What Proust knew about identity

Few writers hold the world’s attention long enough for their 150th anniversary to be considered an event. But then, it’s hard to think of a novelist who shaped the imaginations of readers as deeply as Marcel Proust, whose birthday on July 10 inspired literary tributes across the world. Ever since his magnum opus, “In Search of Lost Time,” in seven volumes, began appearing in 1913, it has been considered a sort of masterpiece for the modern mind.

Name a great idea over the last century and Proust has been used to explain or explore it – from psychoanalysis and Marxism in the 1920s and 1930s to cognitive science in the 21st century, in books like ‘Proust was a neuroscientist ”. More recently, he was drafted as a writer in the age of Covid-19. Australian magazine “Quadrant” noted last week that Proust was “the ultimate self-isolator” – a longtime asthmatic who has spent much of his adult life in quarantine in his apartment with the windows permanently closed for keep dust and pollen out.

Do writers have the right to imagine characters and stories unrelated to their biographical experience?

But the most urgent things Proust has to tell us today are about identity. Like much of American society, the literary world has been gripped in recent years by arguments about racial and gender identity. Do writers have the right to imagine characters and stories unrelated to their biographical experience? Some critics denounce such work as cultural appropriation, arguing that a writer must know a story from within to do it justice. Others find this idea hostile to literature, as novelist Lionel Shriver argued in a 2016 speech: “The ultimate endpoint to keeping our mittens out of the experience that is not ours is that it doesn’t belong to us. there is no fiction. “

Proust is a fascinating test case in this debate because he challenges assumptions on both sides. On the one hand, it is a classic example of the power to write down what you know. “In Search of Lost Time” takes the form of an enormous autobiography, in which the anonymous narrator travels through a life and environment very similar to Proust’s. Over 4,000 pages, the book tells the story of a young man from a wealthy Parisian family, overwhelmed by fragility and neurosis but totally intrepid in matters of thought and perception, while he made friends, fall in love and explore society and art. .

Proust focused so intensely on his own experiences, albeit seemingly minor, that many of his early readers did not know what to make of them. One editor dismissed “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of “In Search of Lost Time,” with the words: “I may be narrow-minded, but I can’t understand how a gentleman can use 30 pages to describe how he throws and turns in his bed before falling asleep.


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Yet, by making his life into a fiction, Proust modified it in a way that would seem suspicious, even reprehensible, to today’s champions of authenticity. It’s not just that he made his fictional character an only child when he actually had a brother, or that his father in the novel is a government official rather than a doctor. More fundamentally, Proust disguised aspects of his identity that are today held to be essential: his ancestry and his sexuality.

The narrator of “In Search of Lost Time” is a French Catholic who falls in love with a series of women. Marcel Proust, however, was half Jewish, on his mother’s side, and gay. These facts were no secret to those who knew him and they deeply shaped his life, but by creating his fictional alter ego, he left them out or hid them. Even then, some readers thought it was dishonest. André Gide, another prominent writer of the time who published a book in defense of homosexuality and was widely condemned for it, accused Proust of “an offense against the truth”.

If there is one quality that “In Search of Lost Time” unquestionably possesses, however, it is truthfulness. In a famous scene from “Swann’s Way”, Charles Swann, a confident man of the world, roams the trendy nightclubs of Paris in a jealous panic when he cannot find Odette, the woman he loves. For Proust, the episode shows that the essence of love is selfishness, “an anxious and torturing need” for exclusive possession of the loved one. It is impossible to doubt that he is writing about something that he has lived deep inside.

If the reader then learns that Proust had an almost identical experience of searching Paris in a jealous frenzy, but that the person he was looking for was a man – Reynaldo Hahn, a composer who was one of the great loves of his life – does it. mean that the novel is no longer true or authentic? The correct conclusion is certainly the opposite: fictitious truth is universal because it concerns human experiences that we all share, beyond the borders of identity.

At the same time, “In Search of Lost Time” suggests that when an author represses parts of himself, he finds ways to be heard. One of the most striking things about the book is the number of main characters who are or turn out to be Jewish, gay, or both. Proust shows that the situation of homosexuals and Jews in late 19th-century France was similar, in that they often tried to conceal their identity to avoid discrimination, while remaining easily identifiable, especially to others. group members. Ironically, Proust exposes the pointlessness of cover-up even as he practices it with his own narrator.

For Proust, belonging to a stigmatized minority is a bit like being a novelist, and vice versa: it is being in society but not quite, obliged to pay attention to things that others take for granted. Proust’s intricate games of hide-and-seek with his own identity suggest that there is no point in checking the authenticity of literary works or insisting that writers stay in their own corner. Even when they imagine themselves in different lives, the truths they express will emerge from their own deepest experience. Sometimes wearing a disguise is what helps tell the truth.

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