Everett-Green: Yes, the narrator is heterosexual, but he’s extremely curious about everything to do with homosexuality – or as he calls it, “inversion.” This is where Proust gives himself away, when you see how he held up a screen of conventional sexuality, so that he could write openly about gay activity. That’s a distortion he felt obliged to make. He was obviously very keen to write about sex, and did so in ways that sometimes veil what he’s talking about. In Swann’s Way , there’s a scene that it took me a minute to recognize as an incredibly elegant and indirect description of Marcel masturbating while looking out at the Combray steeple. Proust writes it so that a prudish mind might glide over the surface beauty, and not really grasp the picture.
Groen: An elegant take on a mundane activity. That’s one of the many intriguing paradoxes about the novel. It’s so concrete, with vivid descriptions of flowers and salons and social climbers, and yet it’s also abstract, a profound meditation on time and morality and shifting perceptions.
Taylor: Yes, paradox is a good way to describe it. There is a kind of ambivalence about the way he describes anything beautiful or desirable. As a boy, the narrator is so enamoured of the mere name Guermantes, and he so wants to meet the beautiful Duchess of Guermantes. But as an adult, he is also capable of exposing her meanness, and the superficiality of the social jockeying in her circle. That actually is rather close to his real life. He was both an unctuous social climber who gained access to the most elevated Parisian circles, and later an astute and sometimes cruel observer of their foibles. He exposed them, yet he was still enthralled.
Everett-Green: We think of Proust as a memory artist, but he was also very good at describing the changing scene. The First World War began eight months after Swann’s Way was published, and its effects on Paris filter into the later books. At one point, the society ladies stop wearing fancy clothes, because it seems unpatriotic to be flashy while men are being machine-gunned at the front. Some of the ladies get very militant about it. Then people start dressing up again, and the same ladies criticize those who cling to a “faddish” austerity. So there’s modernity mixed up with memory, and up-to-date people in there with Marcel’s old servant Françoise, who he says is a medieval peasant born centuries late.
Groen: For me, this novel is a feast, where I ate voraciously one day, nibbled the next, sometimes suffered from indigestion. Yet I always felt nourished and privileged. I’m afraid I read it in too much of a hurry, maybe over eight or 10 months, wrapped around other books. But I have no patience for today’s fad of treating long classics as marathons and taking an excessive pride in just getting to the finish line. If there’s “work” in reading these million words, it’s like the work of tending a newborn child – patches of tedium, sure, but pierced by moments of pure joy.
Taylor: I was so touched, Robert, by your description of how you read the death of the grandmother while your own mother was ill, and how amazing those pages were. I was trying to think of my equivalent. My teenage self was totally struck by the madeleine and the tea but by the time – aged almost 30, I guess – that I got to the end, I was very moved by the scene where the narrator goes to a party after years away from the social scene, and everyone has aged, and he can’t quite believe it. That leads to his moment of revelation, that art can transcend time. The sense that the novel had captured the very experience of time passing will always remain with me. There are a few artists to whom I feel a profound sense of personal gratitude: Proust is one of them.