By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

5. Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White, pp. 121-156

IX. Alfred Agostinelli; publication of Swann's Way. X. World War I; Proust's visit to a male brothel; his sexuality; publication of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower; critical reception of his novels; involuntary memory. XI. Henri Rochat; essay on Flaubert; publication of Sodom and Gomorrah; death; Proust and the modern reader.
Proust met Alfred Agostinelli in 1907; he chauffeured Proust in Normandy, and again a year later drove him from Cabourg to Versailles. But Proust did not see him again until 1913, when Agostinelli was 25 and living with a woman named Anna. Proust hired him as a secretary, and both Agostinelli and Anna moved into Proust's apartment.
At that time homosexual relations, especially between the classes, were viewed benignly as a form of patronage -- or weren't focused upon at all, except when a scandal erupted; and such scandals were never characteristic of France ... in large part because the laws dating back to 1791 (and ratified by the penal code of 1810) had already decriminalized sodomy.
"Patronage" relationships were typically between an older rich man and a younger poor man, and were then "considered to be charitable and generous." Proust was certainly generous, sending money to members of Agostinelli's family. He "was certainly in love," and his fits of jealousy are reflected not only in his portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and Albertine, but also in that of Swann and Odette, passages of which he reworked in August 1913.

Agostinelli and Anna moved out of Proust's apartment on December 1, 1913, while Proust was sleeping. They had lived with him from the beginning of the year. Proust was "devastated" and tried to lure Agostinelli back by promising to buy him an airplane -- Agostinelli's interest in flying is reflected in the narrator's accompanying Albertine to the airfields around Paris. The departure of Agostinelli cast a shadow over the publication of Swann's Way in November 1913. The reviews were good, but Proust took no pleasure in them.

On May 30, 1914, Agostinelli died while making his second solo flight over the Mediterranean: He clung to the wreckage of the plane, but couldn't swim. Proust took Anna in and helped her until she could go out on her own again. He was unable to work even on the page proofs of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which he began receiving in June. But the publication of that book had to be postponed because of the outbreak of World War I in August, giving him time to rework it, to separate it from The Guermantes Way, and to give Albertine a greater role in it. He also conceived of The Prisoner and The Fugitive at this time. He also gave the theme of lesbianism a greater prominence in the work as a whole. "In the eight years following Agostinelli's death Proust's book doubled in volume." As the nature of the book Proust was working on became better known, André Gide wrote him to apologize for rejecting Swann's Way.  Proust also recovered from Agostinelli's death by having an affair with Ernst Forssgren, "a six-foot-four blond Swedish Adonis," his valet-secretary, which ended when Forssgren emigrated to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Swedish army.

Proust worked through the war, researching details by writing thousands of letters. He lost many friends in the war, including Bertrand de Fénelon, killed in combat, and Emmanuel Bibesco, who killed himself because he had a terminal illness. His faithful companion and only servant during the war was Céleste Albaret, who wrote a memoir of her life with Proust. "Only his mother and Céleste ever gave him the unconditional love that he expected." She steadfastly denied to biographers that he was gay, but admitted that he had visited a male brothel -- for "research," she claimed. He "even gave some of his parents' furniture to be used in this hotbed of homosexual prostitution" -- a detail reflected in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, in which the narrator gives some of the furniture he has inherited from his Aunt Léonie to a brothel. According to one not entirely reliable witness Proust liked to see live rats stabbed to death with hatpins. Several others report that he would spit on his mother's picture while having sex -- a reënactment of the scene with Vinteuil's daughter and her lesbian lover in Swann's Way, and perhaps also reflected in The Guermantes Way when Charlus has excited fantasy about wanting to see Bloch beat his mother.

In 1917 and 1918 Proust started going out more often, especially to the Ritz, whose headwaiter, Olivier Dabescat, gave him many anecdotes about the well-to-do for the novel. But his health, exacerbated by uppers like adrenaline and caffeine and downers like opium, was deteriorating. He was also forced to move, and stayed for a while in the home of the actress Réjane, one of the models for La Berma, before settling at 44 rue Hamelin.

