Sunday, November 18, 2007

I'm Allergic to Proust

Today my hardcore book group met to discuss Proust's The Fugitive, the sixth volume of In Search of Lost Time and the conclusion of the narrator's affair with his lover Albertine. And for the first time, I just could not freaking slog through it. The Prisoner was bad enough--I feel as though that book was a repudiation of what made the first four great--but I had a kind of narcoleptic reaction to this one. Every word just shut my brain down.

In the world of ISOLT, the whole Albertine diversion feels like some kind of bad dream out of which we hope, desperately, that Proust will wake from. The only remotely plausible thing about it is its pedophilic undertones (those which Nabokov would later borrow and bring to the surface in Lolita); otherwise, Proust might have just filled these 800 pages, a la Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," over and over with I AM NOT GAY I AM NOT GAY I AM NOT GAY.

It convinces me that closeted homosexuality is once and for all the hidden subject of this great work; it is the thing that most interests Proust, yet the one thing he finds impossible to address directly, as a manifestation of his own protagonist. It isn't like Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain--there, Hans Castorp's love affair is unconvincing, but we never suspect that he himself is gay. Whether he realized it or not, Proust presents the narrator quite clearly as a gay man who never admits it to himself. The narration, on this topic, feels fundamentally dishonest, and I wonder to what extent the writer understood how profoundly he was being revealed. Certainly homosexuality is an explicit subject of the overall work (plenty of people in it turn out to be gay), but it is shocking to see how completely the pretense of the narrator's impartiality breaks down in these sections, and how utterly homosexuality dominates the ostensibly heterosexual material.

When Marcel (I will call our narrator this, for convenience's sake) is talking about the Swanns, the Guermantes, his mother, his grandmother--then we believe him. When he talks about Charlus, or Saint Loup, we begin to doubt. And when he talks about Albertine, forget it. He's full of shit.

It feels very much as though there is a real-life, male counterpart to Albertine, under whose sway this entire section was written; furthermore Proust was quite ill at this point in his life, and you can practically smell the cork lining of the room he never left during daylight hours. The impression of this book and its predecessor is that of being hopelessly cooped up. Only when Albertine dies and Marcel heads to Venice does the air clear and the Marcel we loved back in Combray return to life.

Or so I'm told. I didn't get that far. I think I'm going to skip ahead, read the last hundred pages of this book, and move on to the final volume, which evidently Proust wrote before the Albertine bits (or "le Roman d'Albertine," as he called it), back when he was working on Swann's Way. I would love to get to say I read the whole damned thing, but I'm afraid I'm just not going to make it. What a fascinating mess.


rmellis said...

Everyone knows that Proust is all about PASTRIES.

Some people read sex into EVERYTHING.

jrlennon said...

What did you say? Pasties?

Lee's River/Zlatovyek said...

Interesting. I finally settled down to read Proust when I had bronchitis and couldn't talk (a very unusual condition for me). The reading felt exactly the way my lungs did: a slow asphyxiation that leaves you tranced-out from lack of oxygen, basically. The minute my breathing improved, the trance just...snapped. I put down The Guermantes' Way, and never, ever could get myself to settle in for another bout of slow throttling.