display amorous affection for another man.” This frankness earned Proust’s regard—although he was, of course, ambivalent about going public on the issue of his own sexual nature.
Not that it was any secret to those who knew him. In high school, Proust had laid elaborate sexual siege to friends, writing them letters fraught with passion. When his disposition became apparent to his father, in the name of decency the agitated Dr. Proust slipped the boy ten francs and sent him off to a (female) prostitute; the mission wound up a fiasco when Proust broke a chamber pot and spoiled the romance of the moment.
Such happiness as Proust had from love was not made to last. Probably his first consummated affair was with the composer Reynaldo Hahn, whom he met at Mme. Lemaire’s when he was twenty-two and Hahn nineteen. Raw nerves and ceaseless importunity characterized Proust’s love for Hahn, who quickly tired of his friend’s demanding antics. But it was really Proust who fell out of love first, as he fell in love with the stripling Lucien Daudet, son of the novelist Alphonse Daudet and brother of the venomous Leon. Proust would even fight a duel with a journalist, himself homosexual, who hinted salaciously in print that his friendship with Lucien was not quite respectable; both duelists fired and missed.
Proust had good reason to keep his intimate proclivities under wraps. But biographers have their job to do, and Carter and Tadié leave little unsaid. Both record his favored mode of sexual recreation: going to a homosexual brothel and masturbating while watching as the man he had hired masturbated in front of him. If this procedure failed of its effect, the obliging prostitute would bring in a pair of hungry rats and loose them on each other, a spectacle that would invariably afford Proust the needed relief. (For this information we have the testimony both of one such prostitute and of the writer André Gide, in whom Proust confided.)
To the innocent observer, Proust’s sexual preferences may well appear about as demented as such things get; but normality of any kind was never Proust’s strong suit. Abysmal health plagued him his life long, and he cultivated the perpetual invalid’s peculiarities. Wracked by asthma, he spent six hours a day burning eucalyptus powders and inhaling the fumes. He needed veronal and opium and morphine to sleep, caffeine to revive him and also to help his asthma. The huge doses he took of caffeine brought on angina; the sedatives and painkillers destroyed his ability to register temperature, so that on sweltering days he would wear a heavy coat. A year’s supply of medications cost him the equivalent of $20,000 in today’s money. (His parents left him an inheritance of some $4.6 million, so the expenses were not insupportable.)
From his early twenties, Proust kept vampire’s hours, sleeping during the day and venturing abroad only under cover of darkness. As he grew older and sicker, he ventured out less and less. His cork-lined room became his refuge. Illness, he wrote to a friend, had made it necessary for him “to do without nearly everything and to replace people by their images and life by thought.” He subscribed to a device called the theatrophone, over which he could hear live operatic and dramatic performances without leaving his bed. He hired the best string quartet in Paris to play just for him in the middle of the night. In his latter days, he subsisted largely on ice cream and iced beer, ordered from the Ritz.
And through the worst of his misery, when it was almost impossible to eat, sleep, or breathe, he worked. From his youth he had wanted to be a writer, but the full seriousness of his vocation did not impress itself upon him until he was well into his thirties. His first book, Plaisirs et Jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of stories, poems, and pastiches, had appeared when he was twenty-three and was generally dismissed as a fussy curiosity. Fuming at the critics’ condescension, Proust set to work on a vast autobiographical novel, Jean Santeuil, which he abandoned after five years and a thousand pages. He translated a volume of John Ruskin, the English art and social critic; produced essays of his own on such artists as Watteau, Chardin, Rembrandt, Moreau, and Monet; and worked abortively on another novel that converged with a study of the literary critic Sainte-Beuve.
His painful failures made for an invaluable apprenticeship. Though the record is hazy, it was perhaps in 1908 that Proust conceived the work for which he would be known; by the next year, the novel was well tinder way. Carter says that by 1916 or soon thereafter, Proust “gave his book its ultimate shape if not its final dimensions,” but his tugging and worrying at the manuscript would continue to his final days. À la recherche du temps perdu appeared in eight volumes, published between 1913 and 1927, the last four posthumously. The titles of the constituent parts are Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (In the Shade of the Young Girls in Flower), Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah), La prisonnière (The Captive), Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone), and Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained).3
Proust’s novel takes as its great themes the illusions and disappointments of love, friendship, and society (in the limited sense of that word), and the joyous satisfactions of art. The book opens with the narrator’s reminiscence—his name is Marcel, although one has to read over 2,000 pages to find that out—of lying in bed as a boy and waiting for his mother’s good-night kiss; proceeds to a recollection of youthful days in the countrified Parisian suburb of Combray; then goes back to a time before Marcel was born and portrays the agonizing love of Monsieur Swann, an old friend of the family, for the courtesan Odette de Crécy.
