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Friday, January 27, 2006

Contra Proust

Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/27/06 at 08:38 PM

Here’s where I start. I am neither a French literature specialist, nor a student of Modernism; but I am strangely drawn to Proust. I’ve read his big novel three times now, and will certainly read it again. But the more I am drawn into its world, the more suspicious I become of myself. The more it matters to state the case contre Proust.

Picking up another novel after reading Proust almost always means being struck by the comparative coarseness of the writing, whoever the author may be; the coarseness, in fact, of the almost the whole of western literature. Whichever book it might be, it has not been worked through with the same extraordinary fineness and finesse of A La Recherche. Never was a book so well-milled, so polished, so fine-grained as this one. But this is not necessarily to be taken as a marker of Proust’s superiority over other writers. This coarseness we find in other writers is, in itself, something of which Proust was incapable. It functions as a kind of marker of Proust’s aesthetic limitations. You cannot eat a Faberge egg.

For example: Proust can’t really do characters. He produces not ‘characters’ in the sense of human beings, but monsters. This, of course, is not a function of his aesthetic capacity or any quasi-Dickensian crudeness, over-simplification or caricature: absolutely the reverse. His characterisation is complicated to the point of over-complication. Human personality cannot bear the pressure of his relentlessly detailed and continual analysis. It distorts. Had Dickens written a character like Baron Charlus he might well have been a sort of caricature, over-determined by one character trait and otherwise wholly sketchy. There’s no sketchiness to Proust’s Charlus, but he’s defined by one character trait nonetheless (his sexuality) and the minute account of his breeding, his masculinity, his pride, his hypersensitivity, his masochism, his venality, prolonged in such detail over so many hundreds and hundreds of pages, is just as distorting as any Dickensian parody. He is like one of those peculiar creatures adapted for life on the seabed that would expire as a mass of jelly and shards if brought to the surface.

Proust is also dangerous, and dangerous in a manner so well hidden, so treacherously camouflaged, that many readers have succumbed unwittingly for it, like those butterflies that have taken the mantis for the twig. The danger lies in falling in love with Proust’s novel because one considers the high-society prancings and preenings in themselves somehow wonderful, marvellous, a fantasy of genteel living into which you yourself, as reader, would love to be projected. (Some Janeites run a similar risk when they read Austen’s novels). It is, in other words, to take Proust’s delineation of a psychopathology elevated to the social scale for a kind of utopia. It is, if anything, rather the reverse; a sort of dystopia. We might even appropriate Goethe’s observation on the Iliad, and call it a glimpse into a sort of hell.

But this is as it may be: perhaps matters of taste over which it would be barren to dispute. There are, however, two charges I want to make about Proust which, it seems to me, are more serious, because they speak directly to the core project of A la recherche as a novel.

Number one. Proust can’t do comedy. Often comedy is not his mode, and that is fine of course; but on occasion he tries to present something to pleasantly ridiculous’usually a certain character trait, mannerism or observation’and he reveals a fatal prolixity of comic observation. For instance, towards the end of Le Côté de Guermantes the Princess of Parma congratulates Marcel on his snowboots, but her lady-in-waiting declares them superfluous, refusing to believe that it will snow at all:

‘With those on your feet you’ll have nothing to fear, even if it snows again and you’ve far to go. You’re not at the mercy of the weather.

--Oh! as far as the weather’s concerned Your Royal Highness can set her mind at rest, broke in the lady-in-waiting knowingly, it won’t snow again.

--And how could you possibly know that?’ questioned the peerless Princess of Parma in a withering tone provoked by the one thing that could manage to ruffle her, the stupidity of her lady-in-waiting.

‘I can assure Your Royal Highness that it can’t snow again. It’s a physical impossibility.

--But why?

