Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane


Edmund White’s biography of Proust is like his fiction: dense, intellectual and gossipy. He always seems to be watching you with twinkling eyes, waiting to see if you’ll realize how salacious and funny it all is.

Proust's spectacular climb to social success and wealth is the focus of White's story, and he explains how Proust's need to succeed socially and the strategies he uses to do so create the material for his fiction.

Yet, if Proust's social climb provides the skeleton of the biography, his sexual behaviour is its flesh and blood. Proust has love affairs with young men. He has a penchant for bluntly proposing to his friends that they should masturbate each other. Yet he is consistently shocked and outraged when he learns that someone has suggested he is homosexual. White presents this tangle, explaining how Proust uses and transforms it while writing his fiction. In the process, he establishes that even Proust's heterosexual moments are plainly and forcefully queer.

Interestingly, White refuses to judge or to rationalize what will likely seem to post-Stonewall readers as Proust's closeting or hypocrisy. Instead he accepts both the private overtness of Proust's desires and the sincerity of his shocked rejection of the public role of homosexual. The result is a portrait that suggests the possibility of sexual behaviour that meaningfully feeds and shapes an art but that is distinct from a sexual identity.

Posted October 16, 2015