Most of the rest of the book has to do with Marcel’s being in love, seeing others in love, and going to parties. His first romance, physically quite innocent but emotionally flaying, is with the Swanns’ daughter, Gilberte. (Unlike his creator, Marcel is heterosexual.) Next comes Albertine, whom Marcel singles out from a fascinating crowd of rowdy girls in the seaside resort of Balbec; this love is not innocent and is even more destructive. Meanwhile Marcel becomes friendly with the Duchesse de Guermantes, who embodies a social grandeur that sets him dreaming; gets to know the novelist Bergotte and the painter Elstir, who provide lessons in what art can and cannot do; mixes with the Verdurins, a couple of distasteful bourgeois climbers, and their circle of fools; and is courted in a most unnerving fashion by the Baron de Charlus, lord prince of the sodomites. Interleaved throughout are meditations and conversations on actual and imagined works of art, ladies’ fashions, etymology, military strategy, homosexuality, anti-Semitism, social transformations, time, and timelessness.
For most of the novel, finally, Marcel is a writer manqué, an aspirant who lacks the understanding to conceive a novel and the will to see it through. The book then records the process by which he becomes the writer who has written the extraordinary work one is reading. “And thus,” he concludes, “my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.”
What does that “vocation” reveal? No other writer/narrator has attended with such extravagant care to the surface of things: the grace or ungainliness of a gesture, the historical associations of a great name, the import of a gravely formal bow in response to a friendly greeting, the radiance of a distinguished smile or shirtfront, party talk that goes on for miles. Yet, although the charms of love, friendship, and society present a brilliant and beguiling surface, they never please Marcel for long. Real life is to be found elsewhere, and only the rare soul manages to find it.
For Marcel, there is no desire more imperious than the desire to know. It is the motive force of his life and of his relentless pursuit of what he calls reality. The words “real” and “reality” must recur a thousand times in this novel, being signposts—like “virtue” for Machiavelli, “happiness” for Tolstoy, or “good” for Hemingway—that lead the reader to the heart of its unfolding significance. But to disclose the reality at life’s core requires one to experience illusion, in all its manifold and obdurate guises, and this experience is Marcel’s meat and drink.
Nowhere in Proust’s world are illusion’s guises harder to penetrate than when it comes to sex and love. The Proustian lover typically ascribes to the object of his desire all manner of enchanting virtues, which generally have no basis in fact, and then torments himself with a plague of suspected vices, which as a rule prove only too real. Every conceivable infidelity must be envisioned in gross detail, since as long as one is in love one can never assure oneself of the reality of the beloved’s heart. This ignorance is torture—but knowledge brings an end to love itself. Even carnal knowledge is no knowledge at all, only an initiation into the pangs of uncertainty.
In the early stages of Swann’s love for Odette, he believes he knows her better than anyone else does; the rumors he has heard that she is an elegant whore who has been kept by a number of men cannot be true, for she is incomparably sensitive and kind and good. In time he finds out otherwise. But even when Swann falls out of love, he cannot be indifferent to Odette unless he continues to possess her; his only recourse is to marry this woman whom he knows to be a slut.
Marcel emulates Swann in his need—ruinous to a lover, exceedingly useful to an aspiring writer—to know everything about the woman he loves, especially the worst. Albertine’s fishy answers to some pointed questions about a sexually charged encounter she has had with Gilberte (Swann’s daughter and Marcel’s first love) set the young man’s mental wheels turning. Once the lever is tripped and the questions begin, there is no stopping them. Jealous obsession is a perpetual-motion machine; it will quit its savage taunting only when love is smashed to pieces, and maybe not even then.
As it happens—as it always happens in Proust—Marcel’s worst imaginings turn out to be true: tireless researches and numberless rounds of cat and mouse confirm that Albertine is a lesbian. When she leaves him and is killed in a riding accident, Marcel is grief-stricken; but in due course his tender memories give way to renewed jealousy, a jealousy “stamped with the character, at once tormenting and solemn, of puzzles left forever insoluble by the death of the one person who could have explained them.”