--It can’t snow again because they’ve taken the necessary steps to prevent it. They’ve put salt on the roads!’ [This is taken from the new Penguin translation of Proust; The Guermantes Way transl. Mark Treharne, general ed. Christopher Prendergast (London: Allen Lane 2002), 546-7]

This is a not-very-funny gag that is killed stony dead by being stretched so ineptly over so many lines. But even here Proust can’t bear to let it go; and the dead comic horse gets flogged for a paragraph longer; he thinks he has conjured a Mrs Malaprop or a Mrs Gamp, but in fact all he’s doing is proving that comic necessaries such as pacing, timing and an punchy delivery are all beyond him.

The simple-minded lady [you get that? She’s simple-minded, see? That was the point of the humour, right there. ed.] did not notice the Princess’s anger nor other people’s mirth, for instead of remaining silent she said to me with a bland smile, disregarding utterly the denials I had made of any connection with Admiral Jurien de la Graviere: ‘Not that it matters, in any case. Monsieur must have strong sea legs. It runs in the family!’

Please stop, oh ohmy aching sides.

Proust’s cack-hand with a punchline is revealing, I think. This sort of comedy works, in general, to the extent to which it can feed off the energy and incongruity of surprise. But the idiom of A la recherche is, ultimately, unreceptive to the surprising: it is rather the prolonged and minute sivving of the known.

Actually I’m tempted to contradict myself straight away: there are occasions Proust is very funny indeed. The interview between Marcel and Charlus alittle later in the Le Côté de Guermantes is indeed funny. The volatile Baron explodes into fury at a comment Marcel is supposed to have made that has been reported to him (in error, as it happens). When Marcel denies it (‘Believe me, Monsieur., I have said nothing that could offend you’) Charlus explodes: ‘Do you imagine you have the power to offend me?’ he shrieks. ‘Have you no idea to whom you are speaking? Do you imagine that the poisonous spittle of five hundred little men of your sort, hoisted on to each other’s shoulders, could even drool down on to the tips of my august toes?’ Marcel, usually so passive and refined, snaps. He snatches Charlus’ new top hat and ‘threw it to the ground, trampled upon it & I ripped out the lining, tore the crown’ [Guermantes Way, 557-8]. Confronted by this rebounding fury the Baron is astonished, and then strangely mollified.

This may not read as especially funny here in my retelling; but in its context, at the end of a long book in large part given over to the minute charting of those barren wastelands of hyper-correct upper-class social correctness, it does act as a comic release. But it is also symptomatic, by virtue of being uncharacteristic. To provoke laughter this sort of unexpectedness is necessary; an incongruity, a surprise, a release of tension. But these things really aren’t what Proust is about. The enormously elongated and (in the best sense) relaxed tone of his huge novel, its obsessive workings over the known and the remembered—and, to be fair, the suspected and anxiously anticipated—rather than the unknown or the startling defuse any comic potential. And this, in turn, is a problem in a mode of art such as the novel, which retains the impress of its origins as a comic form.

Right. Two. And this, I think, is the largest question of all. Proust’s novel sets before us perhaps the most involved and detailed anatomy of the ‘intermittencies of the heart’ in world literature. Even more than memory and time, the novel’s theme is love, the raptures and miseries of love, filtered predominantly through the consciousness of the narrator, and more specifically the narrator’s experiences of being in love with a number of women (Swann’s daughter Gilberte, the Duchesse de Guermantes, Albertine). There is so much exquisitely rendered in this, and so many profound insights into the way human beings invest emotional in ideas of other people to the exclusion of the people themselves, that it seems just stupid to register an objection. But there’s something very wrong here, nonetheless.

I want to tread carefully. To say ‘Proust was gay’ is, perhaps, to indulge in a dangerous essentialism. And of course there’s no reason why a gay writer can’t write about straight relationships if they choose, any more than there should be any interdiction on straight writers writing about gay relationships. But when it the complex of motivations, desires and rationalisations of heterosexual relations is the very subject of the book there’s some point in judging the extent to which the portrayal is effective.

