By: Fereshteh Priou
One of the more enigmatic characters in Proust’s book, “In Search of Lost Time” is the person telling the story - the narrator of the book. His mystery lies in the fact that we barely know anything of significance about him. His looks as well as his age - at different stages of the book - are not known. The narrator however is both similar and different from Proust himself in many ways. Proust thus invites us, his readers, to compare what we know about him with what he tells us about his narrator.
Even though all the other characters in the book are referred to by their proper names, the narrator himself remains quasi nameless. His name is referred to obliquely as “Marcel” only two or three times in one of the seven volumes, when the narrator says offhandedly that he could be referred with the same name as the author. This is an odd thing to see in a book because although it is common to see an author comment on the narrator of a book, it is extremely rare to see a book’s narrator refer to its author.
This casual mention of the narrator’s name in one volume does not necessarily indicate that the book is autobiographical; unlike Proust, the narrator is neither Jewish nor homosexual. In fact, he is one of the rare men in the book who is solely interested in women including many relationships and obsessive infatuations with various female characters such as; Lady in Pink, Duchess de Guermantes, Gilberte, Albertine and even Mme de Potbus’ maid.
Is Proust then trying to create a character he wishes himself to be or is this an attempt in hiding his true nature? Perhaps Proust has depicted the narrator as a Christian straight man, reflecting the fact that we all try to present ourselves to the outside world as something different than who we truly are. This deception becomes at times apparent in the book. For example, the narrator – a supposedly straight man - is obsessed with the homosexuality of the other characters. He is a nosy peeping Tom looking through windows and doors witnessing sexual encounters of the characters. Some of these characters are initially identified as straight and we later learn that they have different tendencies. This includes married men such as Saint-Loup and Legrandin. Proust is telling us that we should question the apparent given that the truth might be different than what we initially perceive.
Despite the differences, there are however some obvious parallels between the author and the narrator. They are both social climbers with the obsessive habit of pursuing their aristocratic friends for the purpose of gaining access to their family gatherings. Even the narrator’s obsession with obtaining a photo of the Duchess de Guermantes - which with the advent of photography, was something habitual in those days - parallels Proust insistence on having a photo of Comtesse de Greffulhe, who is believed to be the model for the Duchess’ character. Proust’s personal letters to his friend, Robert de Montesquiou attest to that.
Another similarity between Proust and the narrator is that they both have aspirations to be writers and they both fulfill this ambition by using their access to the upper classes as a source of inspiration for their books. This is another instance where the distinction between the author and the narrator becomes murky. If the book we are reading is the one that Proust wrote, where is the book that the narrator writes? Aren’t the two the same and if so, then is it safe to assume that the narrator is the author?
Proust might argue with this assumption. His essay called Contre Saint Beuve. Explores this concept. In this essay, he refutes Saint Beuve’s assertion that in order to know an author, one must know about the author as a human being with all his vices and virtues, daily routines, habits, diet, finances and how he handles himself in society. Proust argues that a book is the product of a different self, a deeper one that breeds creativity, and not the one represented by our superficial persona. However, he does not disprove that on a deeper level, the narrator might be him. Readers of books always search for the author himself in a book even when the narrator or the protagonist has a name and is clearly described with specific physical attributes. Since Proust never writes without a specific intent, we can ponder on his reasoning for keeping the narrator of his book so ambiguous.
Proust’s book is described by many as a mirror – reading it forces you to look at yourself and your life and in many instances, you relate to the things the narrator says or does and may find parallels between his actions and yours at some point in your life. Therefore, the narrator could be us; the readers of Proust. Perhaps Proust left the narrator unnamed so that we find ourselves in him and explore and analyze our thoughts as we read the book.
Another interesting fact about the narrator is that he is not a reliable story teller. He bases an entire part of his first volume, “Swann in Love” on the rumors he has heard about Swann and Odette, during his childhood from his parents, his grandparents or later on from other people. The gossips he had heard become facts and he writes using those gossips as facts. We can’t fault him for this – we all do that. The problem is that the narrator’s voice is the only one we hear throughout the book and we have no other point of view than his. He describes Swann and Odette’s love situation in great detail as if he had witnessed it personally, but we know that the narrator is the same age as Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte who was born after the couple married. He therefore was not even born during this period of Swann’s life. In fact, the way he describes Swann’s suffering is so juvenile that one wonders how a man of Swann’s age could act that way. It is because he imagines this episode as a young boy and tell it to us that way. It is up to us to sift through what he says and also pay attention to the way he describes some events as they are happening – and not as mere gossip - and draw our own conclusion about the characters and their true nature.
Proust’s narrator is an enigma just like any person – even those closest to us. The fact that after reading seven volumes and 4000 pages, we still have to wonder about him, tells us about the complexity of humans and intricacy of their true nature.
Article by: Fereshteh Priou - September 2018