Talk Proust to Me, Baby

In the film Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen plays a cynical novelist who has left a long trail of wives and lovers but relies on prostitutes for sex. "They come to your house," he explains to his shrink; "you pay them; you don't have to talk about Proust or film."

The sheer cynicism forces a laugh. OK, the sex you don't pay for up front costs more down the road; and making love to women who are not hookers is work ('investment in a relationship'), not play. Just don't get caught playing, and don't get caught laughing in agreement with Harry Block. Say you're laughing at Harry for being a novelist who, like Proust, exploits real people's stories, and for being a film character who puts down film. You knew that about Proust, right? Just as you know that bypassing Proust-chat means dodging the culture-snob game and the fake-sincerity game. And saving the time that would be lost reading a three-thousand-page novel called In Search of Lost Time.

Please don't feel inadequate when I confess that reading Proust is the consolation of my life. The great novel isn't just about a cookie called a madeleine, all art and delicacy; in fact, Marcel knows a lot about bought love. Harry leaves me wondering: who are these women who want a man to talk Proust to them? Maybe I would pay them to let me. Maybe if you saw them, you'd think it worth the trouble to fake familiarity with Proust, watch the movies, read the Cliffs notes, just to know such women.

Who are these Proustiennes? Are they like his characters--the ambitious courtesan Odette, the grown-up child-whore whose elaborate gowns make her "a period unto herself;" or the faithless lesbian mistress Albertine, the gamine whom Marcel dresses like a doll in Fortuny gowns; or the haughty, coldly witty Duchesse de Guermantes? Can such women still exist?

In haut-bourgeois America today you could easily find a poor little rich girl like Gilberte Swann. She had a complex because Odette was her mother and because her father was partly Jewish (in an era of gross antisemitism) and because a bisexual cloud hung over her reputation. A loveable neo-Gilberte could be your human bridge into the novel, a human laboratory course in how to fake the alluring interest in Things Proustian, pretending to care about dressing a woman well and about issues of snobbery, anti-semitism, and lesbian/hasbean switch-hitting.

But isn't the woman who 'actually' reads In Search of Lost Time--who isn't lying when she says she reads it front to back--well, isn't she likely to be bookish and bespectacled, or French? She'd have a stake in perpetuating the Proust cult if it meant perpetuating the fame of ancestors who had been Proust's friends and served as models for his characters. She'd be a titled socialite who wears haute couture and probably works in the fashion business or the fashion journalism business. You wouldn't have to dress her.

The less-elegant Princesse Hermine de Clermont-Tonnerre wears her learning lightly. She rides a Harley through Paris, smokes cigars, has had a string of billionaire lovers, wears a diamond pin that says, "FUCK ME I'M FAMOUS." I don't know whether she has read In Search of Lost Time deeply or at all, but I believe she's running from an awareness of Proust's principal lesson, that love is a species of grief. You wouldn't have to undress her. Not my type; could be yours.

The all-American Proustienne could be a quirky housewife with a disused PhD and a string of online affairs, a misfit in the suburban SUV soccer mom world, unhappy enough to turn you briefly into one of her guilty secrets. But you might desire a less alienated female who belongs to a book club and does water colors and cooks dishes out of Ann Borel's Dinng With Proust for over-achieved dinner parties, although she'd never risk the McMansion for you. Inaccessible, she might still be worth loving through the hedge, as Proust loved the haughty countess on whom he modeled his Duchesse. Maybe she has a past as complex as Odette's, one worth teasing out of her in long, soulful, sexless colloquies, if at last she lets you sit on the garden bench. So talk Proust to her, just to look into her eyes, and forget sex.

After all, like Harry Block, Marcel regards sex as something to be handled by confidential surrogates who work for tips. Marcel admits what Harry can't, that he can't have sex with those he loves. Hold back on discussing that.