Then there is the case of the Baron de Charlus, who chats with the young man at a party and invites him up to his place afterward. This nobleman, whom Marcel has heard spoken of as the lover of Mme. Swann, is a caricature of virility, swaggering like a preening cock and proclaiming his disgust with the effeminacy of modern youth. He intimates to Marcel that he might be interested in taking him under his protection and bestowing upon him the untold benefits of his exalted position, his peerless taste, his unrivaled knowledge of the world. But when they next meet, Charlus is outraged at the young man’s ignorance, presumption, and cloddishness. Their friendship is finished before it ever really gets started.
The next sighting clarifies matters: Marcel spies Charlus in the courtyard of the Guermantes mansion—Charlus belongs to that venerable family—evidently bemused by the look of a tailor named Jupien who has a shop there. After a wordless mating dance, the two men withdraw to Jupien’s shop, where they have at it with vociferous gusto. The noise they make—Marcel can hear but cannot see them—sounds as though one might be slitting the other’s throat, so close are the groans of pleasure to those of pain. Once the indispensable facts are known, everything else falls into place. Charlus is in love with an ideal manliness because he is, in the crucial respect, a woman.
The long meditation on homosexuality that follows this episode is often taken to be Proust’s definitive word on the subject. Some passages are certainly heartfelt and magniloquent: “a race upon which a curse is laid and which must live in falsehood and perjury because it knows that its desire, that which constitutes life’s dearest pleasure, is held to be punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing.” Marcel is even capable of attributing to sexual collisions like Charlus’s and Jupien’s a kind of sublime necessity:
[T]his Romeo and this Juliet may believe with good reason that their love is not a momentary whim but a true predestination, determined by the harmonies of their temperaments, and not only by their own personal temperaments but by those of their ancestors, by their most distant strains of heredity, so much so that the fellow creature who is conjoined with them has belonged to them from before their birth, has attracted them by a force comparable to that which governs the worlds on which we spent our former lives.
But as Marcel comes to know more and more about Charlus, his frothy enthusiasm turns to disgust and horror. At the funeral of Charlus’s wife, whom Charlus has spoken of as the most noble and beautiful person he had ever known, the Baron tries to pick up an altar boy. When World War I depletes the supply of eligible men, he takes to molesting children. He bankrolls a male brothel, of which Jupien becomes the innkeeper. There Marcel, who has wandered in innocently one night, sees Charlus chained to a bed and beaten with a whip studded with nails, afterward protesting to Jupien that his torturer was not “sufficiently brutal.” When Charlus leaves, Jupien boasts to Marcel that his establishment has the toniest, most cultivated clientele. Marcel replies that it is “worse than a madhouse, since the mad fancies of the lunatics who inhabit it are played out as actual, visible drama—it is a veritable pandemonium.”
Normality, decency, goodness are, in short, the rarest of commodities in Proust’s world. Nor does their scarcity make them prized, except in the eyes of Marcel and a few other uncharacteristic souls. Instead, decency is seen by most as a social handicap; the Verdurins’ circle of bourgeois snobs, for example, barely tolerates a stammering, clumsy paleographer named Saniette. Monsieur Verdurin’s mockery of Saniette’s speech impediment makes “the faithful burst out laughing, looking like a group of cannibals in whom the sight of a wounded white man has aroused the thirst for blood.” And nowhere is this savage tribalism more marked than in the antipathy that those who consider themselves true Frenchmen feel for Jews.
Anti-Semitism is everywhere in Proust’s novel. Perhaps the most repellent instance occurs when the madam of a cheap brothel Marcel is visiting touts the exotic richness of the prostitute Rachel’s flesh: “And with an inane affectation of excitement which she hoped would prove contagious, and which ended in a hoarse gurgle, almost of sensual satisfaction: ‘Think of that, my boy, a Jewess! Wouldn’t that be thrilling? Rrrr!’ ”
Those in the highest reaches of society share the sentiments of the lowest. Thus, Charlus is given to maniacal explosions of loathing for Jews, while the Prince de Guermantes, Swann tells Marcel, hates Jews so much that, when a wing of his castle caught fire, he let it burn to the ground rather than send for fire extinguishers to the house next door, which happened to be the Rothschilds’. Swann is himself one of the rare Jews allowed entrance to the highest society, which leads to the outrage of the Duc de Guermantes when Swann, who had always impressed him as a Jew of the right sort, “an honorable Jew,” turns out to be an outspoken Dreyfusard.
