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Proust, Marcel (1871-1922)  
 
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Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

Proust was born in 1871. His Jewish mother was highly educated; his father was a distinguished professor of hygiene. Proust had a comfortable and protected bourgeois childhood--all the more cosseted after the age of nine when he had the first in a lifelong sequence of debilitating asthma attacks. Three years later, he began to masturbate, usually locking himself away in the lavatory at the top of his parents' house.

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At school, his interests were focused mainly in the areas of literature, philosophy, botany, and history--subjects that would all exert a strong influence on his fiction. At the age of eighteen, he did a year's military service at Orléans, an experience that would also significantly shape the fiction.

After taking degrees in law (1893) and philosophy (1895) at the Sorbonne, he embarked on a relatively leisurely existence consisting of social visits, neurotic illnesses, and the writing of belles lettres.

In 1895, he also started trying to write a massive autobiographical novel, Jean Santeuil (unpublished until 1952; English translation, 1955). This book is marred by a basic structural weakness that the author never managed to resolve. The result is a rambling and episodic narrative with insufficient thematic unity to make it cohere. After working on it for four years, Proust abandoned it.

His emotional and sexual life, meanwhile, took on a distinct pattern. Although he conducted a series of chivalrous romantic affairs with prominent society hostesses, his closest encounters were with men. With his social equals or betters, he formed intense romantic friendships that may, on occasion, have been sexual; but his main love affairs were with servants--the most important of these being his chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli, whom he met in 1907.

Proust also had encounters that were purely sexual, these invariably with men of a lower social class. The deaths of his father (1903) and mother (1905), though causing him intense and lasting pain, left him freer to organize his life around his erotic needs.

A la recherche du temps perdu

In about 1909, Proust began his second large-scale attempt at autobiographical fiction. He spent the rest of his life writing A la recherche du temps perdu and never completed it to his own satisfaction. Yet the novel is one of the major documents of Modernist subjectivity (particularly regarding its concern with the nature of time and involuntary memory).

Furthermore, by any standard, it is a great gay novel. The present essay cites the English translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, which has itself attained a classic status: What with all its eccentricities and errors, it can now be seen as a camp tour de force.

The Homosexual Characters

The key characters around whom Proust teases out the topic of homosexuality are Robert de Saint-Loup, the Baron Palamède ("mémé") de Charlus, Albertine Simonet, and the narrator himself.

Saint-Loup first appears to Marcel, and therefore to the reader, as a lover of women: His affair with Rachel is protracted and intense. But later in life, even though he marries Gilberte Swann, Saint-Loup develops his interest in men, and his last great love is Charles Morel. Little information reaches us about his affairs with men because Marcel hears only rumors of them, often at third hand.

More visible is the Baron de Charlus, the great comic character Proust based on the poet Robert de Montesquiou, among others. He, too, appears first as if heterosexual--he is reputed, early on, to be the lover of Odette de Crécy--but he becomes Proust's most detailed representation of a man-loving man. His loves are many and varied, but the affair to which the narrator has clearest access is the one with Charles Morel (prior to Saint-Loup's liaison with the same).

Charlus is vain and snobbish, by turns demonstratively masculine and abjectly effeminate, both silly and profound. His life spans the whole period of the novel, and his intimacies bridge the social spectrum from palace to gutter.

His erotic interests are especially varied as he grows older toward the end of the novel, when he develops a taste for small boys (XII, 95) and pays working-class men in Jupien's brothel to whip and humiliate him. In his relations with Marcel, he is both generous and haughty, and always unpredictable.

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Marcel Proust in 1900.
  
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