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Marcel Proust by Edmund White (Lipper/Viking, 165 pp., $19.95)

Scarcely halfway between L'Etoile and Place de la Concorde, across from the Grand Palais on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, lies a row of landscaped parks dotted with trees and chestnut alleys through which runs a very tiny, winding path called Allee Marcel Proust. The average person may think that it is nothing more than a vague botanical tribute to an author known for writing affectingly about flowers and plants; or, more grandly, an expression of civic gratitude to this city's, and this century's, most celebrated French author. But Proust's close readers will know that the Allee Marcel Proust represents one of those wistful and stimulating moments where the world of letters and the world of facts collide. For it was precisely here, if we go by what Proust wrote in Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, that Marcel, the narrator, used to rush after school to come to play with his adolescent friend Gilberte Swann, with whom he was smitten.

Proust's biographers have identified the model for Swann's daughter in a certain Marie de Benardaky, the daughter of a wealthy Slavic--some say Russian, others say Polish--aristocrat, of probable Cretan origin. Marie would come with her sister and their governess to the Champs-Elysees gardens, where they would meet the daughters of Felix Faure--the future president of France--and play hide and seek with schoolboys from the Lycee Condorcet. These after-school gatherings must have left an indelible impression on Proust, who was never to forget Marie de Benardaky. Five years before his death, he told Louisa de Mornand, his life-long friend and the actress who served as a model for the character of Rachel in his novel, that Marie had been "the great love of his life," for whom "he would have killed himself."

Proust, gifted as he was with so munificent a memory, had a way of screening the particulars of his life when he transposed them into his fiction. A novelist who ended up writing this century's most fastidiously detailed memoir, he had little compunction about embroidering things, and he cherished his embroideries. In the matter of his love of the Champs-Elysees gardens, for example, we do not know Proust's precise age at the time: was he thirteen, or fourteen, or fifteen, which his fiction seems to suggest? Or, as he implied in his letter to Louisa de Mornand, was he really eighteen, an age when Proust was already eagerly pursuing the love of men?

And was he frank with Louisa de Mornand? He had had a passing crush on Louisa, though it, too, is not entirely clear. George Painter, in his great biography Marcel Proust (1959), suggests that Proust "succumbed to her charm partly because she was the beloved of [his] friend [Louis d'Albufera], but partly for her own sake." Jean-Yves Tadie's recent Marcel Proust takes a more speculative, if fussier, approach: "If Marcel Proust feigned to be in love with Louisa de Mornand, it was to stir the jealousy of the man ... because he was under the mistaken hope of rousing his love for him, given his belief that it is jealousy which gives birth to love, and not the other way around." Had Marcel really wished to die for Marie, or was he exaggerating his love to an old flame so as to cover up his other desires?

Proust was never able to let go of the girl and the events in the Champs-Elysees gardens. He returned to the scene not only in In Search of Lost Time, but also in his earlier novel Jean Santeuil (where Marie de Benardaky is called Marie Kossichef), and in a posthumous collection of essays called Against Sainte-Beuve. The Champs-Elysees garden, with its adjoining theater, fountain, and public urinal (which exudes a smell that the young Marcel finds vaguely familiar), becomes in his writing a site of play and anxiety, of unfulfilled longing and near-plenitude--a genuine crucible, where the fear of not finding Marie/Gilberte forever undermines the hope that she will be kind to him or that he will not seem too awkward.

Marcel sits at home, scanning the ray of sunlight against the balcony, wondering whether sunlight might indeed presage weather sufficiently pleasant to coax Gilberte Swann out to join him in the gardens. He watches the ray of light wax and then wane--no, the day is too cloudy--but soon enough it reappears, a propitious sign. With his governess Francoise, the hapless youth saunters toward the Champs-Elysees while the reader, already fearing the worst, suspects that he will not find the object of his affection in the garden, if for no other reason than that he allowed himself to invest so many hopes in their encounter.

