31 July 2011

Carter’s ‘Proust in Love’

Bad Boyfriend

Ordinarily when reading a biography, I feel guilty for succumbing to the usually irresistible temptation to skip to the juicy parts. How can I justify my interest in the subject’s sex life? William C. Carter, who has already written a major biography of Marcel Proust, made my reading easier with a follow-up, Proust in Love (Yale, 2006), that is nothing but juicy parts — plus a full chapter at the end to make sure his readers don’t suffer morning-after regrets.

The justification proves hardly necessary. After all, A la Recherche du temps perdu is itself full of juicy bits, aberrant sexual practices and obsessive love affairs; and because the novel overall signals its origins (and minute interest) in Proust’s personal experience, there’s every reason to believe that studying his sex life will help us to understand his novel better.

The Proust who emerges from Carter’s book is truly terrible boyfriend material. Clingy, demanding, possessive, jealous, whiny, imperious, peevish, and manipulative from the start, and not much improved by age, impotence, infirmity, and an increasingly obsessive dedication to his art. (And you remember that “urban legend” about Proust’s needing to torture rats in order to get off? It turns out to be true. Talk about a deal-breaker.)

“Buncht,” a.k.a. “Bunibuls”: Reynaldo Hahn, by Nadar
Without him, there would be no “A Chloris.”
(And Susan Graham would have to find some other way to save my life.)

Proust fell in love with men but insisted he was straight (to the point of fighting a duel to defend his own honor). In his youth, he wrote panting letters to pretty boys, but as an adult he practiced greater circumspection, making it hard for his biographer to know whether he actually slept with some of these fellows or merely pined for them, or whether he ever slept with a woman at all.

The Narrator of the Recherche is identified in the first person singular, and yet in Carter’s depictions, the real-life Proust in love most closely resembles the Baron de Charlus; throughout the novel, Carter observes, it’s fascinating to see the author pick out so many of his own worst characteristics and treat them so satirically.

In Proust in Love, we certainly gain a greater appreciation for Albertine, the Narrator’s mistress and the great love of his life. Piece by piece, Carter sets out the case (which hitherto I’d seen primarily as an unsubstantiated but oft-repeated assertion) that Albertine is modeled on Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s chauffeur and secretary, an amateur aviator who died in a crash. Like Albertine, Agostinelli was sexually attracted to women — dooming to hopelessness both Proust’s and the Narrator’s loves — and Carter persuasively links passages from the novel with incidents from life. Thus, while warning against the widespread but controversial tendency to identify all of Proust’s female characters as modeled on real-life men (such as Agostinelli), Carter sometimes makes it difficult to do otherwise.

Despite all the devotion and drama in the relationship with Agostinelli, I came away from Carter’s book believing that the truest loves of Proust’s life were the composer Reynaldo Hahn, with whom Proust enjoyed the closest thing to a “normal” boyfriend relationship, and who turns out to have been much closer in age to the novelist than I’d realized; and Proust’s own mother, for whom the author’s feelings ran so deep that he divided her into two characters, the Narrator’s Mother and beloved Grandmother, whose death is one of the most powerful sequences in the novel.

Elisabeth, Comtesse de Greffulhe, in a photo by Nadar:
One of the principal models for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes,
and it’s easy to see why.

Proust in Love is terrific, easily as entertaining as it is informative, and I’ve got a feeling Carter wouldn’t mind my saying so. He does an excellent job of addressing a knowledgeable but not strictly academic readership: you probably need to read the Recherche before you read Proust in Love, but you don’t need to have read much of the surrounding criticism, and Carter never stoops to lit-crit jargon.*

Until now, this reader has avoided almost every word of Proust criticism and most biography. (I’m sorry I didn’t avoid the TV miniseries.) Once I’d finished A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, or thereabouts, I became curious about the real-life models for some of the characters, and I consulted a few albums, most illustrated with portraits by the Nadar photography studio, as well as reproductions of art works to which Proust refers. After I finished the Recherche, I made the pilgrimage to Illiers-Combray, too, to see the house where “Tante Léonie” lived and to see the “Guermantes Way” and “Swann’s Way” for myself. Perplexingly, it’s almost impossible to find madeleines anywhere in the old part of town. (Don’t these people understand the needs of literary tourists? Changing the name of the town wasn’t enough!)