In June 1919, Gallimard reissued Swann's Way, and published In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and a collection of short pieces and pastiches. At the end of the year he won the Goncourt Prize for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by a vote of six to four, after campaigning for the award with presents and dinners for the judges. The award was controversial, regarded by some as "the coronation of an invalid who lived in the past." His book was "dismissed ... as disorganized childhood and adolescent memories -- formless, plotless, endless." The criticism was frustrating for Proust, who knew the shape of the novel as a whole, and especially the role of memory in it: "the theme of involuntary memory" is introduced in the episode with the madeleine near the beginning of Swann's Way, but is not fully developed until the final book, Finding Time Again. The complete work was not published until 1927, five years after Proust's death.
Proust was anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning or method alone; it must be delivered to us, fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of the intellect or willpower. Paradoxically, if Proust was anti-intellectual he was also profoundly philosophical, in that what he sought was not the accidents but the essence of a past event. Involuntary memory, be definition anti-intellectual, nevertheless refines away all the unnecessary details of a forgotten moment and retains only its unadorned core. 

In the summer of 1918, he fell in love with a waiter at the Ritz, Henri Rochat, "a handsome Swiss who wanted to be a painter." Although his fortune had been shrunk by 25 percent through spending and poor investing, he again showered his lover with gifts. Rochat moved into Proust's apartment where he spent his days painting.
What researchers have figured out in recent years is that Proust wrote first The Fugitive, soon after Agostinelli's departure and death, while the material was still vivid in his mind and a weight on his heart, whereas he elaborated [The Prisoner] later, even though the book actually precedes The Fugitive in the published sequence. Why? Simply because the main inspiration for the Albertine of [The Prisoner] is Henri Rochat, not Alfred Agostinelli. It was Rochat who lived in his own room, solitary and self-sufficient, in Proust's gloomy apartment, whereas Agostinelli had lived with his wife and only briefly under Proust's roof. Accordingly, [The Prisoner], which had been sketched out as early as 1916, doubled in size during the two years Rochat lived with Proust. 
Eventually, Proust tired of Rochat's mooching and managed to get rid of him.

In January 1920, Proust published his essay on Flaubert in La Nouvelle Revue Française, in which he differentiates his style from Flaubert's by writing about the author's lack of use of metaphor, whereas Proust's style is richly metaphorical. In the spring of 1921, he began to suffer increasingly from dizzy spells, and one of his last outings was to see Vermeer's The View of Delft on loan to the Jeu de Paume. He would refer to this visit in his account of Bergotte's similar outing and death, and "on the night before he died Proust dictated a last sentence, 'There is a Chinese patience in Vermeer's craft.'" (Vermeer is also the subject of Swann's never-completed study.)

In May 1921, Sodom and Gomarrah was published, "and Proust was almost disappointed by the lack of scandal." One who took offense at Proust's "ugly picture ... of homosexuals" was André Gide. In a conversation with Gide, Proust explained "that he had transposed to the female characters all his homosexual memories that were tender and charming and so had been left with nothing but grotesque details for his homosexual characters." But elsewhere Proust argued that gay people had been so persecuted by Christians "that the only gays who'd survived had been invalids impossible to cure."

In September 1922, his health began to fail more rapidly. He developed pneumonia which turned into bronchitis and a lung abscess. He died in the evening of November 18, 1922.

"Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking ... the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect," White comments. He is not, however, a realist: "Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales."
Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless those fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise -- the artificial paradise of art.... Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times. 

1 comment:

  1. Cher Maitre,
    many thanks for E.White - it is unavailable here. I have just finished the 2nd vol. of Proust in French (fortunately,a paperback); earlier I've done with all except the last one via Internet. Your diary IS exiting. Hope to stick to it. Yours, Rebecca (Moscow)