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Karin Mack, "Bügeltraum Nr. 4" (Iron Dream N°4), 1975

Karin Mack, "Bügeltraum Nr. 4" (Iron Dream N°4), 1975

The Western literary canon has long been complicit in upholding patriarchal power. Ernest Hemingway’s staccato sentences have contributed as much to the consolidation of sexist stereotypes as Marcel Proust’s long and winding convolutions. The question of how we deal today with classics that continue to fascinate us, and yet at the same time fundamentally annoy us, can hardly be answered unambiguously. In the first iteration of her new TZK column, “Objets Trouvés,” which will now be published here at irregular intervals, writer Violaine Huisman shares the mixed feelings she had when rereading Proust’s magnum opus, affectionately known as “La Recherche.” Not content with the mere finding that some things finally fall out of fashion, Huisman reminds us of literature’s potential to make life’s many contradictions and paradoxes more bearable – and even productive.

“In the life of most women, everything, even the greatest sorrow, ends up being a fashion question.” [1] I reread the sentence at least a dozen times to confirm that I hadn’t hallucinated it among the heart-wrenching pages describing the death of the narrator’s grandmother. To say it comes out of left field is about the right level of dissonance: it’s like encountering a baseball analogy in a French classic. It had the virtue of bringing to light the misogynistic undertones that pervade À la recherche du temps perdu. Still, I was shocked. How could the man who spends half of the novel rating dresses spew such venom? Against the maid, at that! I shut the book – the second volume of my leatherbound Pléiade edition – hoping to create a loud slam, like a door flung shut. I shared my anger with my girlfriends, who all agreed that the sentence was just despicable, really gross. How was it possible, we kept harping on, that such a fine observer of the human condition be capable of such baseness?

Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, pointed out to readers of her generation that a man could have rows of graduated curls descend to his neck; he could have his head covered in a boat-shaped hat surmounted with red plumes; he could wear tabards embroidered with lions and unicorns, ribbons of all colors: his costume, no matter how ostentatious or wild, would only be associated with incomparable prestige. [2] Frivolity was strictly feminine. On a woman, clothes were synonymous with artifice, vanity, lust. Even when a woman would dress up to comply with the only institution to which education gave her access, meaning marriage.

I read La Recherche in its entirety for the first time at twenty, on my own, outside an academic framework. I was just stepping out of childhood, and I had put an ocean between my family and me. From New York, Proust’s language brought me back to a place where I felt I belonged, outside of national heritage. I felt at home in his prose more than anywhere else in the world. His interminable sentences were where I wished to live, preferably until death did us part. I don’t remember finding his portrayal of women shocking or indignant at the time. I probably wasn’t quite a woman yet myself. I read all seven volumes in one go, riveted to the point of febrility, carrying my omnibus edition everywhere, from a crowded subway car to the Coney Island beach, where sand slipped into its pages so that, to the touch, grains of quartz seemed to have translated the book into braille. I felt blindly transported on a path at once magisterial, unsurpassable, and dreamlike. With the pencil I used to hold my hair up, I underlined the words “Every woman feels that, if her power over a man is great, the only way to leave him is sudden flight. A fugitive because a queen, precisely.” [3] That last sentence became the title of my first novel. Fugitive parce que reine.

Rereading La Recherche with twice as many years of experience and maturity, I reencountered the feeling of being at home within its pages. I reencountered the quote to which I had attached my name as a writer. I found it just as sublime. Yet, I also noted the sentence that followed: “To be sure, there is an unspeakable interval between the boredom which she inspired a moment ago and, because she has gone, this furious desire to have her back again.” The passage concerns Albertine – who, after spending an entire volume locked up in a little room next to the narrator’s (that previous book is called The Prisoner), listening to her boyfriend’s indecision, patiently accepting his endless wavering, quietly obeying him, including when he forbids her to leave her room and attends a party – finally packs her bags. The narrator of La Recherche enjoys possessing Albertine beyond all else. Happiness, he confesses, is merely a balm, a respite to the suffering caused by his jealousy. Having lived a passion as intense as painful between my two readings of La Recherche, I admired his description of the torments of desire – a desire deregulated by the fear of abandonment – and how much it rang true. Nonetheless, I noted these observations as a woman, with an acute awareness of my sisters’ weakness: Albertine, Odette, the Duchess of Guermantes (who endures, dignified and stoic, her husband’s continuous verbal assaults, his constant infidelities), and even the grandmother.