Sure enough, the reader's fears are borne out. Gilberte does not show up. And the boy is crushed. But when he has given up hoping, when he is dragging himself home and resigning himself again to the lesson that things never turn out as we wish, whom should he see coming his way but the very girl whose absence he was trying to endure? As Proust observes, our wish for things only obstructs them--for things "come to fruition only when we cease to desire" them or, when they do seem to lean our way, we will "effect a gradual change in our heart until we desire something other than what we are about to possess."

In his short biography of Proust, Edmund White nicely summarizes the ironic law of Proustian psychodynamics: "You always get what you want when you no longer want it." Such laws, of course, are not laws at all. This is really an observation on the natural inversions of the mind. For the mind is constantly making connections that our reason knows do not exist. Our memories, and our desires, and our views of people, and our judgments of things: all are connections that seem right but turn out to be wrong, only to prove right again, but are really wrong in the end, as though to suggest that fate never works the way we want it to work, but this hard knowledge will not propitiate it any more than it will blunt its power to cause us pain.

Everything in proust is antithetical and contrapuntal. Proust narrated life according to a fugal principle. His story, his episodes, his thoughts, his characters and their sexualities, his sentences even, all abide by what one could call a poetics of inversion. There is no right side-up or upside down; there are simply reversals of one thing by another. Instead of staunch womanizers, it becomes clear that "almost all" of Proust's male characters, with the exception of Marcel, "turn out to be gay." (The words are White's.) You might say that the contribution of this great inverti was to develop a poetics that was not entirely free of his own inversion--indeed, that universalized inversion into an almost cosmic principle, by applying it to everything and everyone. It almost seems as though, in his writing, Proust was "outing" all of reality, by assuming that reality likes to hide, that all of nature and life was a cipher craving to be (this was Proust's word) translated.

Proust had an appetite for cutting things open. He relentlessly turned things inside out, like gloves, upside down and back and around again. He prized what he uncovered as though it were his own little discovery, his own little version of the world, a world more real than the real world because it was made in his own image and in no one else's image, but a world that he must especially distrust, because it is made in his own and no one else's image. Inversion is Proust's studied and spontaneous response to the world. He cannot begin to write unless he can first expose the real world for the sham that he always feared, and wished, that it was. The real world frequently behaves like a bad novel; and fiction has a few things to teach life that life would do well to learn.

Neither the world as it is nor the world as Proust thinks it is will ever have the upper hand. As soon as the one prevails, the other unseats it. As soon as Proust's unmistakably soulful and lyrical voice begins to try to reach out for the world, it is almost instantly undercut by Proust's grand and unmistakable irony. He would like nothing more than to think that writing is better than living, that those who hide and write and live alone have better, richer lives--and perhaps a part of him does believe this; but he also knows there is something wrong with such a claim, that it is "a cowardly abdication of life," that it is better to be of the world than to remember having tried to be, just as it is better to live than to observe life--though he writes all this in the seclusion of his cork-lined room. Wanting to know how you desire what you desire when you desire it is, in the end, nothing more than a way of hoping to find that you may not desire it at all. But proving that you no longer desire it makes it safe to desire it again, which you secretly suspect that you do anyway.

Proust's universe may have a center, but it is without a core. When you have reached the alleged center, you will have discovered that there is nothing left, just as, by the time Marcel decides to become a writer at the end of In Search of Lost Time, he will have just finished writing the very novel that narrates the history of his decision to write it. Similarly, by the time Swann kisses Odette that first night after running into her in the street, he knows that he is about to lose far more than he stands to gain; and by the time he marries her, he has already grown indifferent to her betrayals and is ready to undertake some of his own. And by the time his daughter Gilberte invites Marcel to the Swanns' home, years later, marking Marcel's entry into a world that had hitherto seemed so lofty and unattainable, he will be spurned by the very girl who has opened her home to him.

