Gay pride

Proust

Edmund White <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 149pp, £12.99

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It's hard to imagine Marcel Proust in a cottaging situation. For one thing, he would have found it too cold. A man who wore three overcoats when dining at the Ritz would not have adapted readily to the rigours of convenience cruising. I think public toilets are mentioned only once in A la recherche du temps perdu: a few pages into volume two, the teenage narrator accompanies his servant into a "little pavilion". Once inside, the "cool, fusty smell" triggers an involuntary memory - a "pleasure of a different kind from other pleasures" - the genesis of which is as innocent as the dawn. Although he can't decipher it immediately, the narrator later discovers that the smell in the toilet reminds him of his Uncle Adolphe's room in the house he stayed in during his childhood.

Which just goes to prove that writers, unlike pop stars, can amuse themselves in lavatories without tossing off in front of strangers. On the other hand, for people who wish to reclaim Proust as a gay writer, the evidence is certainly there. A notorious mother's boy, Marcel would whine and whimper if she so much as left the room. At 21 he defined his principal trait as "the need to be loved, or more precisely, the need to be caressed and spoiled rather than the need to be admired".

Add to this the love of flowers, the martyr-to-my-art hypochondria, the penchant for young men - and the case seems pretty well established. So why would Proust go out of his way to deny it? Was it just the manners of the time, or was there something else behind his decision to fight a duel with a man who accused him of being comme ca?

As a piece of literary outing, Proust is as gentle and civilised as a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne. The book - the first publication of the Weidenfeld and Nicolson "Lives" series - is both an admirable short introduction to the writer's life and work and a serious discussion of how the creation of A la recherche was informed by its author's sexuality. We are introduced to the male blueprints for some of the female characters - Proust's lovers, White suggests, gained immortality as the male narrator's female love interests. Albertine, for example, is a composite of Agostinelli, Proust's chauffeur.

Whatever the wisdom of this approach, there's an element of bathos in the unmasking of Proust's creations. You don't have to believe, as Proust himself did, that a writer's biography is irrelevant to find the reduction of A la recherche to a gay journal rather depressing. It is, perhaps, no reflection on White that his version of a gay Proust seems banal. When you're dealing with a writer who sought to liberate the world from "the bondage of habitual appearances", a perfectly good gay reading can look like an attempt to reverse this literary alchemy - converting the book back into these base materials. As a man who knew, above all, that true understanding means refusing to be content with the way the world tries to explain itself, Proust would have had no more time for the discourse of gay lit crit than he did for the cliched language of M Norpois' newspaper columns.

Perhaps this explains his reluctance to embrace his own "gay identity". White tells us that "at the same time as Proust was eager to make love to other men, he was equally determined to avoid the label homosexual". Judging Proust by the modern standard - good gays as the ones who declare themselves and bad gays those who shun the label - White accuses his subject of "secretiveness". This is amplified to "closetedness" with the clear implication that Proust's failure to advertise the "truth" about his sexuality was a sign of moral cowardice.

But maybe Proust had perfectly respectable reasons for refusing to wear the T-shirt. If Edmund White is right and Proust was open about his liaisons with the people in his immediate orbit, he clearly didn't mind them knowing he was having sex with men. Nevertheless, he would no more have credited the reality of "gay identity" than reduced his complex characters to ciphers of political intent. In Proust, there are no such limits. Love exceeds its objects, characters exceed their social settings, experience exceeds understanding. If this means he was living (and writing) a lie, it's hard to explain why his one great work looks so much like the truth.

Charlotte Raven writes a column in the "Guardian"