This is not to advert to judgment about ‘the gay writer’ as such, a category in which I tend to disbelieve (Gore Vidal seems to me right when he insists that there is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person; there are only homosexual or heterosexual acts). Some portrayals of heterosexual human inter-relations by ‘gay’ or ‘bi’ writers wholly convince and profoundly move me (Sophocles, say; Shakespeare; Patrick White). But other instances seem to me less convincing. A case in point, for me, is Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Everybody in this novel is egregiously in love with Isobel Archer; the overflowing superabundance of her wonderfulness is the main motor of the book, how beautiful she is, how clever, how adorable, how marvellous. Yet when I read the book I did so with my teeth gritted, for she annoyed me enormously. Specifically, it seemed to me that James really didn’t get what it was about some women that can make straight men fall hopelessly in love with them. It’s possible that he didn’t get this because he himself had never experienced that all-encompassing tangle of soul-love and sexual-obsession of a man for a woman.

Compared with James, I think Proust does get it. His account in Du Côté de Chez Swann of the way Swann’s dislike of Odette (of her silliness, her duplicity and even of her physical appearance) acts as the very ground of his falling in love with her, is extraordinary and powerful. The account in La Prisonièère and Albertine Disparu of Marcel’s similar obsession with Albertine is less nuanced, more one-dimensional, but still convincing and absorbing, and of course, rendered in staggering detail.

But, but, but. I think it’s worth saying that it is not, by and large, a feature of the heterosexual love of a man for a woman to fret endlessly, obsessively, hopelessly, recirculating and recirculating to this matter to the point where it takes over the man’s life and wrecks his love, the suspicion that the woman he loves is in fact secretly a lesbian, and is being unfaithful to him with hundreds of other women. Now, I can’t, of course, deny the possibility that some men might fret over this question; and it’s always possible that some women go out with some men whilst maintaining a secret life of betrayal in which they sleep with other women. But it seems to me likely that more often than not, in heterosexual relationships, this isn’t a major factor, or perhaps isn’t a factor at all.

But A la recherche is barmily monomaniacal on this matter. Proust presents this circumstance to us as if it is the secret key that unlocks the mysteries of heterosexual love; and, frankly, it’s not. Swann, in love with Odette and enjoying a sexual relationship with her, becomes hugely distressed by his suspicion that she is cheating on him not with other men but with other women. A generation later, Marcel (our narrator) falls in love with Gilberte, Swann’s daughter, and is tormented by the same suspicion. Later in his life he enters into the major relationship of his life, with Albertine, and once again becomes ridden by the nightmare demon that Albertine prefers the caresses of other women and has been serially unfaithful to him on that account. All the women Marcel knows and fancies (Andree, for instance) live the same secret lesbian lives.

The loony insistence of this theme bends the whole novel out of shape. It turns Proust into Jack from Will and Grace, whose irrational hatred of lesbians swells the thought of ‘women having sex with women’ into provokingly enormous proportion in his fuming mind. In Jack’s case it results in a series of brittle anti-lesbian jokes. In Proust it becomes something more; a cipher or trope of heterosexual love itself.

In a sense the novel is saying ‘when a heterosexual man loves a woman, it involves an all-consuming jealousy at hidden lesbian partners the man is secretly convinced the women enjoys’. And that seems to me not to be the case. So the question is: can a novel be a masterpiece if the way it treats its core subject (love) is so crazily distorted by private hobby horse that it parts company with the way that love actually works in the real world?


Well, you have read it two more times than I, but as I remember, I always thought Proust was writing about homosexual love with a coy and pretty flimsy disguise, under the constraints of an oppressive and censorious society. I do a similar gender adjustment to Wings of the Dove. Is this incorrect or unfair?

Then it gets complicated. If Albertine is the male homosexual lover of an older man, the paranoid fantasies of promiscuous homosexual affairs make one kind of sense, but are confusing in other readings. But somehow I think that was intended, I remember being irritated at Proust’s glee at hidden inversion and confusing sexualities in the later volumes.