In a version of the scene in the Champs-Elysees gardens published in the addendum to the four-volume Pleiade edition of A la recherche in 1986, young Marcel and Gilberte are sitting near a fountain far from the vigilant gaze of her governess, who is busy reading. The two are talking, and occasionally they cast furtive looks through the laurel shrubberies in the direction of the governess. As they say goodbye, Gilberte takes Marcel's hand and kisses it. This burst of human contact--rare enough in Marcel's world, but especially rare since it is the girl, and not the boy, who initiates it--thrills him, and the young man begins to kiss her on the cheek, rubbing his lips along her skin as though stirred by "a hereditary, new power working within him," until she reveals to him that she too is dazed.

Halfway through the scene, and for no immediately understandable reason, Proust alters the "I" of the narrator to "he." Such a change is not uncommon in Proust's manuscripts. Proust had no compunction about moving things around, switching scenes or the name, the sex, and the personality of his characters, as though the facts of his tale were immaterial or unavailable, shifty, lost, repressed, and therefore open to continual revision. It is no wonder, in this essentially unstable universe, that the final version of the scene between Marcel and Gilberte in the Champs-Elysees changes things again, and very startlingly.

In the scene as it appears in Within a Budding Grove, Marcel and Gilberte are no longer so coy with each other. Marcel, who is trying to snatch back a letter that he had asked her to deliver to her father, finds himself physically struggling with her. Each innocently goads the other to put up a fight, the boy trying to pin her down by wrapping his legs around her, as she resists, laughing and grappling with him all the while. And suddenly, and as though totally unaware of what was about to happen to him, Marcel ejaculates:

I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by an effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyze.

Gilberte does not seem to realize what has happened. She kindly offers to go on wrestling "if he so wishes."

It would be just like Proust to "dispossess" a sexual act. Contact, to say nothing of intimacy, between individuals is so scarce and so strange an occurrence in Proust that the distance between one person and another is indeed, to use his word, infranchissable: unbreachable, impassable. Elsewhere in the novel, playing with the sexual meaning of "possession," Proust will remind his reader that no one ever possesses anything, much less anyone. Speculation is the norm, not intimacy. Thus the little joy that the young man experiences upon ejaculation is quickly snuffed out, as he begins to fear that Gilberte may have had an inkling of what had resulted from their wrestling.

Perhaps she was dimly conscious that my game had another object than the one I had avowed, but too dimly to have been able to see that I had attained it. And I who was afraid that she had noticed (and a slight movement of recoil and constraint as of offended modesty which she made and checked a moment later made me think that my fear had not been unfounded) agreed to go on wrestling, lest she should suppose that I had indeed had no other object in view than the one which I wished only to sit quietly by her side.

Did she sense that he sensed that she sensed the true nature of his pleasure? Marcel puts himself in her place to judge whether she is aware of what he suspects she must have guessed about him. The inversion of roles is potentially infinite. But that he should not be allowed to experience the plenitude of the moment, that he should continue to wrestle with meanings and intentions even after attaining the object of his exertions: therein lies the moral of Proust's book. Happiness and love are not the same thing. They do not go together.


There is another inversion in the scene in the garden. If Proust changed Marie Benardaky into Marie Kossichef and then into Gilberte Swann, and if he changed "I" into "he," there was another switch that he was probably reluctant to disclose, and it is the most obvious one of all: that Gilberte, in the scene by the laurel shrubbery, is very probably not a "she" but a "he." There is something quite unseemly about the upper-middle-class adolescent youth struggling in a public playground with an aristocratic girl, pinning her down, and finally coming in his pants. Surely such wrestling is done between boys.

Edmund White, like almost every Proustian biographer, is extremely fond of repeating that Proust transposed almost everything from his life and then inverted the terms: he borrowed the scenes but altered the sex of the characters, thereby inverting the invert. The task of the biographer, therefore, is to go against Proust's grain: to de-heterosexualize him, which is to say, to de-invert the invert.

