I have just finished reading Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, in the Penguin edition. It is a novel whose major theme is Time—we age, all of us, and lose our youth, we lose our memories of our past, we forget the people who mattered to us, and we lose our memories of our lives. The principal subject of In Search of Lost Time could be said to be homosexuality. The Baron de Charlus is one of the great literary creations of any century as he goes out into the night, decked out in his rouge and heavy powder, in search of rough trade. By the time the novel ends, after seven volumes, just about everybody is seen to be homosexual. It is a novel that I—being me and my age—would predictably find fascinating. Decay—the decay of youth into age, the decay of Parisian society, the decay of beauty into ugliness—is one aspect of the theme. Rejuvenation is another aspect—the revivifying qualities of beauty, the kindness of the narrator’s mother and grandmother and of Charles Swann, and, it ought to be said, the immense amounts of money various characters inherit unexpectedly, almost as many as are killed at the front in the Great War. Most of Proust’s themes come together at the end in a large reception given by the Princesse de Guermantes, and what the reader notices first is that the people at the party are not the ones he expected to see there. Even the Princesse de Guermantes is not the same person we have known. There are beautiful young people at the reception, so beautiful nobody much cares who their parents were or how they got invited. A man who has reached advanced age speaks easily to a man a third his age because he forgets for a moment how radically things have changed since he was the age of the young man he’s talking to. Time is destructive, but it’s also the source of rejuvenation. A younger generation is on the way in just as the older generation is on the way out. So finely balanced is this book that it is impossible to tell whether it is a comedy or a tragedy.
Proust suggests that the past can be recovered by art, by the novel he will write, which will become In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust is gay, and In Search of Lost Time is an important gay novel of the early twentieth century. Probably the most important gay novel ever. For that reason, it ought to be read. The gay community has other, more important reasons for reading In Search of Lost Time. It sheds light on a culture aside from our own that has undergone radical change, and it speaks to a people whose losses have been immense and profound and suggests a way of recovering the past that has been lost. Finally, it suggests the shape of the future. It’s the paradox of art. Even as In Search of Lost Time draws to a close at the Princesse de Guermantes’s reception, as Proust closes his harsh comic exposure of Parisian society as social climbers, prostitutes, and fornicators and liars, driven by money, clothed in their ancient titles and rich clothes, the reader knows that Proust’s great novel was written in the same social world that the novel judges so harshly. If there are liars and fornicators and snobs in turn-of-the-century Paris, there are also writers of genius. That genius was one of us, and that fact should be celebrated.