In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, one of the first gay novels by a major writer, was published between 1913 and 1927, in Paris, in seven volumes and 4,300 pages (in the Modern Library translation into English). It is about a young boy growing up and coming to adulthood among the bourgeoisie and Parisian aristocracy during the period just before and just after the first world war. It moves so slowly that a person might think it had almost no story. In 2011, the gay man in the street might ask, What does this have to do with me? It is so long, it is so slow, it was written a hundred years ago, and I have pressing business.
And yet, in the hundred years that it has been out there, In Search of Lost Time has solidified a firm literary reputation. The novelist Graham Greene has called it “the greatest novel of the twentieth century.” Somerset Maugham called it “the greatest fiction to date.” The question here is why should gay people read it? Particularly in an age of DADT or DOMA or same-sex marriage?
For several reasons. These are good stories—the story of the narrator as he grows up and discovers the truth about his culture. The story of Robert de Saint-Loup, who dies on the Western Front, of the Baron de Charlus and his various seductions, of Swann and of Swann and Odette, of the rise of Mme Verdurin, among scores of others. But the greatest story is that of the narrator as he discovers the soft underbelly of Paris—hypocrisy, lying, pretense, values which will not be unfamiliar to readers in 2011.
Much of it is very very funny, one example of which is the scene at the beginning of the novel when Swann is arriving and Marcel and his mother and grandmother and grandfather are preparing to receive him, and Marcel’s great aunts are discussing how to thank Swann for the case of Asti he has sent them. There is this kind of comedy, and then there is the much deeper comedy reflected by the salon of the Verdurins and the reception of the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes when all of Parisian society seems to be exposed.
There is superb writing. Check out this:
As in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then undifferentiated which, the moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures firm and recognizable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. Swann’s Way, p. 48
Here is a bit from the middle of the novel, from the seduction scene between Baron de Charlus and Jupien, the waistcoat-maker.
The latter [Baron de Charlus], resolved to precipitate matters, asked the waistcoat-maker for a light, but immediately remarked, “I’m asking you for a light, but I see I’ve forgotten my cigars.” The laws of hospitality prevailed over the rules of flirtation. “Come inside, you’ll be given everything you want,” said the waistcoat-maker on whose face disdain gave way to joy. Sodom and Gomorrah, p. 8.
If you care about our history—the history of gay people—this is the one of the first and the greatest contribution we’ve made to literature, and so it’s here for you to read. It’s ours. It’s us. It’s demanding. It will stretch your abilities. It will make you a better reader for everything else you read. And it will show you that most of the novels you read come from, by comparison, a narrow spectrum of literature and are small, indeed.
This giant novel by Marcel Proust is another reason to be proud to be gay.
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2003
—————–, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. John Sturrock. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2003