The magnetic poles of sex and love, now pushing towards each other, now pulling each other apart, condition of fiction as of life, are confronted head-on by our good companions Proust and Powell. Half a century after the Lady Chatterley trial, it is right to give three cheers for the end of literary censorship, but an embarrassed cough when one thinks of the colossal difficulty of writing about sex without obliquity, without what T.S. Eliot called an objective correlative (the birds and the bees, if you like). Hence the triumph of my late and much missed best friend Auberon Waugh's Bad Sex Award. Proust is a genius, right up there, in my view, with Dickens or Wagner or Victor Hugo. Only a genius could have supplied us, in an account of a teenage boy masturbating in the little upstairs room "that smelt of orris root", with the kind of romantic writing we associate in our literature with early Wordsworth, or with the aesthetic precision in prose we associate, as Marcel himself did, with Ruskin. Twice in the novel the Narrator is voyeur in respect of Charlus. He witnesses a sordid scene of buggery between the Baron and the tailor Jupien in the courtyard shop of the Duc de Guermantes's town house. M de Charlus has come to visit the Duke's aunt, Mme de Villeparisis; the Narrator and his family live in the same Guermantes complex. There follows soon after an astonishing and lyrical prose hymn to nature, a Beethoven-like Ode to Joy. In the last book, Finding Time Again, he happens upon the male brothel which Charlus has bought for Jupien. He watches a sordid and this time horrifying scene. The Baron, old now, is being flogged by one of Jupien's young men, many of whom are on leave from the involuntary horrors of the Western Front. Now the dénouement is horror-comical. It is well-rendered in a recent film, Time Regained. John Malkovich is surprisingly, and effectively, cast as Charlus. (He also played Valmont in a film version of Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, another AP bible.) In the Proust film, after what we would no doubt think of as a gay Max Mosley scene, the young men line up to receive their tips from Charlus in the most servile way. "Merci, M le Baron"; "Vous êtes trop gentil, M le Baron"; "Grand honneur, M le Baron" and so on. Charlus complains to Jupien, in the book as in the film, that the present batch are insufficiently severe. Les sensations seem to get less fortes as we age.
Yet Proust the genius did flunk a test which Powell the supreme craftsman passes triumphantly. The Narrator's affair with Albertine is the great weakness of A La Recherche. It does not terribly matter because Un Amour de Swann is the Platonic ideal of Mills and Boon: romantic, erotic, heterosexual, nail-biting as in Odette's affair with Forcheville and Swann looking up at her window. Above all, it is resolved; not happily, not exactly unhappily, but in the ordinary human, untidy way.
(A wonderfully comic moment in my own life occurred when my close friend, the art critic David Sylvester, who died in 2004, made a Proustian crack. David and his companion Sarah Whitfield had spent many years on the definitive study and catalogue raisonné of the Belgian master René Magritte. "To think that I have wasted years of my life on a painter who was not my type," David muttered, straight-faced.)
Albertine may not terribly matter to us, but her failure was acknowledged by Proust himself. In the last year of his life he and André Gide would meet and discuss homosexuality. In today's jargon, Gide was more conspicuously "out" as a writer than Proust. It seems Proust blamed himself for the "indecisiveness" (his term) which had made him (in Gide's account) nourish the heterosexual side of his book by transposing to the shadow cast by young girls everything his own homosexuality recalled as being gracious, tender, charming; leaving only the grotesque and abject side of it to appear in the cities of the plain. Proust was ambivalent, however, even in this piece of self-criticism. He believed that what attracts us to a person is almost never beauty and has little to do with desire. He is, indeed, the great master of the mismatch between love and desire, together, of course, with the Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Individuals who take their pleasure easily with each other fail to generate the tension of true romance. Odette in old age tells the Narrator that Swann was the love of her life. One suspects that Forcheville, whom she marries after Swann's death, may have been more to her taste. Shits, like sluts, often do rather well. The central issue though is that while the complexities of love and desire are much the same whatever your orientation, a novelist as great as Proust, and one who moreover devotes so much of his novel to the consideration of homosexuality and lesbianism, fails in purely fictional terms when he transposes the gender of his Narrator's true love. The jealousy bits work well, not least because they do involve what Proust calls inversion. What is Albertine getting up to with her girl friends? But the character herself is in drag. In common with Françoise the cook, we don't much care when she dies.
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