Quentin Crisp on Remembrance of Things Past

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Quentin Crisp on Remembrance of Things Past

I consider A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, though I have
only read it in translation, the greatest book in the world. It
is keyhole literature — as you read it, you are aware that
everything in it is something you ought never have been told. And
it’s so funny! Typical is this passage where Mr. Proust describes
kissing Albertine. It really puts an end to all the disgusting
preoccupation with sex that beleaguers contemporary literature. A
friend of mine said that when she is watching a program on
television and the car chase begins, it is the time to get up and
make toast. For me, “toast time” begins when the detective’s face
slowly collapses onto the face of the woman he is supposed to be
protecting. I like to think it would be toast time for Mr. Proust,
too.   -QC

* * *

From Remembrance of Things Past, “The Guermantes Way” by
Marcel Proust:

I should have liked, before kissing her, to be able to breathe
into her anew the mystery which she had had for me on the beach
before I knew her, to discover in her the place where she had
lived earlier still; in its stead at least, if I knew nothing of
it, I could insinuate all the memories of our life at Balbec, the
sound of the waves breaking beneath my window, the shouts of the
children. But when I let my eyes glide over the charming pink
globe of her cheeks, the gently curving surface of which expired
beneath the first foothills of her beautiful black hair which ran
undulating ridges, thrust out its escarpments, and molded the
hollows and ripples of its valleys, I could not help saying to
myself: “Now at last, after failing at Balbec, I am going to
discover the fragrance of the secret rose that blooms on
Albertine’s cheeks. And, since the cycles through which we are
able to make things and people pass in the course of our
existence are comparatively few, perhaps I shall be able to
consider mine in a certain sense fulfilled when, having taken out
of its distant frame the blossoming face that I had chosen from
among all others, I shall have brought it into this new plane,
where I shall at least have knowledge of it through my lips.” I
told myself this because I believed that there was such a thing
as knowledge acquired by the lips; I told myself that I was going
to know the taste of this fleshy rose, because I had not stopped
to think that man, a creature obviously less rudimentary than the
sea-urchin or even the whale, nevertheless lacks a certain number
of essential organs, and notably possesses none that will serve
for kissing. For this absent organ he substitutes his lips, and
thereby arrives perhaps at a slightly more satisfying result than
if he were reduced to caressing the beloved with a horny tusk.
But a pair of lips, designed to convey to the palate the taste of
whatever whets their appetite, must be content, without
understanding their mistake or admitting their disappointment,
with roaming over the surface and with coming to a halt at the
barrier of the impenetrable but irresistible cheek. Moreover at
that moment of actual contact with the flesh, the lips, even on
the assumption that they might become more expert and better
endowed, would doubtless be unable to enjoy any more fully the
savor which nature prevents their ever actually grasping, for in
that desolate zone in which they are unable to find their proper
nourishment they are alone, the sense of sight, then that of
smell, having long since deserted them. At first, as my mouth
began gradually to approach the cheeks which my eyes had
recommended it to kiss, my eyes, in changing position, saw a
different pair of cheeks; the neck observed at closer range and
as though through a magnifying-glass, showed in its coarser grain
a robustness which modified the character of the face.

Apart from the most recent applications of photography — which
huddle at the foot of a cathedral all the houses which so often,
from close to, appeared to us to almost reach the height of the
towers, drill and deploy like a regiment, in file, in extended
order, in serried masses, the same monuments, bring together the
two columns in the Piazzetta which a moment ago were so far
apart, thrust away the adjoining dome of the Salute, and in a
pale and toneless background manage to include a whole immense
horizon within the span of a bridge, in the embrasure of a
window, among the leaves of a tree that stands in the foreground
and is portrayed in a more vigorous tone, frame a single church
successively in the arcades of all the others — I can think of
nothing that can to so great a degree as a kiss evoke out of what
we believed to be a thing with a definite aspect, the hundred
other things which it may equally well be, since each is related
to a no less legitimate perspective. In short, just as at Balbec
Albertine had often appeared different to me, so now — as if,
prodigiously accelerating the speed of the changes of perspective
and changes of coloring which a person presents to us in the
course of our various encounters, I had sought to contain them
all in the space of a few seconds so as to reproduce
experimentally the phenomenon which diversifies the individuality
of a fellow-creature, and to draw out one from another, like a
nest of boxes, all the possibilities that it contains — so now,
during this brief journey of my lips towards her cheek, it was
ten Albertines that I saw; this one girl being like a many-headed
goddess, the head I had seen at last, when I tired to approach
it, gave way to another. At least so long as I had not touched
that head, I could still see it, and a faint perfume came to me
from it. But alas — for in this matter of kissing our nostrils
and eyes are as ill-placed as our lips are well-made — suddenly
my eyes ceased to see, then my nose, crushed by the collision, no
longer perceived any odor, and, without thereby gaining any
clearer idea of the taste of the rose of my desire, I learned,
from these obnoxious signs, that at last I was in the act of
kissing Albertine’s cheek.

(Translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin,
© Random House, Inc.)

Introduction ©1997
Quentin Crisp
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