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Proust and Ambient Medico-Literary Homosexualities 1885-1922

From: French Forum
Volume 37, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 49-64 | 10.1353/frf.2012.0033

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Sodome et Gomorrhe n'a rien [. . .] de commun avec la littérature de l'inversion, que ce soit en 1890, en 1910, ou en 1920.

It is indeed true that Proust's many-faceted portrait of homosexuality, and especially of the gay baron de Charlus, constituted, as he tried to impress upon early potential publishers of À la recherche du temps perdu, something quite original in French literature, so original in fact that it was unsettling, if not shocking, to many critics and readers. As we know, the poet Francis Jammes, horrified by the early lesbian scene at Montjouvain, begged Proust to remove it from his novel, and after Proust's death, he labelled À la recherche as a whole an abomination. This was but one of the many comments, from quibbles and reservations to cries of indignation, that greeted Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe from critics such as Paul Souday, Gustave Binet-Valmer, Paul Lombard, the critic of L'Intransigeant, André Germain and others.

But did Proust's writing about homosexuality, as Antoine Compagnon's epigraph to this essay might suggest, happen in a literary vacuum? There are indications that Proust was not unfamiliar with the treatment of homosexuality we see in middle-brow and popular fiction of the 1885-1910 period. Smitten as a gay teenager by Verlaine and by Baudelaire (as we know, Proust surprised Gide by asserting that Baudelaire was also homosexual), and confidently embracing his own love for young men, as one sees in letters from the lycée years written to or about Jacques Bizet, Proust would certainly have been aware of much of the literature dealing with lesbianism and male homosexuality of the period we are exploring. In mentioning his familiarity with Musset's pornography and Verlaine's Femmes and Hombres, Proust recalls in fact how schoolboys love to pass around to their friends copies of the latest racy works they get their hands on ("À propos de Baudelaire," csb, 630). Nor was Proust immune to an attraction to erotic materials in later life. In a 1908 letter to Georges de Lauris where he speaks of having purchased some pornography, including "deux Verlaine secrets, immondes et stupides," he light-heartedly offers to share his purchases with his friend.

By examining lesbian, gay and erotic texts by Catulle Mendès, Henri d'Argis and Marcel Prévost from the 1890s and late 1880s, I will attempt to provide an early literary context for Proust's writing about homosexuality. Examples will show how place and personal names, episodes such as the retrospective discovery of lesbianism in a lover, the "danse contre seins," and lesbian love-making performed for a fee, were available to Proust in then-contemporary fiction as he himself began to write short stories with erotic or homosexual themes.

It is useful and illuminating, I believe, to re-examine one novel of homosexuality in particular that Proust definitely did read—Lucien by Gustave Binet-Valmer—partly because of Proust's violent reaction to it: he described the work as "le livre le plus imbécile que j'aie jamais lu." But Lucien is not as imbecilic as all that. Rather its publication was an incursion into what Proust was hoping to claim—via his character Charlus—as his private turf, and it came precisely at a moment when he was beginning to sound out editors such as Alfred Vallette, the publisher of the Mercure de France, about taking on his novel. However, there is perhaps an additional personal reason for Proust's irritation, and for our interest in Binet-Valmer's novel: it is that the plot of Lucien doubles certain aspects of Proust's own family life. Binet-Valmer and Proust knew each other, though not well, as early as 1902-1903, and it is not impossible—though there is no hard evidence for it—that Binet-Valmer had Proust's family configuration in mind when composing his novel. And finally, there is the broader issue of how Proust's and Binet-Valmer's novels negotiate their positions in relation to late-19th-early-20th-century theory about, and physical and moral diagnoses of, homosexuality. Which of these novels, the imbecilic Lucien or the monumental...

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