Marcel Proust --Les Temps Retrouve

from 50 Books Every Gay Person should Read

In a way, it comes back to those famous photos of the author: the deep-set eyes appearing bruised, as though from seeing far too much for his sensitivity, the complexion that even in black and white looks sallow, yellow, unhealthy to the touch. What nowadays is referred to by Fashionistas as “Heroin-Chic.” My first thought was “God, what a degenerate!” Then I read a bit about his life and realized he was increasingly ill as he aged with worsening asthma that couldn’t be controlled as anyone can today with an over-the-counter inhaler. No, Proust had to lie in bed, unmoving, for hours, in a cork-lined room, as dust and noise and soot and allergy-proofed as money could make it.

I first read Swann’s Way in the summer of my 17th year. I would take that fat Modern Library edition of the Scott-Moncrieff translation with me everywhere that Manhattan summer. I was attending Queens College, City University of New York, a free school not then under open admissions, with a tight student body of 4500 and we had to sustain a B-average and pass a “Comprehensive Examination” to move into sophomore year. Proust, Tolstoy’s stories, and Melville’s novellas were on my summer reading list.

 It took me about ten tries to get into the “Overture” which I finally accomplished on a sizzling August afternoon, shaded by trees at the south end of the lake at Central Park, and only once I felt utterly debilitated and gave in to Proust’s endless sentences. But once “inside” the book, I didn’t look back. Swann’s Way was rejected by all publishers and so printed by Grasset at the author’s cost. Declining it, Andre Gide commented “Too many Duchesses!” Yet, if Proust had never written anything else, he would have made it into the pantheon of great writers.

Five years later I came upon the two-volume Random House set of Remembrance of Things Past in Strand Books and I read volume two– translating the French directly –In the Shadow of Girls in Flower. It’s a painterly book, impressionistic, almost purposely non-dramatic, with characters –-Marcel’s grandmother, Bloch, Elstir, Vinteuil, Morel, Albertine. –- receiving a few new brushstrokes every time we meet them. Marcel’s descriptions of his hotel room at sunset, while he’s supposed to be napping at the seashore in Balbec, vary slightly daily, reminding me of all those Monet haystack paintings, one bluer, one more violet, one almost orange, etc.

Third is The Guermantes Way with its hundred page-long afternoon party, which in effect, provides the historical and social background of the whole edifice. The Guermantes family comes to prominence here, and the opinionated Baron de Charlus. A new character, Robert de St. Loup becomes Marcel’s ideal young man. Well connected, regal, courteous: a white knight. I wanted him as I guessed Marcel did and meant me to. The Proust scholar George Stambolian, nearly threw me out of his car on the way to Amagansett when I casually remarked that as a writer I could see “all the lumber and nails” in that party scene. Critics are so touchy!

Sodome et Gomorra is of course queer, and Baron de Charlus dominates the volume with his opposite (and pimp? boyfriend?) —the femmie tailor, Jupien. Lots of lesbianism emerges, too. I didn’t read it until long after the Stonewall Riots and then I had to take Proust’s “theories of homosexuality” with many grains of salt.

The Captiveand Albertine Vanished follow and they concern jealousy, guilt and sexual obsession, not one of which have ever interested me. But there were some good scenes in between what he thought were the meat of those books, concerning minor characters. Reading that Albertine was based on Proust’s boyfriend, the dandy composer Reynaldo Hahn, and on a far more butch Italian chauffeur, Agostino, helped somewhat. But what did intrigue me is how suddenly in those novels we are in the 20th century: there are telephones and automobiles and airplanes and most memorably, zeppelins lighting the night skies of Paris during World War One, on the lookout for any invasive German Fokkers or Messerschmidt biplanes. Proust used several of these inventions in his plotting—Albertine gets into what may be the first auto accident in literature.

But it wasn’t until last year, forty four years after I first began reading Proust, that I read the last novel in the series and now I really have to write it: God, what a degenerate he was!

