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literature

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Proust, Marcel (1871-1922)  
 
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Marcel's habit of looking-through becomes a narrative mannerism. Observations made from his windows in the hotel at Balbec or in the Hotel de Guermantes may seem natural enough, and unforced.

But when, as the psychological climax to Le Temps retrouvé, he peeks through a hole in a brothel door to watch Charlus being whipped by a male whore, Marcel's powerful imagination provides us with a wealth of details he could only have seen if the peephole had been moveable and equipped with a zoom lens. For once, his account is impossibly complete (XII, 155-156).

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Throughout the book, amorous and sexual processes (such as flirtation and cruising) are associated with espionage. The cruising eyes of Charlus are occasionally "shot through by a look of intense activity such as the sight of a person whom they do not know excites only in men to whom . . . it suggests thoughts that would not occur to anyone else--madmen, for instance, or spies" (IV, 69).

When Marcel sees Saint-Loup leaving Jupien's brothel in a suspiciously quick and covert manner, he asks himself, "Was this hotel being used as a meeting-place of spies?" (XII, 150) The idea is mistaken but not inappropriate. As Roland Barthes says, the novel is "a tremendous intrigue, a farce network;" in which all characters (particularly, of course, Marcel himself) are informants, stool pigeons, definitively indiscreet.

The Involvement of the Reader

What this does to our position as readers, in our "discoursing with the text," is the novel's real tour de force since we are involved in the intrigue as its principal beneficiaries. We are the point to which all the gossip flows, and it is our presence that attracts it.

However, we do not get away with this lightly: We press our eye to the keyhole and see a keyhole-shaped reflection of our own eye staring back--assuming we are healthily self-conscious. The point is that, in order to appreciate the full quality and resonance of Marcel's gossip, we ourselves have to become fully involved as gossips in the process of drawing conclusions from his clues. We are ourselves implicated in the intrigue.

Proust's trick of turning all of his readers into inveterate gossips is closely linked to one of his main themes, of the relation between aesthetic creativity and homosexual intercourse.

One of the book's longest running jokes persistently nudges the arts into a realm suggestive of sexual irregularity. The liaison between Charlus and the violinist Morel gives rise to a barely straight-faced equation of music and sodomy. "I should like to listen to a little music this evening," says Charlus when he first picks Morel up; "I pay five hundred francs for the evening" (VIII, 11).

Later, when Charlus and Morel play together for the Verdurins and their guests, Marcel comments that the Baron's keyboard style has its "equivalent" in his "nervous defects," by which is meant his homosexuality (VIII, 137).

When Mme Verdurin puts the two lovers in communicating bedrooms, she cannot resist this innuendo: "If you want to have a little music, don't worry about us, the walls are as thick as a fortress" (VIII, 261; see also X, 15).

At times the equation broadens to include artistic activities in general. Something of the kind seems to occur when a woman says she loves "artistic" men because "there is no one like them for understanding women" (I, 104). The whole issue of Bergotte's apparent "vices" is concerned with "a literary solution" to the moral problems raised by "really vicious lives" (III, 185-186).

Marcel: Is-he-or-isn't-he?

By obsessing us with the Is-he-isn't-he? question, in the end, Marcel forces us to ask it of him. (The usual line on this matter of their sexualities has been that Proust was homosexual, his narrator heterosexual; but one is not obliged to follow it.)

We may feel the need to ask such questions as the following. Why does Marcel find Albertine most sexy when she is sleeping? Why does he keep accusing her of being a lesbian? Why does he become the most accomplished homosexual spotter in the book? Why does he keep spying on the flirtations of homosexual men?

Why, in his only general pronouncement on the appearance of the male body, when he says it is "marred as though by an iron clamp left sticking in a statue that has been taken down from its niche" (IX, 98), is he so clearly thinking of men as being in a perpetual state of erection? Finally, and perhaps most revealingly, why does he have no name? (Calling him Marcel, after the author, is a mere convenience.)

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