Bellini’s portrait of Mohammed II:
Charles Swann is said to resemble him.
(He’s also the male lead in Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinth.)

Most importantly, while reading the Recherche I played recordings of music that might have inspired Proust — but for me, the “little phrase of M. Vinteuil” will always be a Chopin nocturne (Opus 9, Number 1), as evocative for me as any of the signifiers in the novel could be for Swann or the Narrator.

In short, I’m not sure how much biography or criticism one needs to appreciate Proust: the Recherche isn’t Finnegan’s Wake, and with very little help from outside resources, Proust managed to transform my way of understanding the world. Nobody has usurped his influence on my consciousness yet. Do we really need to know who the real Mme Verdurin was, or what, precisely, Robert de Saint-Loup did with Charlie Morel? Ultimately, isn’t Proust’s perspective sufficient, or nearly enough so? Carter himself believes that, I think. What counts most is the relationship between Proust and the reader.

But that said — I’m glad I never dated the guy.

*NOTE: I was reminded that one of my professors, the late Carolyn Heilbrun, often admonished her students to be more welcoming to general readers: “We have to stop speaking only to ourselves!”


Michael Leddy said...

Bill, you might want to seek out The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust’s Swedish Valet, which Carter edited. It is a strange little adjunct to the subject of Proust’s love life. (It’s an expensive book, maybe best had from the library.)

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Michael. Carter refers frequently to Forssgren in Proust in Love; frankly, I'm much likelier to seek out Céleste Albaret's memoir next! But it's interesting: prior to this book, I'd never heard of Forssgren, whereas the other boys enjoy at least a few pages in the other books I've seen.

Michael Leddy said...

Oh, read Albaret first — she’s great. And it’s a beautiful NYRB paperback.

John Yohalem said...

Most gay men (quasi-bi or not) have no trouble at all having "romantic" (not the same as sexual, often antithetic to it) relationships with women, especially older women, so I've never had any trouble regarding Gilberte, Oriane, Rachel, Odette, Mme V et al. as modeled on women. Albertine is tougher because she's so very unlikable a character (always the writer's revenge!), and it is very difficult for me to understand her p.o.v. while she is living with Marcel or even before that, why she bothers with him at all if she's really obsessed (as Marcel implies) with girls. She is not convincing, but then she doesn't have to be -- Marcel's obsession is real enough for two!

The question to me about MP's love life is not so much: Did he ever have sex with a woman? as, Did he ever actually have sex with a man? Or was it all drooling fantasy and, quick, unzip the pants and write another page?

I've had Carter's book for years but somehow never got around to reading it. (Like so many people with Proust.)

William V. Madison said...

John, I don't want to give Carter's game away -- he's got quite a number of surprises up his sleeve, including some credible accounts from brothel employees, and even the surprises contain surprises.

For the most part, however, there's very little documentation to prove what Proust was up to with anybody, Carter says. As an adult, Proust insisted that intimate friends return or destroy all his correspondence as soon as they read it, so that any explicit "You were wonderful last night, darling" sorts of remarks are unlikely to surface.

I still think he and Reynaldo Hahn must have done something, but maybe I'm reading too much into that relationship.

John Yohalem said...

Ooopsies! It's not Proust in Love that I have had lying on the Proust shelf for years but J.E. Rivers' Proust and the Art of Love, which is a whole 'nother kettle of madeleines.

I daresay Reinaldo and Marcel fooled around once or twice, but basically his fingers would always rather be on the Pleyel, and Marcel's in his little blue notebooks.