This theme is extremely precious to White. In his small book he is constantly highlighting the fact that the women whom Marcel and Swann love were most probably not women at all. We are told more than once that Swann's desperate search for Odette in after-hours Paris is just an echo of Marcel's own desperate search for his lover Reynaldo Hahn one night in Paris. White is in good company here, to be sure. All of Proust's biographers, long before the advent of Queer Theory, have contended that the Swann-Odette nexus could be traced back to the Albufera-Mornand relationship, which, in its turn, served as a model for the Rachel-Saint-Loup liaison in the novel, even though it was the character Saint-Loup who, before turning gay, would eventually marry Gilberte, while Marcel would fall for Albertine, herself gay, and a composite of, among other males, Henri Rochat and Alfred Agostinelli. Some have gone so far as to detect in Gilberte's features the lineaments of a man's body, or in Albertine's exaggerated tomboyishness the tell-tale signs of a kouros.

Certain gay readers cannot resist this sort of exegesis. In a way, it seems understandable that a novel that suggests that everyone is gay should be given an enthusiastic and explicit gay reading. The homosexuality of this work is not exactly esoteric. And so some critics have tried to establish a gay lineage to In Search of Lost Time. If the primal scene occurs not in the Proust's home but in his aunt Tante Leonie's house in Combray, then surely the novel's matriarchal or patriarchal derivation collapses in favor of a tantiarchal model. Tante, after all, is a common slang word for "queer," which Proust himself uses in his novel.

This "avuncular" aesthetic lineage, which also includes a shady uncle and the elusive figure of Charles Swann, is established in the famous dipping of the madeleine in the tea, a sort of mnemonic "open sesame" that sets the novel in motion when, one day, Marcel suddenly recalls the flavor of herbal infusions of his childhood and, by extension, the lost paradise of his aunt's house. According to queer theorists such as Jarrod Hayes--a young scholar whose essay "Proust in the Tearoom" appeared in 1995 in the Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, suggesting that even tea can acquire a gay meaning in Proust--"the paradise regained by Proustian memory could be Sodom." Tea parties, teacups, teapots, and tearooms turn out to have a decidedly gay inflection. Secondary sources such as Paris Gay 1925 and Colin and Mevel's Dictionnaire de l'argot reveal that the word theiere (teapot) "first appeared in print with a homosexual connotation in 1890, prendre le the (to have tea) in 1910 and tasse (teacup)." Put it all together, and voila: every time Proust mentions the signifiant tea, he is of course thinking of its gay signifie. By means of such a tortured and tendentious hermeneutic, a reading of Proust may be generated that is exultant, highly professional, shrewdly decrypted, politicized, tactless, and pure claptrap.

If anything is likely to make Proust turn in his grave in Pere Lachaise, it is precisely such interpretations. Proust never managed to bring himself to make broad admissions of his homosexuality. Like Wilde before him, he was enough of a secret homosexual to have sought public redress against homosexual allegations. (In 1897, he challenged a slanderer to what turned out to be a perfunctory duel.) Indeed, as readers could easily have inferred from In Search of Lost Time and Against Sainte-Beuve, and as both Jean-Yves Tadie in Marcel Proust and Roger Duchene in L'Impossible Marcel Proust have suggested, the sexuality that Proust practiced most was neither homosexual nor heterosexual. It was onanistic.

This does not mean he was any less gay; but it does suggest that his sexuality was essentially reclusive. Proust certainly believed that a writer's private life must never impinge on the appreciation and the interpretation of his books. This was why he so adamantly opposed Sainte-Beuve's critical method, which allowed a critic to judge a writer not by his work but by the facts of his life. White quotes Proust's words to this effect: "A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices."

