- Proust's Latin Americans by Rubén Gallo
One of the pleasures of doing comparative work on Latin American and French writing and art is discovering the overwhelming wealth of connections over the course of at least two centuries: of Latin Americans making cultural pilgrimage to France (mostly Paris) and of French artists' and writers' attentions to the Hispanophone Americas, from Cuba to Chile. From the nineteenth century onward, Paris in particular held, in the Americas, the status of the capital of culture, and although many Latin Americans sought "culture" in France, they, and the French who visited the Americas, also brought new forms of music, dance, architecture, and writing to Paris. In examining Marcel Proust and his work in relationship to Latin Americans who were important to him, Rubén Gallo makes a modest claim for a comparative literature that examines canonical works "with an eye for cultural diversity," invoking a cosmopolitanism beyond the borders of Europe or the United States (20).
While reading a biography of Proust, Gallo notes in his Introduction, he came across the detail that in his twenties Proust became lovers with Reynaldo Hahn, a Venezuelan-German already famous as a composer and singer. Hahn's family moved to France when he was three years old and became what Gallo calls "fully French," speaking, writing, singing, and composing in that language, although he also spoke German and Spanish. Lovers only for a few years, Proust and Hahn remained steadfast friends until Proust's death. At first, Gallo planned to write a biography of Hahn (to be called Proust's Latin Lover), but as he read further, he began to come across more Latin Americans in Proust's circle, as well as the odd mention of political affairs in the Americas in the author's writings and correspondence. Thus the book about Hahn became a book largely about men with some Latin American heritage, who circulated in the various strata of Proust's orbit.
Through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, as Latin American elites, artists, and writers discovered, the balance of "culture" was decidedly lopsided for the French (especially Parisians). In Proust's circles, even the fact of French birth was "othered" by a Latin American mother or father. Those with the mark of the Latin American "race" might have talents in various areas of the arts, but the prevailing notion was that Latin Americans were often viewed as exotic additions to a self-contained Parisian milieu. Thus, Gallo's overarching concerns in this book have less to do with the Latin Americanness of any of the figures he discusses than one might think. This is especially the case because the majority of these men, save perhaps for the painter Gabriel de Yturri, were wealthy and assimilated into those bourgeois, haute bourgeois, or even aristocratic class and social milieux that demanded a fully Parisian self-presentation. Instead, Gallo builds his discussion of these men on those traces of foreignness that seemed to inform, to one degree or another, their relationships with Proust, himself a neurotic, hypochondriac bourgeois Jew, whom Gallo calls the "ultimate 'stranger to himself'" (5).
The structure of Proust's Latin Americans calls for some discussion, as it points to the ways in which Latin America is represented in traces of Proust's writings and life, rather than as a substantive presence throughout the text. Gallo arranges the book around four figures who were Proust's friends and/or lovers all of whom possessed varying degrees of Latin Americanness. Sandwiched between these more substantial chapters are shorter pieces, ranging from five to fifteen pages, which Gallo calls "paparolles" referring to the art of quilling, where thin pieces of paper are rolled and used in decorative schemes. Proust's paperolles were extensions of the pages of his manuscripts with glued-on pieces of paper so as to have broader margins in which to write. These very short interludes between each chapter constitute what Gallo calls "meditations" [End Page 408] on topics about Latin America that crop up in Proust...