In Proust, love, art and suffering are inextricably connected. Love inevitably leads to suffering, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because suffering leads to art. For Proust, there is no art without suffering. The pain of grief, over a lost grandmother for example, may provide some impetus to art. But there is no comparison to the suffering caused by love for inspiring true art.
Love is not a happy thing in Proust. Of all the many, many relationships portrayed, I can only think of one that could possibly be described as “happy” (the artist Elstir and his wife). And Proust spends very little time discussing that relationship, so I’m sure with a little more attention he would have found the misery there as well. Although they’re not exactly relationships, probably the least miserable are the lesbians – they have ongoing sexual friendships that seem to be mostly free of the many downfalls of the other relationships portrayed in Proust.
The common pattern for “love” in Proust is that one partner is madly, passionately and jealously in love and the other partner is, in one way or another, using him or her. This pattern applies for both heterosexual and homosexual (male) relationships. The pattern is set at the beginning in Swann’s Way with the depiction of Swann’s disastrous relationship with Odette. Every other love affair echoes this one. Marriage is it’s own hell in Proust. Love is not even expected and infidelity is the rule. Of course, there’s no denying the appeal of that initial, passionate love that we often feel at the beginning of a love affair. The uncertainty of it all, the all-consuming need to be with the loved one, and yes, even the jealousy. But how sad that, to Proust, that is all that love is. It seems so immature in a way. Where is the enduring love? The mutual love built on honesty and respect? When reading about In Search of Lost Time before and while reading it, I frequently saw commentators describe Marcel’s relationship with Albertine as his “great love.” But even that love affair follows the typical pattern. In the end I felt sorry for Proust that he never experienced a deep and fulfilling love, but only these superficial passions based on mutual distrust. I suppose we can hope that in his personal life Proust did experience more, but that he just didn’t feel a happy love made for very good reading. And he wanted to make his point about the value of suffering.