By on 01/28/06 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right, Bob, that this is how many critics have taken the book; read the girls for boys.  But I’ve never been convinced by that argument.  It’s not as if there’s any repression in the text about homosexuality: there really is nothing coy or flimsy about Proust’s approach to the subject. he’s completely unembarassed about it.  So, for example, the treatment of homosexuality in Sodom and Gomorrah is really very explicit, and indeed that book starts with the 1900 equivalent of a shag on the staircase at Le Nightclub G.A.Y.  I flat don’t believe that this novel ever needed to cloak itself behind that sort of coding.  [There may even be a kind of reverse homophobia in the assumption that the book is coded, it seems to me: as if to say ‘well Proust was a poof, so obviously he can’t actually be writing about straight love ... it must be a code ...’].

That’s my main worry, in this post: that I’m in effect arguing that Proust’s portrait of straight love fails on account of him not being up to it because he’s gay.  To say such a thing would be offensively essentialist.  And it’s not true anyway: as I say, the representation of love in Swann’s Way convinced and compelled me completely, not as a coded version of straight love but as an actual version.  It’s the rest of the novel where the problem comes in ... where the whole “Swann-loves-Odette, Swann-suspects Odette of cheating on him with many other women, Swann is right” thing is revealed as the ground of every single major heterosexual relationship.  That’s when it stops being a portrait of a particular relationship (in which case of course it’s right to say ‘nowt so queer as folk’, ‘who’s to say what makes people tick?’ etc); and starts being a statement about Love and People and the Way Things Are.  And taken as the latter it’s batty.

By Adam Roberts on 01/28/06 at 05:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Anti” books can backfire. I have a friend who says that many anti-war movies have a pro-war effect —if they show war as exciting and vivid, if they show camaradery and heroism, etc. Likewise Wolfe’s “Electric Koolaid Acid Test” was rather viciously anti-Prankster, but high school kids thought it sounded like a lot of fun.

Same for high society—most writing about high society **ultimately** shows the people and their lives to be shallow and heartless and cold and fake, but the glitter has to come through too, first, if the writing is going to be effective at all, and many people just see that.

On “gay” vs. “bi”, I think that Foucault’s conc;usion was that in ancient Greece you just had a different typology dividing up the world differently. Most men were “bi”, and as long as they succeeded in fathering an heir, enthusiastically or not, they were normal, so there was no “gay” ("homosexual"). But there was a stigma against the passive partners and especially against prostitutes, etc.

Vidal is right that the particular typology we have isn’t natural or universal, but it is in effect in our world, so there’s a lot of pressure to conform to type. And in that sense there are “gay people”.

By John Emerson on 01/28/06 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Continuing the above, some of the venom directed against closeted gays may be misdirected. Rather than “living a lie”, some of them might just be trying to get through their life as themselves, without taking on the various stereotyped traits that both the gay and the straight communities want to impose on them.

By John Emerson on 01/28/06 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you’ve clearly spent too much time with decadent art and not enough time with television.  Can we all just calm down for a moment and consider the plight of Ross on *Friends*?  Once his first wife left him for a woman, he dedicated an entire episode to his suspicions that Emily—you know, the annoying English slag Ross dated—might shag his ex-wife’s girlfriend in London. 

And ever since *Friends*, all I can do is wonder if all my girlfriends were sleeping with other women the whole time we were together.  Even at the very time we were together.  Hiding under the pillowcases or in the medicine cabinet.  Other girls.  Everywhere.

These are what we call the timeless and universal human truths, which only great art can relate.  And this is why those race-class-gender-Fascists in the academy just don’t get it.  There are biological differences between men and women.  Women have lower visual-spatial skills and tend to need to peg as many other girls as possible.  Whereas men are competitive and generally lie about those trany pros’s on that backpacking trip to Hungary.