Beyond my own intellectual and emotional journey, the two last decades have seen society evolve toward (toward: it’s a long road ahead) greater gender equality, a plural understanding of gender identity, a less rigid definition of family and parenting, less heteronormative mores. In 2022, it was impossible not to wince at the character of Charlus, not to find his caricature appalling. Albertine was surely inspired by a boy; the novel nevertheless presents a girl. A penniless orphan raised by an indifferent aunt, her only chance of upward mobility is through marriage, which the narrator refuses (in plain language, with astounding cruelty), and to which he bars her by making her live with him, in sin, with the social stigma it suggests and the risks it comports for her. And what about Odette, whose mother sold her to a rich Englishman on the French Riviera, at sixteen or eighteen (no one knows for sure, and nobody cares)? Odette is a cocotte, sure. Yet Odette is also a woman whose own mother destined her to prostitution. Swann, for all his love declarations, remains her client, until he decides to marry her – when the fruit of their love, the adorable Gilberte, is already well into her teens. It’s a minor detail in Swann’s life that it took him a while to settle on recognizing his child, in other words, to secure a better future for his daughter than that of a bastard.

Perhaps only the Marquise de Sévigné, whose letters frequently appear in the narrator’s mother’s and grandmother’s own correspondence, offers a feminine figure freed from male dominion. Even the wonderful grandmother isn’t spared the tyranny of the male gaze: she poses on the Balbec beach for Saint-Loup and his camera with a new little hat she bought for the occasion. Her grandson finds her nauseatingly ridiculous. And so offensive! Is she trying to seduce his friend? It’s borderline obscene. Months and years would go by before he would finally realize how unfair he had been. His grandmother, knowing she had only little time left to live, had accepted Saint-Loup’s offer to photograph her to leave her beloved grandson a pretty image of herself. Suddenly overwhelmed by grief as he reencountered the picture, he would realize that what he had interpreted as misplaced coquetry was only thoughtfulness, and that his bad temper, his rebuff, had inflicted unprecedented pain on his grandmother as she was about to die.

Page after page, I arrived at the conclusion that this extraordinary book was also rife with sexism. And hence the question: Should the contemporary reader privilege a deontological position over an aesthetic one? Of course, the more mediocre the work, the easier it is to rule out: after all, time is very good at triage. But what about classics? What about La Recherche?

As I struggled with these questions, I acknowledged my anger and recognized that it didn’t tarnish my admiration for this monumental novel: it nuanced it, it put it in perspective. It helped me measure how far we’d come, and note, in the distance between my two readings, how much my personal and our collective thinking had evolved. Among the innumerable lessons reading Proust taught me is the possibility of rereading: past events, loved ones, authors. Reading Proust indeed implies rereading lived experiences in hopes of understanding them: rereading him in order to reweave time, to forgive ourselves our past mistakes or misjudgments in the light of the present moment and its perpetual revolution.

“In the life of most women, everything, even the greatest sorrow, ends up being a fashion question.” I remembered Proust’s sentence at my father’s funeral, in my prettiest mourning dress, a midi dress in silk crepe, with long sleeves and fringed ruffles, and a deconstructed neckline tied in a bow under the chin. I had been the daughter of a man addicted to fashion and capable of the same infuriating remark. I thought of all my grievances against my father, and of how much I loved him; I thought of the paradox of feelings, of the reasons for my expatriation, for more than twenty years. I had returned to France to be near him before he died. He passed away peacefully, his hand in mine. In the cemetery, I thought of the narrator’s grandmother as I treaded on the gravel path leading to my father’s grave, trying to dismiss the ghosts heckling me. I thought that literature can sometimes reconcile the contradictions of the heart, redeem injustices – collective or private. I thought of this “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf describes, this geographically variable place that I had built for myself, without which writing could not exist. I thought that in that room, my outfit consisted of sweatpants and an old T-shirt; that fashion questions there were reserved to metaphors, regardless of their gender.

Violaine Huisman is a writer, translator, and curator living between France and the US. Her debut novel, Fugitive parce que reine, was awarded multiple prizes in France; its English version, The Book of Mother, was a 2021 New York Times Notable Book.

The original French version of this text was previously published by Gallimard.

Image credit: Courtesy of the artist


[1]My translation. “In the life of most women, everything, even the greatest sorrow, resolves itself into a question of ‘trying-on’” is how C. K. Scott Moncrieff has it. The French says “une question d’essayage” – a fitting. Marcel Proust, who translated from English into French, had a chance to read and comment on Moncrieff’s valiant effort and “fine talent.” He didn’t much like the result, though. The language feels particularly awkward and dated here, but I will quote his translation later nonetheless, when I don’t think I can do better.
[2]I’m paraphrasing Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, an open letter against “the patriarchal system … with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility.”
[3]Moncrieff’s translation.