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.)
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.
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!)
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!”