Saturday, June 28, 2008

Oh, Marcel

I've been reading In Search of Lost Time for eight or nine years, and I'm now within shouting distance of the end--about a third of the way through Time Regained. (I'm reading it in English, I admit. Although I did read most of Du Cote de chez Swann and Albertine disparue for a seminar in grad school. Not that that matters; I'm just boasting over my admittedly very modest accomplishment.) Anyway, when I try to summarize the book--insofar as it can be summarized, of course of course--I find myself talking a lot about Marcel/Proust's seeming obsession with homosexuality. I mean really. Basically all of the last 1200 or so pages (of my 2400-page edition) is about whether a) Albertine is sleeping with other women; b) if so, who might those other women be (everyone, in his imagination); c) how one can tell whether a woman is a lesbian (basically he thinks they all are); d) how Paris is overrun with lesbians engaging in an orgy of secret rendezvous; e) the gestures, tones, actions, etc etc common to homosexual men; and f) how it should have been obvious all along that Saint-Loup was "of that inclination" because of a certain minute resemblance to the Baron de Charlus.

It's weird.

(I was describing this to the Minister the other day and he said, "So, basically, could you say that this is the first major treatise on gaydar?")

Now I remark upon this because it seems to me that anytime anyone talks about Proust, they talk about the madelaine incident, the art criticism, the reflections on beauty and aesthetics and memory and all that other lovely abstract stuff. They don't talk about the scene where Marcel stumbles upon the Baron de Charlus chained to a bed in a hotel room where one Maurice is flogging him with a nail-studded cat-o-nine-tails. I mean, I'm sure that some people talk about these scenes--and I know that there are critical works out there on homosexuality in Proust, of course there are--but really, when I came upon that scene I wondered how anyone could be distracted by the musings on the Combray cathedral when the entire second half of the novel is just peppered with such salacious (and weirdly paranoid) detail.

So why doesn't this ever come up when people are casually referencing Proust?

Is it because--as I suspect--most of those who are making such casual references haven't read very much of the novel?

It's like this dream I had when I was a teenager: There was a famous 17th-century thinker who'd written an encyclopedic work spanning many volumes, and everyone loved it and spoke highly of it although it was supposed to be immensely difficult. Well, one day I (in my dream, still, of course) got a hold of a copy of this work and started leafing through it. Imagine my surprise when I found nothing but blank page after blank page until I got to the end, when there was a single line in the middle of a page, saying:

"I have had carnal relations with your sheep."

I awoke giggling. I now believe that dream to have been a foreshadowing of my encounter with Proust.

[CAVEAT: I am not, of course, wholly serious in this post, and I am also very much not a Proust scholar. As I say, I know that there's some scholarship (at least) on sexuality in Proust, and for all I know there's a cubic ton of it, and everyone in Proustian circles talks about nothing but his weird obsession with other people's sex lives. All I'm saying is that, when the non-Proustian come across the casual reference to Proust and the supposedly obvious themes of his work, you never see anything about, for example, his conviction that Paris is nothing but a clandestine network of promiscuous lesbians.]


Dr. Virago said...

Having never read Proust (ooh -- do I score points in Humiliation or whatever that David Lodge game is?) I second your impression that the popular culture references to him are all about that damn madelaine and style and aesthetics (including his sentence length). Those are the references I get, anyway.

Though I should point out that the Proust scholar hilariously played by Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine was gay. FWIW.

Bardiac said...

I've never even pretended to read Proust. But I think there's the same thing going on with Marx's Das Kapital.

I bet I could beat Dr V at Humiliation! :(

Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

That's the best dream I've ever heard of!