Sunday, October 01, 2006

Edmund White on Proust

Edmund White's book on Proust is an excellent introduction to Proust's life. It is more like a biographical essay than a full fledged biography, which is all the more preferable if you are pressed of time, as we all invariably are. White being a gay author himself gives prominence to Proust's sexual identity as the centerpiece of the narrative of his life and convinces us of his decision by giving numerous evidences and cogent arguments. He is also very comfortable and on very intimate terms with the social life in turn of century Paris. He gives detailed accounts and portraits of famous people in Proust's society who (at least some of them) later became characters in his books. It turns out that all the major characters in his novel -- Charles Swann, Odette, Baron de Charlus, Duchess de Guermantes, Madame Verdurin, Bergotte and others -- were all based on real life figures. He gets into some gossipy asides too. For example he informs us that Laure Hayman, on which he based the character of Odette, was courted by both his father and his uncle. He also makes a scandalous claim, rather convincingly so, that the disturbing scene involving the two lesbians in the the Combray chapter of Swann's Way might have some biographical basis in Proust's own fantasies and sexual practices. There are many other details which I will omit so as not to destroy the prim and prudish reputation of this blog!

What disappoints about the book is that White only touches the surface of Proust's literary and intellectual influences. He doesn't give anything knew which is not known to anyone who is even cursorily familiar with his life. He mentions his encounters with French philosopher Henri Bergson, with whom he had some disagreements, and his admiration for the English art critic and moralist John Ruskin. Proust admired Balzac and wrote an essay defending Flaubert's style. He disagreed vehemently with the literary critic Saint-Beuve about the precise role of autobiographical elements in works of art. In fact a long section in the second volume of the novel is devoted to countering his arguments. This is the section when the narrator finally gets to meet the writer Bergotte who he has idealized since his childhood and is sorely disappointed to see how different he is from what he had imagined him to be. Interestingly, White also positions Proust in the philosophical tradition of Idealism, although of a more instinctual and anti-intellectual kind. I wanted to read more on this topic but he doesn't go very far on it.

One of the most important part of the book is his analysis of the character Albertine. He explains that critics and readers have found Proust's portrait of Albertine ambiguous, contradictory and overall unsatisfactory because the female character was actually based on Proust's experience with his male lovers. In that sense it is not only a gender-inverted but also a composite character. Albertine also figures prominently whenever there is a discussion of Proust's views on gender and sexual identity. It is here that he most convincingly challenges the "essentialist" theories of gender and sexuality, much favoured by the practitioners of currently favourable branch of evolutionary psychology. White obviously knows a great deal about it and is very sympathetic to his ideas, it's a pity that the book is too short and he doesn't get into more theoretical and philosophical ideas of gender. I was really intrigued and wanted to know more about it. This also reminds me, I should pick up Foucault's book on history of sexuality.

There is also lots of stuff of general historical interest in the book. White devotes a few long and very interesting paragraphs on the Dreyfus Affair for example, which also figures prominently in his novel. Several of the famous characters in the novel are Jews (including Swann and the Bloch family) and Proust himself was half-jew, from his mother's side. White also gives a nice account of how homosexuals were viewed and treated in those times and speculates on reasons why Proust always went so far to deny his sexual inclinations and his decision to remain in the closet, even though everyone he knew were aware of his homosexuality. For example there are lots of trivia like the following in the book:

Proust himself dated the introduction of the term "homosexuality" into the French language from the time of this scandal, although as a medical term it had existed in German since 1869, when it had first been introduced by a Hungarian doctor; previously the usual term in France had been inverti("invert"), or to use Balzac's slangier word, tante (literally "auntie," the equivalent to "queen" in English)

Proust was also an enthusiastic stock investor, though he didn't make a lot of money in the market. Not surprising, since he made his investing decisions based less on cold, material facts than the "poetic" names of the companies. "The Taganyika Railway", for example, was one of the stocks he chose!

White doesn't go into the literary qualities and style of the novel in detail much, though he makes some interesting points. For example this passage, where he compares Proust with Dickens and Henry James:
Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment--Charlus as the enraged queen or, later, Charlus as the shattered King Lear. Yet, by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, although far more memorably. It's like the old dispute among painters as to the primacy of line or of shading. Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth, but (specially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another. Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving successive "takes" over hundreds of pages.

Here is an excerpt from the concluding chapter which I really liked:

Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoque. Under this new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit. We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. 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. He is our Scheherzade.

Of course Proust is also popular because he writes about glamour--rich people, nobles, artists. And he wrote about love. It doesn't seem to matter that he came to despise love, that he exploded it, reduced it to shabbiest, most mechanical, even hydraulic terms, by which I mean he not only demystified love, he also dehumanized it, turning it into something merely Pavlovian.

[...] Modern readers are responsive to Proust's tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we, too, no longer take love for granted. Readers today are always making the personal public, the intimate political, the instinctual philosophical.

Proust may have attacked love, but he did know a lot about it. Like us, he took nothing for granted. [and I really like this line] He was not on smug, cozy terms with his own experience. We read Proust because he knows so much about the links between childhood anguish and adult passion. We read Proust because, despite his intelligence, he holds reasoned evaluations in contempt and knows that only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings us is of any real use.

[...]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.

Overall this is an excellent book. Indispensable for anyone interested in Proust, specially for the neophytes (like me). I have also been reading the new penguin translation of his novel. I read fifty or so pages of The Guermantes Way, in the middle of the book where I left of last time, feeling irrecoverably suicidal, and it's a revelation. It is remarkably easy to read! I am not intellectually capable to judge it in linguistic and artistic terms but on the scale of readability it really scores way above the Scott Moncrieff version. Although I don't think I am going to continue reading. I am already feeling seriously stuck in the deepest mires of indecision, doubts, isolation, boredom, melancholy etc and I would rather do with some self-help than spend time with Proust.

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