By Charles Matthews

Sunday, July 11, 2010

2. Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White, pp. 33-56

III. His education; philosophical novelist; literary tastes; military service; homosexuality. IV. Involvement in society; literary pastiches; encounter with Bergson; snobbery
Proust's favorite professor at the Lycée Condorcet was Alphonse Darlu, "who believed in spirituality but not Christianity." Darlu's brand of idealism influenced him greatly.
Proust rejected André Gide's more ordinary form of realism, his method of building up a character or situation through the accretion of small details, by saying that he, Proust, could be interested only in those details that pointed towards a general truth or that expressed poetic enchantment. Every page of Proust's masterpiece piles up several "general truths"and adds to the elevated philosophical tone.
White calls Proust "the great philosophical novelist," and puts him in the company of George Eliot, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Robert Musil.

He struggled with his homosexuality when he was seventeen, and cultivated an infatuation with forty-year-old Laure Hayman, who was his uncle's mistress (and, he would later find out, his father's). Laure, like Odette, had a house on the rue de La Pérouse, rode in the Bois de Boulogne and loved chrysanthemums. He shunned the "decadent" writers of his day and modeled his style, including his long sentences, on the classics. When he was in his early twenties, his favorite writers were Pierre Loti and Anatole France, whose style fitted his taste for classicism. Later, John Ruskin "would influence him to abandon France's materialism for a more congenial brand of spiritualism."

On November 11, 1889, after graduating, he signed up for a year of military service, which he would remember nostalgically as "a paradise," though "at the time he complained bitterly." The nostalgic view of his service is depicted in The Guermantes Way, when the narrator visits Saint-Loup at Doncières, which is modeled on Orléans, where he was stationed.

In September 1890, he visited Cabourg, a resort on the coast of Normandy that became Balbec in the novels. And that fall he started reading law in Paris and entered the École libre des sciences politiques ("Sciences-Po") to study politics. His legal and political studies gave him a grounding in those subjects, which makes it possible for him to create pictures of the diplomatic corps in his novels. He was inspired by Balzac, who moves with ease in various sections of society. And these studies also gave him, "more important for a writer, to their vocabularies, including their sophisticated strategies of evasion." He took a course in diplomacy from Albert Sorel, who is the model for M. de Norpois, "the ultimate slippery statesman."

In 1891 he met Oscar Wilde and invited him to dine with his parents, but the perhaps apocryphal story has it that Wilde was offended by the Prousts' "heavy, dark furniture" and left after saying, "How ugly everything is here." In Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust alludes unsympathetically to Wilde's fall. A scandal involving Prince Philip von Eulenberg in 1906 also alerted Proust to the uneasy position of gay men in contemporary society. At the same time, however, he was becoming friends with Robert de Flers and Lucien Daudet, and his mother was alarmed by a photograph he had taken with them in 1892, touching off a quarrel with his parents that he depicted in Jean Santeuil. Although he continued to seek out the company of other gay men, he tried not to be identified as gay himself:
Years later he would tell André Gide that one could write about homosexuality even at great length, so long as one did not ascribe it to oneself.
He began his rise in society and cultivated his gift for imitating the mannerisms of the people he met. White notes that this talent for mimickry "would come in handy later when he would begin to create his cast of great Dickensian eccentrics: the baron de Charlus, Madame Verdurin, the duc de Guermantes, the maid Françoise, all of whom have a distinctive, not to say preposterous, way of speaking." He also loved to write pastiches of famous writers, and said that he did it to purge his own style of imitation: "to become original again afterwards and not produce involuntary pastiches the rest of one's life." He also used it as an analytical tool, examining other writers' style by attempting to reproduce it. He includes a pastiche of the Goncourts' journal in the Search. He attracted the attention of eminent writers like Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, and became a regular at the salon of Princess Mathilde, Napoleon's niece, who appears under her own name in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

He also met Henri Bergson, but White dismisses him as a serious influence on Proust's thought, except for a conversation on the nature of sleep that they had after World War I, which is reflected in Sodom and Gomorrah. "Bergson seems to have dismissed Proust as someone interested only in high society (le monde)," White says. And he notes that Proust developed a reputation as a snob. Jean Cocteau wrote of Proust that he "doesn't hesitate to judge society people and accuse them of stupidity. He finds them stupid but superior, which is the very definition of snobbism." White notes that the young Proust was attracted to aristocrats because he saw them as "living, breathing, walking, talking history, a modern incarnation of a medieval legend." The Duchesse de Guermantes, whom the narrator first sees in the church at Combray in the chapel of her ancestor Gilbert the Bad, becomes the narrative embodiment of this attitude. But as White observes, "he ended up as the most penetrating critic of snobbism who ever lived." His contemporaries in society were shocked by his portraits of them in the Search, and the Comtesse de Chévigné, "one of the models for the duchesse de Guermantes," burned his letters. But others were impressed by "his elaborate politeness."
He knew all the secrets of the aristocracy and spent thirty years learning their rituals, feuds, genealogies, and vanities, but he was also distanced from this world by the fact he was half-Jewish, untitled, gay, and an invalid. 

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