Proust on the Charles: The Journal of Claude Fredericks

By Robert W. Mack


What happens when a 17-year-old gay boy from Missouri, high on Proust, arrives at Harvard in 1941, on a quest for love, sex and greatness?  The answer is revealed -- in rich, exasperating and touching detail -- by Volume II of The Journal of Claude Fredericks.


The journey is not for the faint of heart.  Volume II -- in two parts -- runs just under 1,400 pages.  Yet I found it almost compulsively readable; while I was in the book Claude's life seemed more vivid than my own; I couldn't wait to find out what happens (or doesn't happen) next; and when I looked up from my reading my sensitivity to the texture of my own life was enhanced.


Claude's feelings on his first day at college, gazing out the window of his dorm room at the boys strolling across the campus, are perhaps those of every gay freshman:


I really could go after almost any of them.  It amazes me that there should be so many handsome single boys.  Well, here if ever I should not be lonely.  If here, then always. ... Now I feel so exquisitely free.  I can stay out all night and have no one to report to, I can go where I damn please and hear no objections.  There are museums and concerts and plays and beautiful people (if not too much of any) and I am the most unencumbered thing in the world ...  [20-21]


The Harvard Fredericks describes was an orgy of high culture.  He attends and critiques classical concerts several nights a week and visits art museums almost as often.  While the subtext is always love, conversations with his classmates often involve weighty aesthetic judgments and concerns.  He thrills to lectures by some of Harvard's greatest professors, such as the young John Finley, and sometimes sets down enough substance for us to share in his enjoyment.  Several of Claude's poetic friends were bound for greatness:  He was close to May Sarton and we get warm glimpses of her family circle; John Berryman makes a number of rather brittle appearances; even Delmore Schwartz is mentioned a few times, although Claude has little nice to say about him.


The first part covers all but the last few weeks of his freshman year, and largely recounts a series of hopelessly romantic crushes on classmates who prove more or less impervious to the charms of Claude's "seduction couch."  Each failure throws Claude into depression for several days, then hope attaches to another boy, and the roller coaster starts up again:


The transition from nothing to love is so sudden and strange--it is not love at all of course but is the moment when my nobility dissolves & I become a rabbit or really any animal & long to touch someone's hand & kiss him.  ...  I wonder if anyone else is ever so stupidly attracted to strangers they count meals and remember the slightest words and hints and gestures and possibilities of love and plan the hours of possible meetings & wander places the stranger could be ... [92]


As with Don Quixote one doesn't always know whether to laugh or cry.  But just when the long suffering reader is ready to throw the book down in despair Claude meets a divinity student named Lewis and an affair rapidly unfolds, steamy if flawed.  One Proustian sentence must serve as a sample of Fredericks' near-perfect description of their meeting and first night:


And all the while we were kissing, and I was tonguing his nipples, and he was rubbing mine, and we were rubbing each other's penises, and he was pushing his up between my legs and rubbing and he was sucking my penis ... (the word "cocksucker" kept going through my head over and over, and also the end of the "Summer is icumen in" of the records I had bought that day) and I was sitting in his lap, spoonfashion, as Mother used to have me sleep with her (how lovely a word I never realised before, that, "spoonfashion") and my hand was beneath his and his hands were tightly about me, gripping me and holding me safe from all reality, and all the while I was halfrepulsed and wondering why all this was happening and was so completely detached it was as though I were staring at myself without pleasure and were another person.  [666-667]


The second part starts with the last few weeks of freshman year, and a rather tedious (for him and us) trip back home.  The bulk of this part, however, describes Claude's long hot summer in New York City, where he has sex -- and falls more or less in love -- with a series of interesting men, mostly met during meticulously described cruising sessions in Washington Square Park, and culminating in a brief but intense affair with an older (possibly even 30!) musician.  He works for a Dickensian rare book dealer the first half of the summer but quits half way through to give himself more time to write … and to have adventures to write about.  The return to Cambridge that fall is anticlimactic until he meets a soul mate who gives Claude more than any previous lover, despite his sexual ambivalence.  Since Harvard doesn't offer a double major in Gay Romance and Journal Writing, and Claude has been doing little else, he leaves school just before exams, where the volume ends.


Proust's central aesthetic insight is also the key to Fredericks:  Beauty and wisdom can be drawn from meticulous examination of the emotional texture of life, even when nothing particularly dramatic is happening.  Of course Proust has the advantage of mature reflection, and the opportunity to shape his material, while Claude's daily journal is inevitably sophomoric (freshmanic even), and written in the heat of the moment.  But the young Claude has a remarkable capacity for observing, recalling and recording his thoughts and feelings.  Both are spoiled mama's boys; both are painfully self conscious; and of course obsessive.  But where Proust’s narrator is neurotic, deceitful and manipulative Claude's straightforward pursuit of love, sex and greatness makes him a rather likable literary companion.  Even more important, while Proust's crippling homophobia distorts and probably falsifies his account, Claude celebrates his sexuality:  “To be a boy-lover, paederastiast, homosexual, fairy (each lovely word one after another shall roll from my tongue) is the most lovely thing in the world & the most perfect love there is.”  [481]


Much in these diaries is timeless, but other aspects are strikingly evocative of another time.  While he often describes his mood or behavior as "gay" or "gai" the word for him doesn't refer to sexual identity.  He decides at one point to, "reduce my toilet to five bottles--olive oil, boric acid, merthiolate, soda and salt, [and] witch hazel..."  [1163]  He stays at a nice New York City hotel for $25 -- startling until you realize that the CPI has gone up 15 fold since 1941, so he paid $375 in our money.


There are, to be sure, longueurs.  Claude imagines himself a great poet and dozens of his youthful poems are included.  One might suppose that his poems would afford a deeper insight into his feelings, but his prose is so evocative that the poems (except for a few from the summer of 1942) add little.  Also, in part two he starts speculating about the nature of God, in abstract passages that may be skipped without regret.


The war in Europe is scarcely mentioned before Pearl Harbor, and even afterward the impacts, though eventually profound, accumulate only gradually:  Claude is annoyed by boys marching in the Yard, there are air raids and blackouts, he needs a ration card and must register for the draft, he prepares to go to prison as a conscientious objector, and towards the end he wonders which of his classmates will die.


What happens after Claude leaves Harvard, in December, 1942?  The answer is out there, since Fredericks' journal -- now at the Getty -- amounts to some sixty volumes, which he intends to publish sequentially.  How much of one's own life one is willing to devote to vicariously reliving his is a question that each reader must decide for himself.  But an impatient young reader might do worse than to accept Fredericks' invitation, written as a 19-year-old, assuming that it still stands:


When I am gray & great, & boys ask how, I shall say simply, Keep a journal & live a great deal & let the rest be spontaneous & unpremeditated--& then trundle them, one by one, off to my bed that they may have something to feed their journals with when they've spent a night with me.  [1380]


The Journal Of Claude Fredericks: Volume Two Part One : Cambridge ( 1941-1942 ) (Paperback)

The Journal Of Claude Fredericks: Volume Two Part Two : Cambridge ( 1942 ) (Paperback)