The title,Le Temps Retrouve, means what exactly? The Past Recovered is about the closest I’ve come, “retrouve” being used for something that’s lost and now found. Yet this last book is the only contemporary one in the series. It’s set when?—1918 to1921. The war is over. People are bobbing their hair and shortening their skirts. Proust would die in 1922, with five volumes unpublished but “in the pipeline” to come out later. So that’s weirdness number one: he’s spent six volumes recapturing the past and it’s now the present. Why name the book Le Temps Retrouve? Was he boasting? Look guys I’ve recaptured the past like no one else ever even tried?

Or was it, as I have begun to think, something else.

 I once met a solid older author and admired a novel of his, then added, “It’s elegant, and so well written but … am I the only one to find your book cruel and vengeful?” The author was elated. I was the only one, he said, and boy was I right, he added. He’d finally gotten back at his father, his mother, his brothers-- the rest of our conversation was expletives. I.e. we never really know why anyone ever writes a book.

I’ve begun to think that Proust wrote – in his mind if not all on paper—The Past Recovered first, and then was more or less forced to become a great novelist and to spend much of the last dozen years of his life writing those previous six volumes, in order to justify this book.

Why? Because on the face of it, the last volume is really radical, really queer, and really—sick. And not in an asthmatic way, either.

Sure it’s got those gorgeous moments: The moment in Venice when Marcel hits the two uneven paving stones, and remembers the past again—recapitulating the scene with the madeleine dipped in a tisane in Swann’s Way.

And this final sentence of the entire book, which no one else in history could have written. “If, at least, there were granted me time enough to complete my work, I would not fail to stamp it with the seal of that Time the understanding of which was this day so forcibly impressing itself upon me, and I would therein describe men—even should that give them the semblance of monstrous creatures—as occupying in Time a place far more considerable than the so restricted one allotted them in space, a place, on the contrary, extending boundlessly since, giant-like, reaching far back into the years, they touch simultaneously epochs of their lives—with countless intervening days between—so widely separated from one another in Time."

But it’s actually a depressing book. The narrator, Marcel is just out of a sanitarium, and only somewhat recovered. He returns to the seaside hotel of his youth and what does he see: Robert de Saint-Loup (Saint and Wolf) the supposed French epitome of heterosexuality, hitting on a male elevator operator. That imposing figure, the Baron de Charlus, needs two canes to walk he’s so fat and sick, and he is being helped by Jupien’s nephew. Everyone is old, fat, sick, or dead. The artist Elstir, hailed as a master, is now written off as a no one. The dowdy music teacher, Vintueil, is now a genius: his sonata conquers the recital halls. Morel, a nobody, has bi-sexually social-climbed into being the violinist of the age. Gilberte, Swann’s daughter by the arriviste Odette (“She wasn’t even my type!” the intellectual moans) is now married to St. Loup and so a half Jewess is the new Duchess de Guermantes. While the bourgeois Mme Verdurin, always on the edge of caricature, is now a Guermantes princess! No one escapes the dissolution, the decay, the despair, the death’s heads all about. And anyone not dead is revealed as a closeted homosexual.

But the section for me—and for the gay reader – that’s most modern, and that I think may have been the reason for the entire 3200 pages, comes when the narrator’s car breaks down and his driver places his sick master out of the cold rain. Where? Into the kitchen of a house of male prostitutes, where working class men moonlight: flogging the upper crust until they reach orgasm and then laughing as they spill out the details around the table later. It’s so shocking still, ninety years after it was written, that you just know Proust knew he’d never see it published in his lifetime. And it’s so total a collapse of everything that preceded it, I believe that he really needed to “set it up” as he did, with six previous volumes; the way one explains in excessive detail a traumatic event, or the way one over-explicates a half lie.

My recommendation is if you’ve not read Proust  (or only Swann’s Way) begin (again) with The Past Recovered, because immediately after reading it you will be impelled to go back to the beginning and reread the whole novel again. I was.

And so Proust’s novel becomes for the reader what I’m increasingly certain it always was for the author, not a series of anything, but instead a looping back again and again to various scattered scenes as he lay in bed gasping for air. It’s reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ revelation of the six hundred and something story of The Arabian Nights, when someone begins to tell the story of the King and Scheherazade that began it all, all over again. I.e. if followed through, that book would go on forever, never ending.  

The Past Recovered then is a great way to enter this infinite loop, this Proustian infinitely repeating universe.


©2009 , Felice Picano