And yet the one thing that White systematically fails to do in his book about Proust is to heed those very words. His Marcel Proust is crudely and almost exclusively aimed to provide a gay reading, not of Proust's novel, but of Proust's life. Without such a purpose, indeed, it is hard to understand how or why this book came into being. After all, White's biography appears in the wake of five mammoth-sized Proust biographies: Ghislain de Diesbach's (1991) of 775 pages, followed by Roger Duchene's (1994) of 845 pages, topped by Jean-Yves Tadie's (1996) of 952 pages (soon to appear in English), to say nothing of the reissued English-language classic biography by George Painter (1959) at 782 pages, and Ronald Hayman's (1990) less popular but still hefty 564-page biography. Understandably, there are readers who may be reluctant to embark on biographies that, by their sheer girth, seem intended to rival the subject's own voluminous novel. Proust's life, when all is said and done, was the rather short, uneventful story, as White himself so cogently puts it, of a man who is "half-Jewish, untitled, gay and an invalid." A short biography could have been usefully distilled from the sea of Proust scholarship.

But this is precisely what White has not done. His very superficial account seems to have been drawn mainly from George Painter and Jean-Yves Tadie. It is a chatty, cut-and-paste job, and slovenly written. There are the gay highlights of Proust's life, with a gay who's-who of the period, and lots of padding in between. Whom is this book intended for? Not the specialist, of course. But the reader of Proust will also profit nothing from it. No, the purpose of the book is to give a sense of what and who Proust was to people who would not be interested in him unless he were gay.

When he mentions Proust's interest in ballet, for example, White must remind us that Proust admired Diaghilev and, naturally, his lover Nijinsky. Also, "the handsome, young Fenelon, the third of Proust's new friends, was also secretly homosexual, or rather bisexual." Also, there is "Jean Lorrain, a decadent novelist (and like Marcel a homosexual and inveterate partygoer)." When he refers to Walter Benjamin, White lists his sexual orientation, too, as if Benjamin could have been mistaken for anything but what he was: "According to the German (and heterosexual) essayist Walter Benjamin...." Of course White gives us Oscar Wilde, Georges Eekhoud, Friedrich Alfred Krupp, Sir Hector Archibald Macdonald, and Count Kuno von Moltke. The language of White's propaganda is hip and totally anachronistic: we read of "hustling," "cruising," the Paris Disneyland, Method acting, mitosis, Proust the "yenta," comic strips, and so on.

White's thinking is also trite. "Modern readers are responsive to Proust's tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we, too, no longer take love for granted." (And barely a page later: "Like us, he took nothing for granted.") Writing of the rich of Proust's Paris, White remarks that they were "enriched by colonies ... [having] drained the world dry to pay for [their] excesses." What on earth do such banalities and politicizations have to do with Proust?

Discussing Proust's penchant for writing pastiches, and his reasons for avoiding imitating "simple and straightforward" writers such as Voltaire or Merimee, White explains that he did this "just as drag queens avoid `doing' unadorned beauties such as Audrey Hepburn and are inspired by highly constructed women such as Mae West or Barbra Streisand." The critical focus here seems a little narrow. The same parochialism appears in White's attempt to assist the reader with Proust's debt to Ruskin. (With the help of others, Proust translated two of Ruskin's books.) Hoping to give his readers a sense of who Ruskin was, White instructs that "his doctrines ... had a particular impact on the San Francisco Bay region shingle style of architecture." This is the literary equivalent of niche marketing.

And there are also untendentious mistakes. Describing Proust's last day, White writes that "Robert Proust [Proust's brother was a doctor] bled him (the common treatment for lowering fever) by applying suction cups." Never in the history of medicine have suction cups ever been used to bleed anyone. (The biographers tell of ventouses, which were not bleeding instruments.) White calls the Duke of Saint-Simon a diarist, when he was a memorialist. Twice White mentions "the (then) famous Alphonse Daudet ... now largely forgotten," but a look in any bookstore in France will show that Daudet is not even mildly forgotten. Small things, but they matter in a small book.

