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  Book Reviews Marcel Proust
By Edmund White
Viking. 165 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Greg Varner,
arts editor of the Washington Blade.

Sunday, February 28, 1999

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Some boys, like Marcel Proust, aren't boyish enough to please their fathers. In an attempt to bolster his son's masculinity, Adrien Proust took young Marcel to a brothel. The experiment failed to achieve the desired result: Proust was steadfast in his homosexuality, as Edmund White reports.

The author of "Remembrance of Things Past" (now translated as "In Search of Lost Time") was 6 years old when Crazy Horse met his ignominious death. Even as a boy, he was teased "for his long sentences, far-fetched comparisons, and overexuberant eloquence" – all later hallmarks of his prose style.

Proust's simultaneous status as an outsider and an insider – White calls him a "playboy-monk" – enabled him to create his masterpiece. He was gay, Jewish and an asthmatic invalid, which gave him the introspective depth and the time necessary to write, yet he also had an extraordinarily intimate knowledge of French society, which gave his work its panoramic sweep.

Social constructionists and others who believe that gayness is an illusory conception of contemporary Western society may complain because White writes of Proust as a gay man. On the other hand, essentialists – who believe that there is a recognizable homosexual identity through the ages – may be pleased to see Proust's sexuality addressed so bluntly.

At times, Proust was remarkably open about his affairs, and no one who knew him thought he was heterosexual, though in some ways he was extremely closeted. After the novelist Jean Lorrain implied in print that he was gay, Proust challenged him to a duel; they fired their pistols symbolically into the air and went on about their business. "No one remarked on the absurdity of one homosexual 'accusing' another of being homosexual," White notes.

The mother of the first boy Proust loved became his model for the character of the duchesse de Guermantes. Interestingly, White locates Proust's method of characterization between that of Dickens on one hand and Henry James on the other: Dickens presented his characters with burlesque broadness, while James shaded his obsessively. Proust used simpler lines but, each time a character appeared, drew a different sketch. Power accrued and inhered in the well-rounded composite.

White gives a satisfying account of how Proust came to begin work on his masterpiece, of his writing process, and the rejection he endured before subsidizing its publication himself. "At its very inception, Proust thought of his book as several books, mostly essays," White writes. "Only gradually did he see that he could bind all these diverse subjects together into a single work, and that he could call it . . . a novel." White's deft prose is densely packed with information but never burdensome. He gives a good sense of why Proust's work is valuable, and why it remains eternally fresh.

Like Oscar Wilde, Proust is buried in Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. No one knows where Crazy Horse's grave is located.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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