Edmund White’s biography of Proust is like his fiction: dense and intellectual but gossipy. He always seems to be watching you with twinkling eyes, waiting to see if you’ll realize how salacious and funny all this serious stuff is.
Proust’s spectacular climb to social success and wealth is the focus of White’s story, and he explains how Proust’s social climbing and the strategies he uses to accomplish it 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. There are tales of Proust’s love affairs with young men, quotations from letters bluntly proposing to his friends that they should masturbate each other, the outraged calls for a dual by pistol when he learns that someone has suggested he is homosexual. White presents this tangle, explaining how Proust uses and transforms it in his fiction. In the process, he establishes that even Proust’s heterosexual moments aren’t.
Interestingly, White refuses to rationalize the contradiction between Proust’s bald expression of desire privately to intimates and the theatrical violence of his rejection of the role of public homosexual. In our era of celebrity outing and legalized gay marriage, such a disjuncture can easily appear like repression, closeting, or an act of bad faith, but White doesn’t speak in these terms. Instead, he offers a frank (and gossipy) account of Proust’s sexual behaviour without assuming that this behaviour must define his identity (or that he must have one).
As a result, Proust–a character I found thoroughly unappealing–emerges from the shadows of the past as refreshingly and provocatively queer.