As in its sentiments toward Jews, so in every other way, the social world in Proust is revealed as a “realm of nullity.” Any glimmer of moral discrimination, let alone of true understanding, shines like a beacon; for the most part, darkness prevails. In the famous closing scene of The Guermantes Way, the duke and duchess, on their way to a dinner party, are bidding good evening to Swann and Marcel. The duchess inquires whether Swann will join them on a trip to Italy ten months hence; Swann replies that he is mortally ill and will be dead by then. The duchess does not know how to respond: “placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow.”
With his “instinctive politeness,” Swann senses the duchess’s discomfort and says he must not detain them: “he knew that for other people their own social obligations took precedence over the death of a friend.” And yet, although the duke and duchess do not have a moment to spare to comfort their dying friend, they nevertheless do delay their departure while the duchess, who is wearing black shoes with her red dress, changes at her husband’s insistence into a more suitable pair of red shoes.
This portrait of gross moral insensibility in the face of death is comedy of manners at its most scathing, perhaps even overdone: the duke complains that his wife is dead-tired, and that he is dying of hunger. The indignant Marcel rewards the stupidity of these preposterous creatures with unforgettable strokes of cold fury. On another distressing occasion, a doctor preoccupied with his social calendar pronounces casually that Marcel’s grandmother is dying, and Marcel observes, “Each of us is indeed alone.” One has friends and lovers and family, one mixes in the best society, but finally one has no intimates. Death comes for us strictly one by one—a thought hardly to be borne.
Marcel’s triumph is that he does find a way to bear it, indeed to overcome it. In Time Regained, after spending years in a sanatorium, he is on his way to a party hosted by the Duchesse de Guermantes. The previous day he had experienced what he thought was his final disillusionment with the life of literature, but as he enters the courtyard of the Guermantes mansion a revelatory sensation changes his life. A car nearly hits him, and when he steps back out of its way he places his foot on a paving stone that is slightly lower than the one next to it; this unevenness underfoot fills him with an inexplicable and extraordinary joy.
Rocking back and forth on the irregular pavement, Marcel remembers standing on two uneven stones in the baptistery of St. Mark’s in Venice, and all the various sensations associated with that particular moment come flooding back. Similar marvels await him when he enters the Guermantes house and, twice more, involuntary memories overwhelm him in their glory. He is supremely happy, but cannot at first explain it. Why should this sudden efflorescence of memory have “given me a joy which . . . sufficed, without any other proof, to make death a matter of indifference”? He concludes that such episodes of transfiguring lucidity, for as long as they last, annihilate time, and are the most that a living man will know of eternity.
But just when he believes himself certain of the ultimate reality of timelessness, he is reminded sharply that time, too, is undeniably real. The party to which he is presently admitted strikes him, at first, as a masquerade, where everyone has been made up to look old. But the truth is that everyone looks old because everyone is old. Marcel has been away a long time, and time has done its work. Withered, sagging, shuffling, sputtering, wheezing, this assemblage of geezers and crones is the sad remnant of a company once distinguished for its beauty and vigor.
At last Marcel has penetrated the real world, and sees what he is supposed to do with his new knowledge: to write the book that one is reading. The awareness of time’s passing spurs him to get down to the serious work that will offer him life’s supreme pleasure: illuminating the nature of timelessness. “How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him!”
Love, death, society, art: Proust takes on the great themes. Does he do them justice?
Love as Proust writes about it is love as he experienced it: a neediness so desperate no possible response can satisfy it, a relentless harrying demand for complete possession, intensified by the perversity or promiscuity or unavailability of the beloved. What Proust knows of love he knows as almost no one else does. On jealousy—and the hatred and self-hatred it causes—he is an indisputable authority, who has perhaps only Shakespeare for a rival. But about love itself, Shakespeare knows a great deal else, while Proust has the specialist’s habit of going on about his subject as though it were the only thing deserving attention. The effect is of moral lopsidedness and incompletion, as though Tolstoy had devoted the whole of Anna Karenina to Anna and Vronsky’s wretched adultery without the counterweight of Levin and Kitty’s triumphant love; such a novel could still be a great one, but something vital would be missing.