Your Proustienne can't be a working woman. No time to read. Nor can she be very young; Proust's lessons on disillusionment and the fear of death don't hit home before middle age. You are ripe for these lessons but lack the patience to read. And yet you might have months and years for reading while looking for this truly intriguing woman, and, having found her, while waiting for her to look in your direction or to tire of someone else. And yet the restless urge that makes you pursue women is akin to the attention deficit disorder that keeps you from reading such a long book with no plot and no sex scenes per se, only a few strange games, such as losing an orchid down a woman's cleavage, or taking liberties with a sleeping one--and the whipping.

Maybe there's no need to read the whole book if you can get just one decent quote out of it. A good quote will serve as a screening device for Proustiennes. Obviously it will work better online than in a dance club where no one hears long sentences. This is my quote: "After we have reached a certain age, our loves are begotten of anguish; our past, and the physical lesions in which it is recorded, determine our future."

I think I know what that means: love's agonies get etched into your body as grooves that channel you on to the next affair; you hope for relief but resign yourself to yet more pain. How portentous. Women who haven't read Proust like the sound of this coming from a man. And one can't rule out women of a certain tantalizing complexity who could become 'actual' Proustiennes if only they read him. Just don't use the quote about how the women who attract sensitive, intelligent men are invariably unworthy of us, and teach us wisdom inadvertently through the suffering they cause.

If reading Proust is suffering to you, sorry, there are no Cliffs notes yet. Breezy Alain de Botton's nice, neat little book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, whose ongoing sales attest to the longing of a whole world of pretentious but lazy readers for a short-cut, will have to do. The danger is that Botton will vaccinate you against genuine Proustianism, that his dead germs of quaintness and homely wisdom will render you impervious to the live viruses of excruciating self-awareness, suicidal jealousy, crushing nostalgia. Or don't you really want to go to the edge? I thought you did, if you saw the humor of Harry Block's predicament, using whores as an anodyne against the agony of love.

You could watch the Proust movies. Naturally, they're long movies, and they're still an exercise in reading, because of subtitles. But they will suggest the real Proustian pathos: Swann in Love, in which Jeremy Irons plays the orchid game with Ornella Muti; Time Regained, itself a summation of the lost art of European movie-making; Céleste, which enables you to experience the author's last hours in real time; and The Captive, which enables you to experience the jealous wait for Albertine to come home from her girl dates in real time. So you would end up being able to discuss Proust and film. I'd be cautious about an Albertine musical and about women who like musicals.

There's no need even to read How Proust Can Change Your Life if you can obtain the BBC video version with Ralph Fiennes--another highbrow actor who, like Irons, plays put-upon, sensitive males. See, I usually identify with Irons and Fiennes roles. So maybe you can see me needing to tell the Proustian woman stories of how other women have inscribed those lesions on me, while her own quirkiness causes fresh anguish.

And maybe she can't read Proust because, instead of a PhD, it would require a degree of organization that always eludes her, because she is lost in her messy house amidst her own emotional fallout, trapped in her choice of life like a broken doll inside a Joseph Cornell collage box, its sides papered with leaves of French novels and littered with souvenir fragments of driftwood. As though from the beach at Balbec. Why couldn't she have been one of Marcel's North Sea nymphs? She may not have heard of Balbec, but surely she was once a girl on a beach she regarded as hers. Much of women's fascination lies in their potentiality, which includes the lost potentiality of the past.

Faking Proust will change your life, dear brother hypocrite. Remaining a potential reader rather than an actual one, if you do it right, could save you from Harry Blockheadism. Meanwhile, authenticity will remain my burden. It imposes a harder challenge: finding a woman remarkable for things other than an interest in Proust, and tricking her into wanting to hear what I want to tell her about him, about life--what I need to tell her, for my own survival.

About the author:

Sebastian Gunn's "Coasting to Hypomania" appeared in BowWow Magazine. His small book on literary décor, Palaces of Mental Exile, is expected shortly. In the meantime he continues the research for his large book, Ladies Night, about three titled women who were muses, models, and mistresses to some modern writers.