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literature

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Proust, Marcel (1871-1922)  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  

In the same volume, Charlus wrongly imagines that Cottard is making eyes at him (VIII, 90). Finally, Marcel tells us that Charlus's whole lifestyle is in error since the Baron confuses his "mania" (his homosexuality) with sentimental friendship (X, 1).

The issue seems much more complicated than Marcel realizes, and this may well be a mistake on his part rather than the Baron's. If so, the logical outcome would be that Marcel has consistently misjudged Charlus throughout the book in his efforts to portray him as a personification of Vice.

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In any case, the important thing about the book's great network of mistakes is that conjecture--which leads as often into error as to truth, and does so purely by chance--is shown to be, in its way, far more creatively functional than the self-consciously "scientific" or "objective" approaches Marcel often dutifully adopts in deference to the twentieth century.

In speaking of the "creative" aspect of gossip, one should not include the kind to be found in the Divina Commedia, a dead gossip about dead people, which Dante presents as a fait accompli, a last judgment against which there can be no arguing.

Proust's Method of Characterization

In Proust--and this is where the whole technique takes its place among the preoccupations of Modernism--the process of weaving a character out of more or less unrelated fragments of suggestion and suspicion evolves in front of our eyes, as the fortuitous result of opinion and luck, resulting in a literature of subjectivity and contingency.

No characters ever achieve that monolithic certainty of definition that any self-respecting omniscient narrator could have granted them.

Take the relatively solid heterosexuality of Swann. Although it remains the dominant impression, it is not the whole story. One of the most consistently set-pieces in the whole novel is narrated (by Marcel) from Swann's point of view. This is when he enters the Sainte-Euverte household and, heading upstairs with leisurely reluctance, appraises the lavish and ornamental display of servants on the staircase.

There are "enormous footmen" with "greyhound profiles," drowsing on benches; a statuesque, "strapping great lad in livery," who seems useless, "purely decorative," with hair like that of a Greek statue painted by Mantegna; colossal men whose "decorative presence and marmorean immobility" suggest to Swann that this should be named the "Staircase of the Giants"; and a young footman who resembles an "angel or sentinel" by the bisexual Cellini.

Finally, he recovers "his sense of the general ugliness of the human male" when this spectacle of monumental attendants gives way to that of his fellow guests (II, 147-151).

Swann's dreams, too, are revealing. In one, a young man weeps to be losing him as he departs on a train (II, 189); and in another, he has to console another tearful youth, who turns out to be himself (II, 223-225).

Swann tells Marcel that the friendships of Charlus are "purely platonic" (VII, 150); but, some time after Swann's death, while discussing with Brichot whether or not Swann was homosexual, Charlus says, "I don't deny that long ago in our schooldays, once by accident"--at which point, discretion interrupts, and Charlus merely reveals that Swann had "a peach-like complexion" as a boy, "as beautiful as Cupid himself" (X, 126).

That is all. What remains is a cluster of suggestions, as substantial as rumor, that Marcel is always glad to repeat but often reluctant to substantiate.

Even Marcel's "scientific" pronouncements, far from being objective and detached, actually tend to be opinionated and explicitly reactionary.

For instance, the dull and ignorant lecture he gives on homosexuality at the start of Sodome et Gomorrhe was evidently designed as Proust's gay-conservative reply to André Gide's much more radical (and more convincingly scientific) book Corydon, which had been published in the previous year (1920).

Marcel's warning "against the lamentable error of proposing . . . to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom" presupposes a Sodom modeled on the aristocratic Faubourg Saint-Germain (VII, 45). The whole passage really only makes sense if we read it as being historically and personally specific to Marcel in his time. In this case, it throws some very useful light on Marcel's own closeted yearning for teenage boys.

La Recherche as a "Peephole" Novel

Although he is forever trying to provide one, Marcel seems temperamentally unsuited to giving a complete overview of the people and events he describes. It seems quite wrong, therefore, to speak of this as a "panoramic" novel. On the contrary, it is a narrowly specific peephole novel (or, as Barthes might put it, a keyhole novel), whose narrator is a spy.

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