Sodom and Gomorrah (Vol. IV of In Search of Lost Time) – Marcel Proust

S&GSodom and Gomorrah

Volume IV of In Search of Lost Time

Marcel Proust

Translation: C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin

Revised by D. J. Enright

Random House

747 pages

According to reliable sources who have more time for counting such things than I do, the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust contain about 1.2 million words and (in the version I am reading) around 4,200 pages, and introduce as many as 2,000 characters. I started reading Proust’s mammoth novel about the same time as I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I was then in my forties, a time that for me included contemplating mountains and deciding that if I wanted to ascend them, I’d better get moving. I never did run a full 26.2 miles (although I did complete a half-marathon once), but I’ve just finished Volume IV of Proust’s novel, so on that resolution, I’m still going strong.

In fact, even though I’m reading it at the rate of about one volume per half decade, I am liking ISOLT better all the time. And to my amazement, Proust actually ended the volume I’ve just completed (Sodom and Gomorrah) with what I can only describe as a “Proustian cliff-hanger,” so I am itching to get on to Volume V (The Prisoner). I may actually pick it up in two years or so, rather than waiting five. (Fortunately, each volume includes synopses of each chapter, so that even if it has been four years and 300 pages since I last encountered Mme. Swann, I can easily go back and figure out who she is.)

One of Proust’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to describe the minutiae of his unnamed narrator’s daily life (a thinly veiled version of his own, which took place between 1871 and 1922) in a way that sustains the attention of the reader. However, his confidence that his words will draw us in and hold us frequently verges on the audacious. How many other writers would dare to devote 150 pages to the details of a single dinner party? (Thankfully, very few.)

It’s not as though the daily lives of Proust’s narrator, his family, friends, and acquaintances hold any real dramatic interest: in fact, almost nothing ever happens in ISOLT. In Sodom and Gomorrah, which opens in Paris and concludes later in the same summer at the northern seaside resort of Balbec (modeled after Cabourg), the major characters tend to rise from their beds near noon, have lunch, go visiting or walking or on other afternoon excursions, change and dress for dinner, and then eat, drink, talk, and occasionally fondle one another in the dark.

One of the reasons why the narrator’s recounting of events does not benumb us is that, in spite of the number of pages allocated to dinner parties and other social situations, they contain very little detail about what food was served, what the guests were wearing, or other superficialities. Instead Proust uses his narrator’s recollections of these events as springboards for contemplations of such matters as relationships among social strata, the role of “fashion” in appreciation of the arts, transportation, politics, and various manifestations of sexual preference (a primary focus of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the title of the volume suggests).

Europe was changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century, and by observing and reflecting on these changes and on how deeply they altered the world as it had been for decades and even centuries, Proust creates not only a rich and detailed study of the role in our lives of what he terms “involuntary memory,” but also a fascinating record of early 20th century France.

Social Structure

One area of vast upheaval during the early adulthoods of both Proust and his narrator involved the blurring of lines that had previously separated the nobility from the middle and working classes. Now, it was possible for Morel, the son of a servant, to sit at the dinner table of a woman like Mme. Verdurin — a career hostess with a keen awareness of the lineage and social standing of everyone with whom she associated.

Morel’s musical talent was his entree to Mme. Verdurin’s “little clan,” but the fact that he arrived on the arm of a person of royal lineage, Palamède, Baron de Charlus, didn’t hurt. “Being introduced” still mattered, and awareness of social hierarchy was still very much alive. The focus of much of the attention of Mme. Verdurin’s social group was on who was visiting whom, who was not, and why. (I was amused as I was reading Sodom and Gomorrah to note the similarities between it and another much more current book I have been dipping into for fun, The Social Climber’s Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile, by Dirk Wittenborn and Jazz Johnson.) In these circles, whether invitations happened to be accepted or declined was fraught with implications and meaning that related not only to absolute and relative social status (e.g., the capacity of a certain guest to open new doors for the host), through tastes in art and music and political positions (particularly vis á vis the Dreyfus affair, which was much in the news at the turn of the last century), to previous slights among guests and hosts.

Proust, whose own background could be considered middle class — his father was a pathologist, his mother also very intelligent and well read – is wickedly pointed and very funny in his descriptions of the airs and nastiness of his socially conscious characters. They seem oblivious to their silly obsessions: the little group listens patiently and even raptly as de Charlus describes his lineage in minute detail, but when another guest — Brichot — devotes equal time to the etymology of place names, they mock his endless, tiresome recitations.