Complicating this picture of Proustian love is Marcel’s attitude toward homosexuality. Although Proust enjoys cult status among homosexuals, the treatment of homosexuality in his great novel is, as we have seen, anything but purely admiring. André Gide, outspoken champion of homosexual freedom, chastised Proust, though only in private, for the disservice he did the cause: by taking an “impartial point of view,” Gide said, Proust had “branded this subject with a red-hot iron that serves conventional morality far more effectively than the most emphatic moral treatises.” (And Gide was commenting only on Sodom and Gomorrah; he had yet to read the brothel scene, which takes place in Time Regained.)
Gide later relented of his severity, after a conversation with Proust left him with the realization “that what we find ignoble, derisive, or disgusting [in his book] does not seem to him so repulsive.” But can it really be that Proust intended the reader to see Marcel’s revulsion at the scene in the male brothel as wrong, or as some sort of moral defect? Admittedly, there are passages (like the one quoted earlier) in which Marcel rises to an overt defense of homosexuality; and a rhetorical ploy he favors is to compare the plight of homosexuals to that of the Jews. Yet although Marcel may claim that the two conditions are morally comparable, he shows otherwise. If there is an unsavory Jew or two in the novel—the social-climbing writer Bloch, for instance—their peccadilloes do not approach the patent monstrosities of Charlus.
While Proust spends countless pages of fevered analysis on love, death gets only a few brief passages—but they are extraordinary. Marcel’s most exacting criticism of society is that its forms do not accommodate the fact of mortality: the overriding concern with propriety turns the heart to stone, and the death of a friend or relative only gets in the way of those who go on living. His vision of human solitude in the face of death reminds one of Edvard Munch’s great and dreadful painting Grief, in which a roomful of people are arrayed around the bed of a dead woman: no one touches or even looks at anyone else; each is locked in his own impenetrable sorrow, mourning by himself and, one suspects, for himself.
But unlike Munch, Proust does admit the possibility of consolation, even of redemption. The writer Bergotte dies while sitting in a museum and looking at a patch of yellow wall in a painting by his beloved Vermeer. This devotional attitude moves Marcel to think of “a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there. . . . So that the idea that Bergotte was not permanently dead is by no means improbable.” It is this spiritual capaciousness that Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler has in mind when he speaks of In Search of Lost Time as “a high-ceilinged masterpiece.”
In the end, of course, there is only one sort of life that Proust believes to be worth living: the life of the artist. Neither bourgeois respectability nor aristocratic gaiety possesses any lasting hold on Marcel; both represent the unreal world he finds his way out of, and are of interest only insofar as they give him something to write about. But more towering artists than Proust have rendered ordinary lives with an imaginative sympathy that makes such lives extraordinary. Indeed, this imaginative sympathy, this sense that life holds out the possibility of fulfillment and happiness even for people who do not happen to be artists, is what makes both Goethe and Tolstoy greater writers than Proust.
As for those masters—Flaubert, Joyce, Wallace Stevens—who claim that art is the best thing life has to offer, none of them delivers so grandly as Proust. But here another irony needs to be registered. For what lives most memorably in his novel is not the “real” world of Marcel’s highest aspirations but the “unreal” world, the world of thumbscrew love and puddinghead society; the timeless reality Marcel evokes seems dim indeed beside Charlus’s bed of pain or the duchess’s red shoes. A lifetime of hard suffering went into this masterpiece, and, for better and for worse, it is humanity in its heartache and failure that enjoys pride of place.
Whether Proust found the joy in the writing of his novel that Marcel professes to know is a question. The writing certainly took everything he had. His devoted housekeeper Céleste Albaret recalled that one night in the spring of 1922 Proust summoned her and declared, “I have important news. Tonight, I wrote the word ‘end.’ Now I can die.” He did everything that he had it in him to do. That is a claim few can make.
1 Yale University Press, 960 pp., $35.00.
2 Translated by Evan Cameron. Viking, 934 pp., $45.00.
3 The first English translation of the novel (1922-1931), by C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, is justly renowned; F. Scott Fitzgerald called it “a masterpiece in itself.” Revised by Terence Kilmartin (1982), it is still available under the title Remembrance of Things Past, and this is the translation I will be referring to (Vintage paperback). D.J. Enright’s further revision of this version bears the more accurate title In Search of Lost Time (Modern Library). Penguin Books promises yet another translation due out next year.