Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Ideology and Discourse in Proust: The Making of 'M. De Charlus Pendant la Guerre'

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Ideology and Discourse in Proust: The Making of 'M. De Charlus Pendant la Guerre'

Article excerpt

Marcel Proust has often been described as apolitical. (1) It is true that apart from a well-known involvement in the Dreyfus Affair and a lesser-known intervention against the separation of Church and State in 1904, he generally refrained from expressing his political opinions in public. (2) Given the highly politicized and ideologically charged milieux he frequented (amongst his friends were some of the leading ideologists and polemicists of his time: Leon Daudet, Maurice Barres, and Charles Maurras), Proust managed surprisingly well to keep out of political debates. He cunningly manoeuvred between different political camps and happily used political personae to obtain him social honours, but was highly sensitive to rumours of his political protection. In 1920, for instance, he obtained the support of the socialist Leon Blum and the royalist Leon Daudet for his nomination to the Legion d'honneur. Once the decoration was in sight, Proust was eager to mention both of their names to refute allegations that he had been nominated by one politician in particular. (3) In a letter to Jacques Boulenger of approximately the same time, concerning an article he had undertaken to thank Leon Daudet for his support in the Goncourt jury, Proust categorically denied any personal political involvement: 'Je ne m'occupe pas de politique et je ne m'en suis jamais occupe.' (4) Notwithstanding statements like this, his alleged political and ideological neutrality in public should not be interpreted as demonstrating total indifference to political questions: indeed, if anything, the opposite is in fact the case. Both his letters and his literary writings show that he took a lively interest, if not in politics as such, at least in the effect political or historical events have on people, in particular on their attitudes and mentalities. His interest in history and politics, it has often been said, was largely sociological: he studied historical and political events in their function as catalysts and mirrors of human behaviour. (5)

History provided Proust with two major events that sharpened his sociological view: first, the Dreyfus Affair and, second, the outbreak of the Great War. Both are richly commented upon in his correspondence and both, of course, are dramatized in A la recherche du temps perdu, the first dispersed across A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Le Cote de Guermantes, and Le Temps retrouve, the second concentrated in the chapter in Le Temps retrouve entitled 'M. de Charlus pendant la guerre' (A la recherche, iv, 301-433). (6) In both, Proust engaged in current historical and political reality, though under altogether different circumstances. Fragments about the Dreyfus Affair were written some twenty years after the actual event. By the time A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs and Le Cote de Guermantes were published, the Affair had long entered the realm of history. It belonged to pre-war France, and was thus unlikely to stir emotions amongst the war generation. The war chapter, by contrast, necessitated a far more direct involvement with social and political events. Proust implemented experiences and observations he made daily during the war almost instantly into his fiction. The events he described were shared by his readers and would still be fresh in their minds at the publication of Le Temps retrouve, which was scheduled for immediately after the war. At the time he was drafting the war chapter, he could of course not foresee that the last volume of the Recherche would be published with considerable delay in 1927, by which time the conditions of its reception had changed completely.

The Dreyfus Affair has often been discussed by critics within the wider context of Judaism in the novel. (7) In the following study, I concern myself with the war chapter, which has received comparatively less attention. (8) In contrast to earlier critics who have concentrated for the greatest part on the published version of 'M. …

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