Friday, July 16, 2010

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part II

I would guess that most people, like me, enjoy Proust for the meditative quality, its reflections on anticipation, memory, and experience buttressed by carefully crafted sentences piling precision upon precision.  Nonetheless, it might be too easy to overlook the humor.  I saw one Amazon reviewer insist that Proust never satirizes any of his characters because he cares about all of them equally, but I’m not sure I can agree.  The portrayal of Norpois at the beginning of Shadow seems unforgiving and pleasurably barbed.  When I read Op Oloop earlier this summer, I found its representation of longwinded blowhards in a dinner conversation a little bit dull—the book itself became too much what it meant to satirize.  Proust, on the other hand, manages to represent the endless palaver of Norpois yet make the experience worthwhile.  This is where his first-person narrator plays a useful role: Norpois’s speech prompts reflections that interrupt it and offer a reprieve, allowing us to come back to it fresh.  Turning away and back again only refreshes the sense of how silly he is.

Yet more interesting to me was how, in the second part of this volume, the narrator himself became much less reliable than he had seemed previously, and the object of the book’s satire.  This mostly revolves around the girls of the title, the “little gang” as they are called in this translation, and which include his new love interest Albertine.  Everywhere in this section the narrator’s reflections on love become more suspect than they were in regards to his love of Gilberte in the first part.  Although I thought she was not a very impressive choice as far as love interests go, his reflections on his experience seemed true enough—particularly his discussion of how love fades slowly over time.  With the “little gang” on the other hand, the narrator fully reveals himself to be a typical teenager: he is really only interested in having sex, and all of his attempts to convince himself that what he is feeling has anything to do with love just seems silly.  His inability to see Albertine’s disinterest, and Andrée’s obvious attraction to him, reveals his blindness.  He also behaves very badly, ditching Robert Saint-Loup with paltry excuses and tortured logic.  Although I haven’t read the first volume in some time, I think this must be the section with the most (or most transparent) unreliable narration thus far.

Proust being Proust, the ambivalent waffling between homoeroticism and homophobia is maddening.  In what is otherwise a rather funny extended meditation on vices, he considers the principle that “each vice, like each of the professions, requires and acquires a special knowledge that we are not displeased at being able to display.”  His immediate example: “It takes a homosexual to detect a homosexual.”  Ugh.  And yet, while the book does not seem to question the homophobia occasionally voiced by its characters, it is also filled with homoeroticism, as you might expect knowing that Proust himself slept with men.  The Baron de Charlus is just the kind of hyper-masculine homophobe that you would expect to find out has sex with men in bathhouses—his approach to the narrator in fact seems like an attempt at seduction.  The narrator’s friendship with Saint-Loup (who, I daresay despite the anachronism, reads like some sort of aristocratic McDreamy imported from a Harlequin romance novel) is rife with undertones.  Saint-Loup’s letter after leaving sounds exactly like a coded message, referring to a relationship of which he cannot tell his fellow soldiers because they would be “incapable of appreciating” it.  Sure, you could justify his language through recourse to the idea of nineteenth century same-sex romantic friendships—but surely it is worth noting that many of those friendships had a sexual element, and that by the time Proust is writing the romantic friendship is already starting to carry the association of homosexuality.  Indeed, the fact that the other soldiers could never understand suggests that the lower classes that make up his troops would see romantic friendship as something alien, a little too limp-wristed and aristocratic rather than properly masculine.  If anything, it is this homoeroticism that allows one to read against the grain of the novel and find in it many of the pleasures from which it might otherwise distance itself.

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