By on 01/28/06 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

T.O.S is illegally trying to annoy us. Everyone knows he’s J*son G*n*lla, though—so is he really anonymous.

By John Emerson on 01/28/06 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: the only thing I’d pick out of your post to query is the description of annoying-English-Ross-girlfriend-woman as ‘a slag’.  You really need to be working class for the term slag to come floating your way (see also ‘slapper’ and the favourite of the moment here in the UK, ‘chav’) and Emily is far too posh.  Apart from that ...

By Adam Roberts on 01/28/06 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So the question is: can a novel be a masterpiece if the way it treats its core subject (love) is so crazily distorted by private hobby horse that it parts company with the way that love actually works in the real world?”

Sure—what definition of “masterpiece” would preclude it? I don’t always fully trust the cosmologies that are Dante’s, Milton’s, or Blake’s core subjects, for example.

Writing a novel, an individual pretends to be a world. Oddities are inevitable, and the more determined the author, the odder the results. James Joyce strove mightily to be honest about sexuality, and his attempt to rip the veil from universally shared secrets instead ended up (for many-to-most readers) an inexplicable coincidence of some peculiar perversions among his characters.

Me, I don’t really understand any jealousy, but that doesn’t keep me from appreciating its depiction. It’s just that I’m appreciating something other than self-identification. My unease is a feature, not a bug.

By Ray Davis on 01/28/06 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lovely post – I’ve just finished La Prisonière and this encapsulates nicely just how weird Proust’s narrative becomes in the second half of the novel.
One notes also this passage in Céleste Albaret’s Monsieur Proust:

But I remember one evening when Jacques Porel called in to say hello on his way home. He was the son of the famous actress Réjane, M. Proust’s great favorite and the rival of Sarah Bernhardt. M. Proust himself had only just come in. Jacques Porel had his young wife with him. She was very pretty and wore a deep décolletage which left her back almost bare. Her husband insisted on her twirling around in front of M. Proust to show off her beauty.

“I don’t understand Monsieur Porel,” M. Proust said to me after they’d gone. “He admires his wife, but he wants everyone to know it and to see how pretty she is. Making her show off her back like that! It wouldn’t take much for him to exhibit her naked. If I admired a woman I wouldn’t talk about it and want others to admire her too – no, I would keep her to myself.

How much Albaret should be trusted, of course, is another matter . . .

By Dan Visel on 01/29/06 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Making her show off her back like that! It wouldn’t take much for him to exhibit her naked.

The story of Gyges in Herodotus (Gog of the Bible). The XIXc Chinese were offended by the Protestan missionaries, who insisted on introducing their Chinese friends to their hot wives. I have been told that in traditional China, “Your wife is lovely” = “I’d be happy to screw your wife”.

By John Emerson on 01/29/06 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking of tourists—to put it another way, complaints about Proust’s lesbian thing (or Joyce’s dirty underwear thing) seem to me to come from the same mental direction as Lost in Translation‘s supposedly adventurous and hyper-intelligent heroine complaining about her Japanese hosts’ pronunciation of English “r"s and “l"s. Not nearly so annoying, of course, but then we can’t all be as annoying as Sofia Coppola.

By Ray Davis on 01/29/06 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So the question is: can a novel be a masterpiece if the way it treats its core subject (love) is so crazily distorted by private hobby horse that it parts company with the way that love actually works in the real world?