"Proust's strategies of disguise and transposition," White argues, "must still begin and end with a highly specific recollection of his own feelings and sensations." This is White's methodological assumption, the premise that justifies his shallow sexualization of his entire subject. Now, there is no reason that a biographer should adhere to Proust's separation of the writer and the work. It is the job of the biographer, indeed, to challenge such a separation; but the challenge must be a subtle and learned one. White's facile connections are another matter entirely. In their obsession with the realities of sexual inversion, they violate the realities of artistic inversion. For Proust's thinking was tirelessly, sublimely antithetical. This was the lesson of the agony in the garden, the endlessly shifting agony of a man's search for himself, for love, for his past. You would know nothing of these gorgeous complexities from this book.


In a recently discovered letter dated May 17, 1888, a sixteen-year-old Marcel Proust writes to his maternal grandfather urgently requesting thirteen francs. "This is why," he confides. "I needed to see a prostitute so badly to put an end to my bad habit of masturbating, that my father gave me ten francs to visit a brothel. But, in my excitement, I broke a chamber pot: three francs. Moreover, flustered as I was, I was unable to screw."

One could speculate at great length on the nature of the relationship between Proust and his Jewish grandfather, or between him and his father, the world-renowned physician, who begged his son to try to stop masturbating "for at least four days." One could even ponder the multiple sides of this young man who had clumsily broken a prostitute's chamber pot and, all the while penning adoring love letters to his male classmates, pined for Marie de Benardaky in the Champs-Elysees Gardens. Such ambivalence should surprise no one; Proust made great art out of ambivalence. But what is really interesting in this conjunction is not the father, the son, the grandfather, the whore, the uncles, the aunts, or the would-be male and female flames. It is the pot.

Fast forward, several decades later, to The Captive. A grown-up and prosperous Marcel, on hearing that his live-in mistress Albertine fears that the Verdurin circle might spurn her inferior social status, rashly offers to invite the Verdurins to a "grand dinner." Taken aback by her lover's suggestion, Albertine exclaims "Spend money on them! I'd a great deal rather you left me free for once in a way to go and get myself b...." I take this sentence from D.J. Enright's reworking of Terence Kilmartin's own reworking of the Scott Moncrieff translation of 1927. The sentence trails off with an ellipsis in French as well: "me faire casser...." The Moncrieff version is far more circumspect: "I'd a great deal rather you left me alone for once in a way so that I can go and get someone decent to break my...."

Albertine never finishes this sentence, but immediately she blushes, thereby intriguing Marcel who, like all Proustian lovers, is consumed with jealousy. He insists that she tell him what she had meant to say, but she refuses. He even attempts to reconstruct the missing word by filling the ellipses with all manner of nouns and meanings. Finally, struck by a dark revelation, Marcel trips on the missing word. It could only have been "pot."

Se faire casser le pot, "to get someone to break," as Scott Moncrieff enigmatically renders it, or "to have one's pot broken," as Enright glosses it, means to have anal intercourse: passive anal intercourse. But would a girl, even the crassest girl, ever say such a thing? Or would it have to be a man? There is that question again, the question about sexual identity and artistic meaning, the question that was broached by Marcel's bout with Gilberte in the garden.

Would the answer to such a question really tell us anything essential about Proust or his novel? Would a critic's temptation to connect the broken pot in The Captive with the broken pot in the adolescent's letter reveal anything of any artistic or spiritual consequence? Was the young Proust inadvertently revealing something coded to his grandfather? Was the adult Proust retrospectively writing to connect the two? Was the broken pot a broken pot? Had the young man gone to see a female prostitute? Is there a teapot hidden in the chamber pot? Should we care?

We should care, but not for Proust's sake. We should care for our own sake, because our universities are training generations of students and scholars to sexualize the universe, and to search breathlessly for spurious meanings and esoteric messages and titillating codes, and to leave the lasting beauty behind. 

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.