I first read A la Recherche du Temps Perdus in the summer I turned 17, and I have to say, it scared the hell out of me. I was new to the whole business of love and sex, and keen to learn more about it. Love is Proust's great theme, but his depiction of it is unremittingly negative. "I here give the name of love to a mutual torment," the narrator remarks in Volume 5, The Captive. Love affairs in Proust are based on desire and sustained by mistrust. The only joy is the momentary spasm of sexual gratification; the only happiness that of (temporarily) allayed jealousy. Women are depicted as creatures of ravenous eroticism. If their lovers turn their backs even for a single moment, women will make assignations in response to the raising of an eyebrow via the reflection of a mirror. Leave them alone for half an hour, and they will consummate the assignation in a hall closet or a public park. Almost all of them are lesbians at heart, and will take pleasure with other women as readily as - or much more readily than - with men. Marriage is entered into for money alone.
Scientific testing quickly exploded these theories. Waggle your eyebrows at a girl, and she'll ask what's wrong with your eye. Propose to meet them in hall closets, and you'll find yourself spending your quality time alone with a lot of mops. As implied by their names - Gilberte, Albertine - the love interests of the narrator of A la Recherche are men, not women; the love affairs he describes are the clandestine relationships of the closeted world of wealthy gay Parisians of the early 20th century. Proust preferred the word "inversion" to "homosexuality." Inversion is not a word used any more about people, but it's a useful word to describe Proust's book, in which realities are often turned inside out. Proust was both half-Jewish and gay. His narrator is Catholic and straight. True, Proust's homosexual characters are never made as repulsive as his Jewish characters. Yet the narrator is allowed at least to support the innocence of Captain Dreyfus. The most that the narrator will concede to the author's homosexuality is a denial that homosexuality should be thought of as a crime.
On the other hand, he does present this: one of the wildest characters in literature, the brilliant, half-crazed, but unforgettable Baron de Charlus (the "s" is pronounced, making the name Char-LOOSE): an artistic genius and a reactionary snob; compulsively promiscuous and pathetically vulnerable; charming in his speech but no longer physically attractive; capable of both kindness and cruelty to almost pathological extremes. It's the cruelty that makes for some of Proust's best comedy.
Charlus' passion for a handsome young violinist, Charles Morel, brings him into the orbit of the Verdurins, the middle-class art patrons whom Proust has so vividly and scornfully described in his earlier volumes. Mme Verdurin has just inherited a substantial fortune, and the couple have begun a tentative entry into the high society of the old French aristocracy. When Charlus makes his first entry into their country house in order to spend an evening with Morel, the Verdurins do not know what to make of him. That same evening, they are entertaining a local landowner, the Marquis de Cambremer. They try to reorganize their dinner to reflect aristocratic protocol as they understand it, giving the rustic marquis precedence over the baron. Unsure that they have done the right thing, they probe the baron in ways that he at first fears are intended to reveal his sexual secret. Only as the dinner ends, does Charlus realize that it was his social standing - not his sexuality - that baffled the Verdurins. What follows is one of Charlus' most epic outbursts.
“What were you going to tell me?” interrupted M. de Charlus, who was beginning to feel reassured as to M. Verdurin’s meaning, but preferred that he should not utter these misleading remarks quite so loud. “Only that we put you on the left,” replied M. Verdurin. M. de Charlus, with a comprehending, genial, insolent smile, replied: “Why! That is not of the slightest importance, here!” And he gave a little laugh that was all his own — a laugh that came to him probably from some Bavarian or Lorraine grandmother, who herself had inherited it, in identical form, from an ancestress, so that it had been sounding now, without change, for not a few centuries in little old-fashioned European courts, and one could relish its precious quality like that of certain old musical instruments that have now grown rare. There are times when, to paint a complete portrait of some one, we should have to add a phonetic imitation to our verbal description, and our portrait of the figure that M. de Charlus presented is liable to remain incomplete in the absence of that little laugh, so delicate, so light, just as certain compositions are never accurately rendered because our orchestras lack those ‘small trumpets,’ with a sound so entirely their own, for which the composer wrote this or that part. “But,” M. Verdurin explained, stung by his laugh, “we did it on purpose. I attach no importance whatever to title of nobility,” he went on, with that contemptuous smile which I have seen so many people whom I have known, unlike my grandmother and my mother, assume when they spoke of anything that they did not possess, before others who thus, they supposed, would be prevented from using that particular advantage to crow over them. “But, don’t you see, since we happened to have M. de Cambremer here, and he is a Marquis, while you are only a Baron....” “Pardon me,” M. de Charlus replied with an arrogant air to the astonished Verdurin, “I am also Duc de Brabant, Damoiseau de Montargis, Prince d’Oloron, de Carency, de Viareggio and des Dunes. However, it is not of the slightest importance. Please do not distress yourself,” he concluded, resuming his subtle smile which spread itself over these final words: “I could see at a glance that you were not accustomed to society.”