If the Recherche were a neo-classical novel, you would be right; well, it isn’t. We can observe in Proust what came about with Romanticism, actually: that art, and literature, are no longer based on the re-presentation of what is universal, typical, or “normal”, but on the expression of particular, individual, or “private” experiences.
“Subjektwende der Moderne” - or whatever you call it in English ...
Even if such a private experience is, like in the Recherche, extended into a whole novel, into a whole world or universe, even if a private experience is presented as a “universal” truth, it is still a private one, evidently. I, personally, do think that some private truths are more true than others, probably. 
“Perspectivism”, or “relativism” - respectively.
And, of course, there is the question that there is always: what is the “real” world?
As to the truth or cognitive value of literature see: Gottfried Gabriel. “Fact, Fiction and Fictionalism. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis in Perspective.” Bernhard F. Scholz, ed. Mimesis. Studies on Literary Representation. Tübingen: Francke, 1998: 33 - 43. 
I’m not sure anyway if Proust’s novel is really a novel about “love”. I’d say it’s really a novel about the self. I used to consider it, in its essence, a quest for permanence, stability, personal identity, for a point of reference, which, in the end, the narrator can find nowhere but in himself.
I’m probably not expert enough to say what love is like “in the real world”. I believe it’s not like in Proust. I hope not.
What interested me about Proust was the theory of art that underlies the whole thing, the way he analyses feelings and translates them into images.

By on 02/20/06 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are at least four elements to your critique of Proust, all of which are interesting, and which I will have to separate out to consider. First, there is your point about Proust’s failed attempts at humor. This is, as you say, largely a function of timing and lack of surprise. Proust is richly ironic, and often quite wry, as when he describes Mme Verdurin’s fainting every time she hears Wagner. In other words, he supplies the materials for what could, in another author’s hands, become comedy. Proust could even be comic in a different medium: I can imagine an actor like Tim Roth wringing exquisite humor from the character of Morel, if he was allowed to invest him with alternately arrogant and obsequious mannerisms.

As it happens, the antagonism between smoothly constructed narrative, and laugh-out-loud humor, is the reason I prefer Dave Barry to David Sedaris.

Since we have so many excellent coarse modernists, with Joyce foremost among them, Proust’s translucent elegance never pains me. It is worth considering how English and American writing appears to thinkers on the Continent: Walter Benjamin and others have remarked on the strange intermixture of refinement and grossness in Shakespeare. What we take to be Shakespeare’s range, others consider a stylistic choice that reveals a curiously “undigestive” mind.

As for Proust’s social world: a reader who does not recognize Proust’s virulent critique is not a good reader. The Guermantes Way ends with a very ill Swann paying his last respects to the Guermantes, only to find them pre-occupied with a party. They complain that they have no time to speak with him, and then fritter half an hour looking for a pair of Mme Guermantes’ shoes. Finally, to set his conscience at ease, the Duke tells the dying Swann, “You’re as sound as a bell. You’ll outlive us all!”

Where censorship, even self-censorship, is dominant, literary works do tend to undermine their own moral judgements with sentimentality, and to romanticize “evil.” This is the case in Moll Flanders and, in a different sense, in Brideshead Revisited.

However, Proust makes it quite clear that Saint-Loup and Mme de Guermantes are unconscious of their most fascinating qualities, and furthermore that they are primarily occasions for his own acts of imagination, rather than persons valuable in themselves. Proust’s clear-eyed analysis of the nature of glamour creates a double or triple image of each glamorous person. We see them as Proust sees them at first, as they see themselves, and as they are to people of various classes and conditions. In most cases, the only flattering representation among all of these are the fairy-tale images suggested by traces of fading traditions—in other words, Mme de Guermantes as she can exist only in Proust’s mind.

Marcel doesn’t believe in essential character, although he does not forgive moral failings, either. (In this respect Marcel differs from the author Proust.) The kind of inconsistency that plagues Marcel’s treatment of a character like Charlus, and makes Charlus seem distorted, is a result of his (Marcel’s) limited access to Charlus’s person, a problem of which he is very much aware, and which Proust refuses to rectify with an act of authorial omniscience. There is a (thoroughly considered) problem of context: at a party, Mme de Guermantes will appear to be the soul of hospitality, but that is only because she has fled her friend Swann to attend the party, and be hospitable. The problem of determining the meaning of her less-than-universal kindness, Proust seems to say, is ontological and not incidental. At the same time, your thorough list of Charlus’s qualities is indicative of a different closeness which we, as readers, eventually develop with Charlus, that appears to be impossible for Marcel.

