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27.1.04

Marcel the Judge

As you probably know, I have been reading Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu and, worse than that, subjecting the Ionarts faithful to posts about scenes and characters in the novel as I try to pick them apart in my mind. The book is a first-person narrative, meaning that the real subject is the author himself, or rather a somewhat dishonest transformation of him, since much of Proust's real experiences are embedded in other characters. In the fourth volume, Cities on the Plain (in French, much more evocatively, Sodome et Gomorrhe [Sodom and Gomorrha]), Proust lets us know quite explicitly that he knows the game he is playing, by fictionalizing his own life and the people he knew to make a book. Faced with the gift of manuscripts of three Ibsen plays, the Duc de Guermantes reveals his uneasiness about knowing authors:

The Duc de Guermantes was not overpleased by these offers. Uncertain whether Ibsen or d'Annunzio were dead or alive, he could see in his mind's eye a tribe of authors, playwrights, coming to call upon his wife and putting her in their works. People in society are too apt to think of a book as a sort of cube one side of which has been removed, so that the author can at once 'put in' the people he meets. This is obviously disloyal, and authors are a pretty low class. Certainly, it would not be a bad thing to meet them once in a way, for thanks to them, when one reads a book or an article, one can 'read between the lines', 'unmask' the characters. After all, though, the wisest thing is to stick to dead authors.Le duc de Guermantes n'était pas enchanté de ces offres. Incertain si Ibsen ou d'Annunzio étaient morts ou vivants, il voyait déjà des écrivains, des dramaturges allant faire visite à sa femme et la mettant dans leurs ouvrages. Les gens du monde se représentent volontiers les livres comme une espèce de cube dont une face est enlevée, si bien que l'auteur se dépêche de <<faire entrer>> dedans les personnes qu'il rencontre. C'est déloyal évidemment, et ce ne sont que des gens de peu. Certes, ce ne serait pas ennuyeux de les voir <<en passant>>, car grâce à eux, si on lit un livre ou un article, on connaît <<le dessous des cartes>>, on peut <<lever les masques>>. Malgré tout le plus sage est de s'en tenir aux auteurs morts.
Jacques-Émile Blanche, Sketch Portrait of Robert de MontesquiouA sort of cube with one side removed, so that the author may at once put inside it the people he meets. The narrator Marcel is indeed a shameless voyeur. The major revelation about the Baron de Charlus, mentioned toward the end of the third book but delayed until the opening of the fourth, is discovered quite randomly by Marcel. Standing on a stairway, he observes, unnoticed, the mutual identification of Charlus and the tailor Jupien, part of what is called "cruising" in our day. (At this point in the story, Proust was probably picturing the older, fatter Robert de Montesquiou, as shown in the sketch portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche shown here. Thanks to Gabriella Alú's comprehensive and beautiful Marcel Proust site for the image.)
I was about to change my position again, so that he should not catch sight of me; I had neither the time nor the need to do so. What did I see? Face to face, in that courtyard where certainly they had never met before (M. de Charlus coming to the Hôtel de Guermantes only in the afternoon, during the time when Jupien was at his office), the Baron, having suddenly opened wide his half-shut eyes, was studying with unusual attention the ex-tailor poised on the threshold of his shop, while the latter, fastened suddenly to the ground before M. de Charlus, taking root in it like a plant, was contemplating with a look of amazement the plump form of the middle-aged Baron. But, more astounding still, M. de Charlus's attitude having changed, Jupien's, as though in obedience to the laws of an occult art, at once brought itself into harmony with it. The Baron, who was now seeking to conceal the impression that had been made on him, and yet, in spite of his affectation of indifference, seemed unable to move away without regret, went, came, looked vaguely into the distance in the way which, he felt, most enhanced the beauty of his eyes, assumed a complacent, careless, fatuous air. Meanwhile Jupien, shedding at once the humble, honest expression which I had always associated with him, had—in perfect symmetry with the Baron—thrown up his head, given a becoming tilt to his body, placed his hand with a grotesque impertinence on his hip, stuck out his behind, posed himself with the coquetry that the orchid might have adopted on the providential arrival of the bee. I had not supposed that he could appear so repellent. But I was equally unaware that he was capable of improvising his part in this sort of dumb charade, which (albeit he found himself for the first time in the presence of M. de Charlus) seemed to have been long and carefully rehearsed; one does not arrive spontaneously at that pitch of perfection except when one meets in a foreign country a compatriot with whom an understanding then grows up of itself, both parties speaking the same language, even though they have never seen one another before.
This encounter leads ultimately to a casual tryst between the two men in the tailor's empty shop, for which Charlus tries to pay Jupien, overheard by Marcel who sneaks into the vacant shop next to that of the tailor. As the two men talk in the shop, Charlus inquires about other targets he has been eying in the neighborhood, including Marcel himself ("at the present moment my head has been turned by a strange little fellow, an intelligent little bourgeois who shews with regard to myself a prodigious want of civility. He has absolutely no idea of the prodigious personage that I am, and of the microscopic animalcule that he his in comparison," he says). Marcel writes after revealing all this dirt:
Now the abstraction had become materialised, the creature at last discerned had lost its power of remaining invisible, and the transformation of M. de Charlus into a new person was so complete that not only the contrasts of his face, of his voice, but, in retrospect, the very ups and downs of his relations with myself, everything that hitherto had seemed to my mind incoherent, became intelligible, brought itself into evidence, just as a sentence which presents no meaning so long as it remains broken up in letters scattered at random upon a table, expresses, if these letters be rearranged in the proper order, a thought which one can never afterwards forget.
This sets the tone for the fourth book, literally the central volume of the seven-volume series, the suspicion and outing by Marcel of the homosexual and lesbian proclivities of major characters. In what I have already identified as the self-hating attitude of the closeted homosexual (see post on December 29), Charlus and his various liaisons are exposed as ridiculous and grotesque. Marcel continues:
I now understood, moreover, how, earlier in the day, when I had seen him coming away from Mme. de Villeparisis's, I had managed to arrive at the conclusion that M. de Charlus looked like a woman: he was one! He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine and who in their life resemble in appearance only the rest of men; there where each of us carries, inscribed in those eyes through which he beholds everything in the universe, a human outline engraved on the surface of the pupil, for them it is that not of a nymph but of a youth.
Marcel's scorn for the aging homosexual Charlus only becomes harsher throughout the course of the fourth book.

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