NO ONE SPEAKS of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) as a gay novel; it’s a novel about fin-de-siècle Paris, about the rarefied world of duchesses and princesses. It’s the story of a man who dips a madeleine (a sort of French cookie) into his tea and is instantly transported, via involuntary memory, back to his childhood. It’s the saga of Swann, a Parisian æsthete obsessed with Odette, a cocotte who, he marvels at the end, was “not even my type,” a novel about love, jealousy, and snobbery. True. But it’s also about homosexuality, so much so that Proust was worried as he was trying to get it published that someone else would beat him to the punch—because he knew he was writing about a world no one else had described before.
But what about the Satyricon—Petronius Arbiter’s much earlier novel about a young man pursuing his boyfriend through ancient Rome? Isn’t that the world’s first gay novel? Maybe. But in the Satyricon, same-sex desire is not the subject; it is not even abnormal. In Proust’s time, homosexuals were social outcasts, men who lived, in Proust’s metaphor, with a secret vice so isolating they might as well be living on Mont Blanc. Reading Proust, the modern homosexual recognizes everything about this underground world of cab drivers, footmen, aristocrats, and bellhops, never before or better described than in Proust’s novel, so brilliantly that if it’s not the first gay novel, it is still arguably the most profound.
What follows is excerpted from the September-October 2006 issue.
Andrew Holleran, author of many novels starting with Dancer from the Dance (1978), has been a regular GLR contributor since Issue I.1.