By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 10, 2010

1. Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White, pp. 1-32

I. Proust's reputation today; his reception by his contemporaries; his parents and his Jewish origins. II. His childhood; his early homosexual experiences.
Has Proust exhausted the potential of the novel? His style, White observes, is "dangerously idiosyncratic and contagious. And he asserts that "Proust's fame and prestige have eclipsed those of Joyce, Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Gide and Valéry and Genet, of Thomas Mann and Brecht, for if some of these writers are more celebrated than Proust in their own country, Proust is the only one to have a uniformly international reputation."

But his contemporaries were less enthusiastic: "Gide was irritated that Proust never acknowledged his own homosexuality nor ever presented homosexual inclinations in an attractive light." Alphonse Daudet called him "the devil" and Paul Claudel "a painted old Jewess." But he was also the source of many anecdotes: Reynaldo Hahn, one of Proust's lovers, recalled his rapt contemplation of a rosebush.
Typically, Proust also invoked this very scene, but said that inhaling the moment was ineffectual; only the sudden, unprompted awakenings of memory, triggered by something illogical and unforeseen (the madeleine, for example), could invoke the past in its entirety.
Colette described him as a "tottering young man of fifty." And White sums up: "He was such a presence that many people spoke of him as tall, but in fact he stood just five feet six inches."

His father was Christian and his mother Jewish, and he was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church. But White classifies him as "a mystical atheist, someone imbued with spirituality who nonetheless did not believe in a personal God, much less a savior." He caricatured Jews, such as the Blochs, and never reveals his Jewish origins in his fictions. "The apparently gentile Proust, who had campaigned for Dreyfus and had been baptized Catholic, was a sort of modern Esther" -- who concealed her Jewishness until she could use it to help her people. His support of Dreyfus (whose case White summarizes) caused a strain in his friendships in the aristocracy as well as a split with his own father.

He was born on July 10, 1871 to Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a rich stockbroker, and Adrien Proust, a physician whose father had been a grocer in the village of Illiers, near Chartres. His mother, like the narrator's grandmother in In Search of Lost Time, loved the letters of Madame de Sévigné. They were very close, and he shared her passion for literature and for making fun of other people. He describes his father as a "brute" and a "vulgar man" in Jean Santeuil, but idealizes both of his parents in the Search. The village of Illiers is of course the model for Combray, and is today officially known as Illiers-Combray. His mother was pregnant with him during the Franco-Prussian war, when Paris was besieged and its residents nearly starved. "As a result, Jeanne Proust was so weakened from hunger and anxiety that when Marcel was born he was sickly and fragile and at first not expected to live." His brother Robert was born two years later, and they were close throughout his life. Like the narrator of the Search in the opening section of Swann's Way, he "could not go to sleep without his mother's kiss.
Not only did Proust not outgrow his dependence; it became the template for his adult loves, since for Proust passion was a nagging need that became only more demanding the more it was denied. Indeed, Proust would drive away all his lovers (in his fiction as in his life) through his unreasonable demands.
The Prousts lived at 9 boulevard Malesherbes when he was small. The parents' room was at the other end of a forty-five-foot long corridor from the children's rooms. Marcel's schoolfriend Fernand Gregh remembered the apartment as having "a rather dark interior, bursting with heavy furniture, weatherstripped with curtains, stuffed with carpets, everything black and red." White observes that "This was the Paris of ... the recently built Palais Garnier opera house, which resembles a cross between a Victorian inkwell and a Liechtenstein medal for bravery." The Eiffel Tower was new "(and much criticized)" in the Paris of Proust's childhood. "All his life Proust would remain faithful to the ugly furnishings his parents and relatives had accumulated" and "he filled his room with hideous but sacred objects which spoke to him of his dead parents, his childhood, time lost."

Like the narrator, Proust played in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, where his closest friends were two sisters, Marie and Nelly Benardsky. Marie may have been the model for Gilberte Swann. White notes that readers are often confused (I certainly was) about how old the narrator and Gilberte are in these early scenes, since they seem sexually precocious at the same time that they are playing children's games and being watched over by nannies like Françoise: "In fact they are teenagers, sixteen or seventeen, in a period before adolescence was invented, at a time when people passed directly from childhood to adulthood, when a boy would be wearing short pants one day and taking a mistress the next."

White observes that "it would be a mistake to see all of Proust's women as disguised men." Some, like Odette or the Duchesse de Guermantes or La Berma, "are unquestionably, quintessentially womanly." (La Berma is modeled on Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane.) But others, such as the delivery girls with whom the narrator flirts, are "boys-in-drag." The narrator's obsession with Albertine's lesbianism is possibly drawn from his experience with Alfred Agostinelli, "who was primarily heterosexual."
Can the putatively heterosexual Narrator's overpowering jealousy about Albertine's lesbian affairs actually be a reflection of the homosexual Proust's fury when his bisexual lovers drifted back to women?

Proust had his first asthma attack in 1881 after a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. "Asthma was one of the great decisive factors in Proust's development." It made him solitary and kept him distanced from the world: "if he wanted to see hawthorn trees in bloom, he had to be driven through the countryside in a hermetically sealed car." His school attendance was irregular: He entered the Lycée Condorcet in 1882, and made friends with Jacques Bizet, the son of the composer of Carmen, and Daniel Halévy, the composer's nephew. He fell in love with Bizet when they were seventeen, but Halévy recalled "we were beastly to him." Proust's mother, suspecting that Marcel and Bizet were lovers, forbade her son from seeing him. White says that Proust "believed that sex between boys was innocent and became a 'vice' only with age." Bizet later became a drug addict and committed suicide ten days before Proust's death.

Rejected by Bizet, Proust fell in love with Bizet's mother, Geneviève Straus, who was the daughter of Fromental Halévy, composer of the opera La Juive, which is alluded to in the Search. (Rachel, Robert de Saint-Loup's mistress, is nicknamed "Rachel, when of the lord" by the narrator, in an allusion to an aria from La Juive.) Because of her wit, Geneviève Straus is one of the models for the Duchesse de Guermantes, with whom the narrator also falls in love.

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