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Proust, Marcel (1871-1922)  
 
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André Gide's Reaction to Proust's Novel

André Gide had turned the novel down for publication by the Nouvelle Revue Française, on the spurious grounds that Proust was a socialite whose book was probably just fictionalized gossip about the beau monde. He lived to regret this careless decision when he discovered what the book was really like.

However, he never approved of its representations of what he regarded as the negative aspects of homosexuality. The Baron de Charlus represented most of the things from which, in both his writings and his own life, Gide was at pains to distance himself. As he said in a letter to Proust (June 14, 1914), he was worried that readers would take the complex individual Charlus as a representative of a type. It seems he did not want to be tarred with that brush.

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The Topic of Homosexuality in the Novel

Because Marcel, the narrator, is fascinated by those who do not fit into strictly heterosexual patterns of social and sexual intercourse, A la recherche du temps perdu returns to the topic of homosexuality again and again.

Lesbianism in the Novel

Lesbianism is raised, chiefly as a phantom, when for hundreds of pages Marcel fusses about whether his beloved Albertine has had affairs with other young women. As suspicion turns to paranoia, lesbianism is thus defined in a context of heterosexual jealousy. (Similarly, Charles Swann lengthily interrogates Odette, when she is still his mistress, about whether she has had affairs with other women. She has. II, 200-215)

As it turns out after her accidental death, Albertine was indeed predominantly lesbian (XI, 179-183); but by this time, for Marcel, the heat has gone out of the matter.

The book's most haunting lesbian scene occurs in the first volume but echoes throughout the next eleven: this is the occasion that Marcel witnesses at Montjouvain--characteristically prying through the window of a private house--when Mlle. Vinteuil makes love with her girlfriend whilst desecrating a photograph of her own father (I, 218-227). The scene gives Marcel a crucial insight into the cruel side of the human heart.

The Essays on Homosexuality in the Novel

In truth, the account of the relationship between Albertine and Marcel is far less about a woman's sexuality than about a man's obsession with it. His suspicions turn him into something of an expert--at least, to his own satisfaction--on the culture and customs of Gomorrah. Likewise, his abiding interest in the Baron de Charlus gives him an education in the customs of the .

As a consequence, the novel contains several long essays on homosexuality, which display a fascinating combination of speculation, invention, ignorance, and solid information. Whether one should blame the ignorance on Marcel or Proust is a moot point. The generous view is to regard many of Marcel's utterances as being written by Proust at a considerable ironic distance.

Among the views expressed at various points in the novel are the following. Homosexual people--or rather, "inverts," the term with which Proust is happier--constitute not only a race apart, like the Jews, but a cursed race (la race maudite) who often support one another by the secretive means of a kind of international freemasonry.

Inversion should not be categorized as a vice, even if there are plenty of inverts who are vicious. Some remain solitary; others socialize and organize with their own kind.

Inversion has extensive parallels, both literal and symbolic, within the world of botany. It is possible to detect such people by observing details of behavior and physique; they are adept at recognizing one another.

A distinction should be made between people who are homosexual by convention, as in ancient Greece, and those of the modern world whose homosexuality is involuntary. Male inverts make good husbands.

Above all, however, the narrative keeps coming back to the figure of the homosexual man who is attracted only to heterosexual men and can therefore never find a partner who is able or willing to return his love. Charlus is the embodiment of this conundrum.

The Major Problem with Proust's Representation of Homosexuality

As André Gide noticed, the major problem with Proust's representations of homosexuality is that he used his own most abiding and precious memories of love to flesh out the novel's picture of heterosexual relations and was inadvertently left, in the case of homosexuality, with predominantly negative themes and events.

This is where the Recherche may be said to reveal the gaping flaw in its construction. It is a flaw imposed on the artist by the of his times. By the time Proust was aware of the consequences of his initial decision to heterosexualize his narrator, it was too late to adjust the disproportionately negative view the book conveys of its homosexual characters and the relationships they form.

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