Thoughts on Proust....



A somewhat popular 1970’s T-shirt had these words inscribed on it: “Proust is a yenta” - yenta being Yiddish for a gossipy, old woman. Reading Proust, you realize that among all the gems that the author offers, in terms of memories or thoughts on life, love, art, death, etc., there are also many gossipy tidbits. These bits of gossip are either the narrator’s impressions of different people and situations, or they are thoughts expressed by the other characters and related to us by the narrator.

Proust talks about the multi-faceted aspect of our persona and the fact that we can never fully perceive all the potential sides to the characters of the people we know. We therefore utilize chitchat to get informed and to figure things out. Proust also uses the notion of gossip to demonstrate that gossip is a large component of our social interactions, but most importantly, he uses this concept to reveal to us the futility of such endeavors. The “temps perdue” not only means lost times in French, but also wasted time. Proust thinks that not much good comes out of associations based on class or social status. He shows that casual gatherings that give us a sense of belonging are also where gossip is rampant. He believes these gatherings are pointless, but people nevertheless engage in them and at times do it with utmost zeal.

Gossip has an important role in literature. Truman Capote famously said that “All literature is gossip.” Even though we might consider literature and gossip at totally opposite sides of the spectrum - one noble and the other lowly - we still can’t deny that if Proust was not such a gossip, he would have not been able to enlighten us by his continuous ruminations on all facets of life, on people’s behavior and on social situations. 

The characters’ constant and unrelenting efforts to appear a certain way to others make for comical situations, but their efforts at hiding their imperfections are countered by gossipy chatter. The rich Mme. Verdurin pretends that it is her decision not to allow those boring aristocrats to attend her salon and ignores the reality that it is the snob aristocrats who shun the company of her and her little clan. People are aware of this and talk about it. The homosexual Charlus derides homosexuality in social gatherings in order to hide his true nature and not realizing that his sexual orientation is already common knowledge, mostly through gossip. The talented musician, Charles Morel, hides his lowly background and cunningly convinces the narrator to introduce his father as a family friend and hide the truth that in reality, his father was the valet to the narrator’s uncle - he definitely is not fooling the narrator. There are many more examples of characters obfuscating reality to suit their fantasies. Proust observes it all and philosophizes on the minutiae of these interactions, on what is real and what imaginary.

Reading Proust teaches us that no matter how hard we try, we rarely know what people think about us. The gossip is done behind our back and we are the only person not to be in the know until it finally reaches our ears. He pokes fun at the fact that certain actions which we undertake for the purpose of appearing a certain way to others, will go completely unnoticed while some other things we did that we thought were insignificant, becomes an important part of our persona in the eyes of our friends and will be gossiped about incessantly. In the second volume, the young narrator is madly in love with Gilberte, Swann’s daughter and once meeting with Swann’s friend, Mr. de Norpois, he tries hard to appear worldly, articulate and intelligent in hopes that he would put in a good word to Swann for him. At the end of their meeting, he clumsily makes an attempt to kiss de Norpois’ hand, but refrains and thinks that he didn’t notice. He realizes later that de Norpois not only did not mention anything about his intellect to Swann and his entourage, but everyone in society found out about the hand kissing situation.

We can’t dismiss gossip offhandedly because, even though gossip is a commonplace activity looked down on by most of humanity, it has a significant effect on our recognition of our environment, our culture and our world. We constantly observe and judge others based on a set of norms dictated to us by our society and our culture and through gossip, we divulge the behavior we deem unacceptable. Through gossip we reveal little secrets about others’ lives. We are social animals and our happiness, success and well-being depends on others and our thoughts are formed and defined through the filter of other people. We seek this connection through the bonds that gossip provides.

Gossip’s idle talk with its cruel and wicked intentions is the way some people try to gain control and influence others or at times even evaluate their own worth. By putting others down, one makes a weak attempt to look better than the one he is gossiping about. Gossip is also a way to bond with others. People reveal secrets and by doing so, they make the listener special and worthy of being privy to these secrets and therefore they create bonds. We experience this in the Verdurins’ little clan where Gossiping about Charlus or Brichot makes some members of the clan feel a closer connection to their host.

Even though the narrator and many other characters in the book recognize the uselessness of many social interactions for the sole purpose of belonging, he tells us that the desire to belong to an elite social level is much stronger than the reluctance to waste time adhering to these groups. So we spend most of our life in pursuit of banal and mundane activities that have little objective than occupying our free time with no obvious fruitful results. But Proust would have not written his book, full of gossip, if he did not engage in the exact same activities and interactions that he so convincingly denigrates.

Article by: Fereshteh Priou - December 2015