Jul 28, 2016

How Proust Can Bore You to Death

I have a confession to make: I have a B.A. in Modern Languages, a M.A. in English, and almost a doctorate in Comparative Literature, and I've never made it through more than a few pages of Proust's  Remembrance of Things Past.

I know I should.  It's an essential work of French literature, and an essential part of the gay literary heritage.  A gay writer, with gay characters, published during the 1920s.

I used to own the hefty Motcrieff translation, plus the first volume in French. Now I have it on an ebook.

Seven volumes, 4,200 pages, and you have to read each page several times because your mind keeps wandering.

The narrator as a young boy is in his bedroom, waiting for his mother to come upstairs and kiss him goodnight.  Then, as an adult, he eats a madeleine pastry, and memories come rushing back.  He used to live in a town named Combray...

 And I thrust the book aside.  Or, lately, I click it off my computer screen.

I've read books about it: How Proust Can Change Your Life, Proust's Library, Painting in Proust, Food in Proust.  

And I pick it up and start again.

2,000 characters, mostly divided into four camps:

The Swanns: An upper-class family.  Charles Swann marries the courtesan Odette.  The Narrator dates their daughter, Gilberte.

The Guermantes: Aristocrats that the Narrator envies. The flamboyant, decadent Baron de Charlus is the most important.

The Verdurins: mostly artists.

The Balbec Girls.  To my disappointment, Balbec does not refer to the ancient Middle Eastern city, but to yet another French provincial town, where the Narrator meets Albertine, the great love of his life.

Yawn.  Is there anything on tv?

I bought the graphic novel version, and still didn't make it past the first few pages.  So...so...sooooo...boring....

Can anyone claim to be knowledgeable about gay literature without having read Proust?

Probably.  There are thousands and thousands of pages of hetero-romance.  We don't get to the gay stuff until Volume 4, Sodom et Gomorrah, translated as The Cities of the Plain.when the Narrator discovers that Baron Charlus is gay and that some of the women he is attracted to are lesbians.  This upsets him, because it means that they are not sexually accessible.

Some critics think that the Narrator is gay, too, because he keeps falling in love with women who have masculine-sounding names: Albertine could be a closeted "Albert," and Gilberte could be "Gilbert."  But that sounds like grasping at straws.

By the way, the top photo is a bodybuilder because when you search for "Remembrance of Things Past" on Google Images, he pops up.

Someone must have decided to post a bodybuilder on their Proust page, to alleviate the boredom.


  1. It's a pity that you never got beyond "Combray," for it's the most difficult part of the novel. That's partly because Proust is showing off stylistically at the start, but I think it's also because, in imitation of classical poetry, it serves as an index of the novel's themes, which don't indeed come together until the very end of the work. But once you're past the introduction, the book gets much easier, and indeed is often amusing and clever. Proust's whole idea of art is that it could only arrive at universals from careful and precise analysis of specifics. That explains the detail, but also the depth of characterization. It is obvious that the narrator is gay, but like Proust himself he seems incapable of recognizing what becomes obvious to any reader. In exactly the same way, Proust fought two duels against men who dared to call him gay even though everyone knew that he was. And you're right about Albertine too: she is based upon his "chauffeur" and true love Alfred Agostinelli, whose appearance and disappearance in Proust's life, along with the Dreyfus affair and of course World War I, had the greatest effect upon the shape of the novel. I hope you'll take a more serious stab at it; it's the greatest novel ever written by anybody.


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