These manic episodes, however, only punctuate a life that is most fundamentally pathetic. Morel is willing to have sex with Charlus for money and career advancement. But he prefers women - and most certainly does not love the baron, for the insuperable reason that he loves nobody except himself. Morel inflicts wound after wound, reducing Charlus to ever more abject dependency - and ever more bizarre behaviors.
Thus one day (which must be placed, as a matter of fact, subsequent to this initial period) when the Baron was returning with Charlie and myself from a luncheon party at the Verdurins’, and expecting to spend the rest of the afternoon and the evening with the violinist at Doncières, the latter’s dismissal of him, as soon as we left the train, with: “No, I’ve an engagement,” caused M. de Charlus so keen a disappointment, that in spite of all his attempts to meet adversity with a brave face, I saw the tears trickling down and melting the paint beneath his eyes, as he stood helpless by the carriage door.
In order to win Morel's attention even for a single afternoon, Charlus concocts a story that he has issued a challenge to a duel - a story he knows will horrify Morel by drawing attention to their relationship.
But if M. de Charlus was enchanted at the thought of a duel which he had meant at first to be entirely fictitious, Morel was thinking with terror of the stories that might be spread abroad …[H]e became more and more insistent with M. de Charlus, who continued to gesticulate before the intoxicating idea of a duel. He begged the Baron to allow him not to leave him until the day after the next, the supposed day of the duel, so that he might keep him within sight and try to make him listen to the voice of reason. So tender a proposal triumphed over M. de Charlus’s final hesitations. He said that he would try to find a way out of it, that he would postpone his final decision for two days. In this fashion, by not making any definite arrangement at once, M. de Charlus knew that he could keep Charlie with him for at least two days, and make use of the time to fix future engagements with him in exchange for his abandoning the duel, an exercise, he said, which in itself delighted him and which he would not forego without regret. And in saying this he was quite sincere, for he had always enjoyed taking the field when it was a question of crossing swords or exchanging shots with an adversary.
Charlus' physical bravery is Proust's refutation of an ancient antigay stereotype. Proust also incidentally refutes a stereotype that has arisen in the decades since his own death: the stereotype of the "rainbow coalition," of some necessary connection between gay sexuality and progressive politics. Charlus is a ferocious, bitter anti-Semite, who condescendingly explains that he does not condemn Captain Dreyfus' (forged) treason because he cannot accept that a Jew can ever be French in the first place.
Casually sexually attracted by a Jewish friend of the narrator's, and seeking to learn his address, Charlus poses his question in the form of a long anti-Semitic speech:
“Where does your friend live, in Paris? As three streets out of four take their name from a church or an abbey, there seems every chance of further sacrilege there. One can’t prevent Jews from living in the Boulevard de la Madeleine, Faubourg Saint-Honoré or Place Saint-Augustin. So long as they do not carry their perfidy a stage farther, and pitch their tents in the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, Quai de l’Archevêché, Rue Chanoinesse or Rue de l’Avemaria, we must make allowance for their difficulties.” We could not enlighten M. de Charlus, not being aware of Bloch’s address at the time. But I knew that his father’s office was in the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. “Oh! Is not that the last word in perversity?” exclaimed M. de Charlus, who appeared to find a profound satisfaction in his own cry of ironical indignation. “Rue des Blancs-Manteaux!” he repeated, dwelling with emphasis upon each syllable and laughing as he spoke. “What sacrilege! Imagine that these White Mantles polluted by M. Bloch were those of the mendicant brethren, styled Serfs of the Blessed Virgin, whom Saint Louis established there. And the street has always housed some religious Order. The profanation is all the more diabolical since within a stone’s throw of the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux there is a street whose name escapes me, which is entirely conceded to the Jews, there are Hebrew characters over the shops, bakeries for unleavened bread, kosher butcheries, it is positively the Judengasse of Paris. That is where M. Bloch ought to reside. Of course,” he went on in an emphatic, arrogant tone, suited to the discussion of aesthetic matters, and giving, by an unconscious strain of heredity, the air of an old musketeer of Louis XIII to his backward-tilted face, “I take an interest in all that sort of thing only from the point of view of art. Politics are not in my line, and I cannot condemn wholesale, because Bloch belongs to it, a nation that numbers Spinoza among its illustrious sons. And I admire Rembrandt too much not to realise the beauty that can be derived from frequenting the synagogue. But after all a ghetto is all the finer, the more homogeneous and complete it is. You may be sure, moreover, so far are business instincts and avarice mingled in that race with sadism, that the proximity of the Hebraic street of which I was telling you, the convenience of having close at hand the fleshpots of Israel will have made your friend choose the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. How curious it all is! It was there, by the way, that there lived a strange Jew who used to boil the Host, after which I think they boiled him, which is stranger still, since it seems to suggest that the body of a Jew can be equivalent to the Body of Our Lord."
The story of Charlus - like the story of Swann that opens the novel - is all an introduction to the narrator's own compulsive, possessive grand passion, which will fill most of the next two volumes with a bizarre and disturbing picture of all that love should not be.