Finally, lesbianism. You are absolutely right that on its face, Proust’s emphasis on lesbianism seems to be a particular mania. I think it can be universalized. Lesbianism, for Proust, is symbolic of every part of another person’s life from which he is excluded. After all, if Albertine were merely attracted to other men, it would be a question of competing with them. Who is more handsome? Who is richer? Who can talk more convincingly about Dostoevsky? etc. But the women who attract Albertine are permanently, irremediably different from Marcel.

This can be inverted. In a society where there are fewer homosexuals than heterosexuals, and where homosexuality is subject to oppression, it is scary to wonder if a gay partner might be attracted to members of the opposite sex. Proust is undoubtedly representing that fear. In fact, any marginalized or minority sexuality, from S&M, to “polyamorous” relationships, to fetish communities, demonizes the return to “normalcy” out of a legitimate fear of abandonment.

Proust’s also representing the fear of a person in love with a specialist of some kind: an academic, or a scientist, or a lawyer, or what-have-you. Knowing that the woman you love will share with other men (and women) passions you cannot even understand is terrifying.

Even the anxiety that accompanies hearing about your husband or wife’s “first love” can be compared to Proust’s fascinated, repulsed look through Vinteuil’s window, and the passion and contempt that he can glimpse, but never know.

I agree that Isabel Archer is annoying...but I don’t think the reactions of the men around her is surprising. She simply has vitality, and curiosity, and fresh stores of passion. For the invalid Ralph, and the debauched Osmond, she represents a renewal of innocence and possibility, though it is clear that Osmond never cares for her all that much. For Goodwood, Isabel is a perfect complement to his own flat, grating, Puritan goodness.

What James does understand is the magnetic fascination of aesthetic spendor, a quality that Madame Merle possesses and lords over Isabel. Perhaps the relationship between Merle and Isabel, plus the awful lingering attachment between Osmond and Merle, end up being better representations of love in its hopeless, staggering forms.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/18/06 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very interesting.  You’re right about the comedy, and about Marcel disbelief in in essential character, as much else of course.  But:

In a society where there are fewer homosexuals than heterosexuals, and where homosexuality is subject to oppression, it is scary to wonder if a gay partner might be attracted to members of the opposite sex.

Is it?  The fear is of abandonment and humiliation, isn’t it?  And a lover can abandon and humiliate you with somebody of any sex.

Proust is undoubtedly representing that fear.

Really?  I wonder whether it isn’t that Proust has a superstring-like Theory of Everything Sexual which goes: ‘women will have sex with men, but they’re all basically rampant nympho lesbians, dude. You got to keep your eye on them!’ The problem here is not that Proust isn’t entitled to his theories; it’s that this one just really rings untrue to me as reader.

By Adam Roberts on 09/19/06 at 06:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam writes: A lover can abandon and humiliate you with somebody of any sex.

That’s right; it’s this universality that, ultimately, Proust still wants to achieve. His “basically rampant nympho lesbians” (that’s hilarious, by the way) do represent a personal obsession, but they are also meant as symbols of another person’s unknowability and freedom.

At one point, Marcel writes that he knows each reader will replace Albertine’s face with the face of someone they love. It is the same with Proust’s jealousy. Each of us might be excluded from our beloved in a different way, but if we know that exclusion, then we know all the specific agony of Marcel, too.

I do take your point that the similarities between Odette and Albertine make both less realistic. Perhaps it is possible for something to be symbolically effective even so. To return to James, I don’t necessarily believe the conversations between May and John in The Beast in the Jungle, but I do believe in the oracular feeling, conveyed through those conversations, that prevents John from recognizing his selfishness for what it is.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/19/06 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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