Some Ruminations On Proust
By Jim Tuck
Magnicide is defined as the killing of a prominent person, usually, though not always, by an obscure someone anxious to have his or her brief fling with fame. In literature, we have the spectacle of a magnicide that kills not persons but reputations. Tolstoy claimed Shakespeare was overrated and Mary McCarthy characterized Lillian Hellman as “a bad writer, every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’’’
I have no such divided feelings when I contemplate attacks on Marcel Proust. I consider Proust not only the greatest writer of all time but pretty close to the greatest genius of all time. Though he was in poor health his entire life and died at the relatively early age of 51, the breadth of his knowledge and the depth and acuity of his insights are almost beyond belief.
Proust could write with dazzling brilliance on such diverse topics as art, music, architecture, history, society and the sexual mores of his day. What is more astonishing is that Proust was as emotionally immature as he was intellectually gifted. Maurice Sachs, who knew him well, describes him as “sort of a monster child, whose mind had all the experiences of man, but whose soul was ten years old.”
Throughout the vast body of Proust’s work there is a consistent focus on two cultures: the Jewish and the homosexual. He was, as noted, half-Jewish and wrote extensively about the role of Jews in French society, particularly during the tense period of the Dreyfus Scandal. His sexual orientation was predominantly gay though he did have relationships with some highly desirable women. One was the celebrated courtesan Laure Hayman, who would regularly visit Proust in his famed cork-lined room. On the gay side, Proust practiced both activism and voyeurism. He had a financial interest in a male brothel.
Returning to the theme of magnicide, a singularly witless gutter attack on Proust was mounted by the English critic Andrew Sinclair in The London Times. Commenting on what he perceives as Proust’s lack of qualification to produce a major literary work, Sinclair writes that “Proust never worked for a living, never married, never had children, nor understood many of the things which occupy most people’s lives. He spent his latter years in a cork-lined room, writing and revising and sleeping, leaving only at night to go to grand occasions or male brothels. Such a life is not exactly good material for discovering wisdom.”
This has to be the stupidest critique ever written. Does Sinclair believe that Proust would have been a better writer if he had held a nine-to-five job and presided over an Ozzie and Harriett household? It is precisely because Proust did have the financial independence to lie in bed all day working on his novel and then go out to grand social functions and, yes, male brothels, that he was able to acquire the material that went into his masterwork.
Beneath his decadent exterior, Proust had a hard core of integrity and courage. During the Dreyfus case, Proust fell out with many of the aristocrats he had so carefully cultivated when he became an ardent advocate of the wrongfully accused officer. Some may argue that, being half-Jewish, Proust didn’t have much choice in the matter. This is not the case. Such full Jews as the publisher Arthur Meyer took the anti-Dreyfus side: Proust, a baptized Christian, could easily have done the same.
I’ll conclude these comments relating an incident in which my admiration for Proust turned out to be the cause of domestic discord. A few years back my wife and I were in Paris. I was gathering material for a talk and slide show to be titled “The Paris of Marcel Proust” in which I would show transparencies relating to Proust’s life and career. One port of call was the Bois de Meudon, southwest of Paris, where Proust had fought a duel.
We went out there on a chilly, drizzling May afternoon and to make things worse, I got fouled up with the map and took a wrong turn. My wife, who is Mexican, was getting increasingly annoyed. Finally, exasperated, she said: “Why couldn’t that pinche Proust have fought his duel in one of those nice Paris parks instead of coming out to this God-forsaken place?” To that, I must admit, I had no snappy Proust-like comeback.
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