Proust in Love

DAILY TELEGRAPH      July 2006

(Yale £16.99)

Dedications do not usually feature in reviews, however William C Carter’s dedication of Proust in Love to ‘Josephine and Terence Monmaney, who, through Proust, found love’ is worthy of comment, for A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, while arguably the greatest twentieth century novel, one of unparalleled social range, philosophical depth and metaphorical richness, is no feel-good romance.

As Carter points out in this excellent study, the only unconditional love in A La Recherche is that between parents and children.  The great passions of the book, those of Swann for Odette, Charlus for Morel and the narrator for Albertine, are never fully reciprocated and primarily experienced as obsession and jealousy.

Carter convincingly shows how this overriding theme of a man of taste and discernment falling for someone unworthy of him, whose very nature makes fulfilment impossible, is rooted in Proust’s own life.  While the search for the factual sources of works of art has become a commonplace in a culture obsessed with authenticity, it has obvious merit in the case of Proust, who repeatedly claimed that he had no imagination and to whose unnamed narrator readers from Cocteau onwards have given the name Marcel.

The crucial difference between Proust and his narrator lies in their sexual orientation.  Although Proust flirted with schoolgirls during adolescence and, in the view of some commentators, had brief affairs with the courtesan, Laure Hayman, and the actress Louise de Mornand, it is undoubtedly true that all his significant love affairs were with men.

Carter succinctly charts his sexual development, from his adolescent crush on his school friend, Jacques Bizet, to his grand passions for the composer, Reynaldo Hahn, and the art student, Lucien Daudet.  After Daudet, Proust no longer looked for love among his social equals, moving up the scale with his unrequited passion for Count Bertrand de Fenelon and then further and further down to his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, his secretary, Alfred Nahmias, and a succession of waiters and footmen, many of whom he procured at the Ritz. 

Finally, Carter sensitively tackles the contentious issue of Proust’s friendship with the brothel-owner, Albert Le Cuziat, whose establishment Proust may have financed and certainly frequented and where, according to some observers, he reached sexual climax by defiling a photograph of his mother and watching the torture of rats.

From early manhood, Proust insisted that there were ‘no moral or hygienic distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual love’, nevertheless, either for reasons of the universality to which his novel consistently aimed or from the reticence that made him conceal the truth of his relationships from many of his closest friends, he made his narrator heterosexual with an abiding passion for the fickle Albertine.

To many, this is the novel’s greatest failing.  While Proust’s portraits of older women, such as the narrator’s mother and grandmother, the housekeeper Françoise, the aristocratic Duchesse de Guermantes and the socially climbing hostess Madame Verdurin, are sharply observed, tender and comic, his younger women such as Albertine and her intimate friend, André, seem to be the literary equivalent of Michelangelo’s female sculpture:  men with breasts.  Cocteau criticised Proust for giving Albertine a slang term for passive anal intercourse that would be unknown to an adolescent girl.  Above all, Proust’s translation of his own fears about his male lovers’ affairs with women into his narrator’s fears about Albertine’s lesbianism rings false.

Proust is on surer ground with his portrayal of homosexuals and bisexuals such as Robert de Saint-Loup, the virile soldier whose sexual odyssey from his romance with the actress Rachel, through his marriage to Swann’s daughter Gilberte, to his liaison with the bisexual Morel mirrors that of Bernard de Fenelon, or the Baron de Charlus, whose snobberies, vanities, perversion and degradation are depicted with both satiric brilliance and warm sympathy, even if Proust’s belief in sexual inversion makes his analysis now seem as dated as that of Radclyffe Hall.

Carter, who has previously written an extensive biography of Proust, has unearthed no radical new information (although he makes good use of the recently published diary of Proust’s diplomat friend, Paul Morand, and the memoirs of his Swedish valet, Ernest Forssgren).   He pads out his narrative with a rehash of the trials and tribulations of Oscar Wilde, whom Proust may not even have met. 

That apart, the fresh light he sheds on the enigmatic writer and his endlessly fascinating novel makes Proust in Love indispensable for lovers of Proust.