If a reading experience could turn you into a butterfly, that would be the magic in this book. And would any of us be surprised by Proust having that kind of conjuring power, the wizardry to misremember us into flying, floating little bugs? No. There is surely magic in these pages, in its remembering and misremembering, in shaping and re-shaping: magic to move beauty marks all around faces, to remember dresses into petals and monocles to wings. In the end, Proust remembers us all into flowers and butterflies lounging in the shade near water, wrapped up and mummified by the golden sun of his memory.
These memories are my own, too, of friendships with boys and girls. They are the magic of wondering about and judging people before knowing them, finding out you are were wrong, and then, maybe, learning you were actually right. They are memories of the vulnerability of imagining another person’s life and then becoming a part of that imagined world. This book is the birds and the bees, only here, it is the butterflies and the flowers. It is more delicate, and it is about the show of courtship among all people (friends, family, lovers, etc.), not the mechanics of sex.
My friend who reminds me so much of Proust keeps including in his emails to me lately the qualifier, “I am telling you that to make myself ridiculous so you will laugh. Are you laughing?” We were talking about that, and he said, “That’s why Rosamond and I still talk. I make fun of myself, and she laughs. It is a pretty simple relationship. I can say just about anything to Rosamond to make her laugh. And I think I make cheap insults of myself that might kinda hurt, but I’d rather see someone laugh, cause then maybe I can be happy later.” I think that is a nice sentiment, which is brave in a certain way, and also rather specific. And with Proust, I do laugh. I laugh at his purposeful avoidance of Gilberte that he so deliberately expresses by hanging out at Gilberte’s house with her mom. I laugh at his falling in love with the big girl on the train, his love affair with Saint Loup, his social anxiety over procedures at the Grand Hotel. I laugh at his passage about throwing himself in front of a bullet out of the selfish wish to prove he would throw himself in front of a bullet. He is very funny.
When I am laughing at those things, it is partly because of their simple ridiculousness, but also because it is a ridiculousness I see in myself. Ludicrous daydreams and misunderstanding social cues. And even though there is a lot that is gendered in here, at the same time, I think at its base, it is more about difference, and not so rigidly gendered. Part II is a boy wondering about a group of girls, but it could just as easily be me wondering about boys. The details might be different, but the wondering is similar, I think. When Marcel imagines who Saint-Loup will be to him, he knows the answer; but, when he encounters the girls, it is all confusion and misunderstandings. And the divide of gender, whether created by nature or nurture, is so ridiculous like that. Does she want to kiss me or laugh at me? Does he want to hold my hand or beat me up? We must consult our research guides and use magnifying glasses to seek the answer. And most of us, like Marcel, are very ridiculous in the process.
I don’t think this book is so much about, “wimmin folks ain’t like men folks.” I think it is, rather, about how awkward we are in bridging those differences. I want to say, “how awkward we are in adolescence,” but I am still awkward in that, and no longer adolescent, so it still applies at least to me. With Marcel, though, it is so pretty how much he loves all of these people, how generous he is to them, while still making fun of his own self-interest.
And the stories about why, above all else, you must not be gay are such kicks in the gut and so knifingly told.
Like I say, I think there is a certain bravery mixed with the odd self-interest in Proust making himself ridiculous and vulnerable in the way he does in these books. Maybe I am wrong about this, but it seems like there is a tendency in the Proust readership to think that somehow reflects well, or reflects at all, on the reader. I kind of don’t get that. It seems to me like when someone makes himself ridiculous or vulnerable for our entertainment, a reader can react with a myriad of feelings, among which are, of course, sympathy; alienation; eye-rolling; distancing laughter; or self-importance, as though Proust’s vulnerability, artistry, and ridiculousness says something about our merits. As if our identification with him says something about us, rather than everything about him. We all react according to our own experiences, but I have been very surprised at how dissimilar my feeling about these books is to how I anticipated feeling.
Maybe part of this book’s magic is in being a different shady, watery place with different flowers and butterflies for every reader.