Homosexuality

Sodom and Gomorrah focuses on two main characters aside from the narrator – de Charlus and Albertine Simonet – and it is through them that Proust explores his primary theme.

De Charlus is a wealthy, pompous widower of noble lineage who does not realize that the entire little universe that surrounds him is aware that he is “an invert” (as Proust labels it). The narrator becomes aware of the Baron’s inclination early on, when he overhears de Charlus and a gardener, Jupien, getting it on early one afternoon.

De Charlus is circumspect when he is accompanied by one of his young enamoratos or when the subject of homosexuality comes up in conversation, but in general he is so certain that no one would ever suspect him of being a “sodomite” that he feels quite comfortable prancing, mincing and giggling about whenever the spirit takes him. On one occasion he seems blissfully willing to go along with an invitation from Mme. Verdurin that he and Morel, the young violinist who has recently won his heart, should stay at her home – in adjoining rooms that are so well padded that no one anywhere else in the house will hear them rehearsing their musical presentations.

It is believed that Proust himself was homosexual (although — at least so far as I have read at this point — his narrator was not) and he is clearly sympathetic. His many long and detailed reflections include such topics as how “inverts” behave toward those to whom they are attracted vs toward those whom they love (comparing and contrasting their behaviour with that of heterosexuals in similar situations), and analyzing how they behave toward those they think know of their inclinations and those who they believe do not.

In contrast to the sympathy the narrator exhibits for the male homosexuals he knows is his disgust about the lesbian tendencies he perceives in a few of the women of his acquaintance, recoiling in horror at the very thought of women physically loving one another. Part of the reason for this dismay is certainly the narrator’s jealousy of Albertine (“but here the rival was not of the same kind as myself, had different weapons; I could not compete on the same ground, give Albertine the same pleasures, nor indeed conceive of them exactly.” p. 338). Nonetheless, his lack of tolerance for those of “sapphist” tendencies is all the more remarkable because of the aplomb with which he discusses the disposition of males who are physically drawn to one another — which surely must have been an outlier’s attitude in the society in which Proust lived.

Jealousy

The narrator of ISOLT through to the end of Volume IV is in poor health and is often irritatingly absorbed with his own fragility. His pouty need to be cosseted and cared for extends from his grandmother, his mother, and his maid to the young women with whom he becomes involved: his possessiveness towards the latter group borders on the pathological. There seems to be as much hatred as there is affection in the way he feels about Albertine, whose time and attention he consumes without consideration for anyone but himself, and who goes out of her way to accommodate him for no reason I can imagine.

On one occasion, his friend Bloch asks the narrator as a favour to get off the train which is waiting in a station to pay his respects to Bloch’s father, who is nearby. Albertine is with him in the train car, and the narrator is desperately afraid that she will begin to flirt with Robert de Saint-Loup, a rival, if he lets her out of his sight. Although he would have plenty of time to pay the visit, he puts his entire relationship with Bloch, a friend since childhood, into a permanent state of decline when he not only refuses to get off the train, but to provide an explanation (p. 682-4). Later, when after a protracted period of reflection he decides that he does not love Albertine and that he will break the relationship off with her immediately, all it takes is a suspicion that she has been drawn to someone else to bring him flying back in a possessive rage, demanding she stay with him day and night forever.

Immersion in An Era

Recently I have felt immersed in late-19th and early-20th century Europe. I started reading Sodom and Gomorrah just a few months after I finished The Hare with Amber Eyes – a nonfiction account of the misfortunes of the Ephrussi family (which appears under a pseudonym in Proust’s novel).  I have also been reading Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, as well as a biography of the British designer and writer William Morris.

Having, along with Stephen Fry, mulled over Richard Wagner’s antisemitism while watching the film Wagner and Me, attempting with mixed success to frame it in the context of the time in which he lived, I was intrigued to read on p. 384 of Sodom and Gomorrah that I was reading about that very time: Mme. Verdurin “trembled at the thought of seeing [certain] provincials, ignorant of the Ring and the Meistersinger, introduced into [the midst of her little group], people who would be unable to pay their part in the concert of general conversation and were capable of ruining one of those famous Wednesdays, masterpieces as incomparably fragile as those Venetian glasses which one false note is enough to shatter.”

And while reports began to surface about the Charlie Hebdo massacres and their aftermaths, revealing the limits of free speech and the extent of antisemitism and anti-Islamism in France, I happened upon the following passage in Sodom and Gomorrah: “For Dreyfusism was triumphant politically but not socially. Labori, Reinach, Piquart, Zola were still, to people in society, more or less traitors, who could only keep them estranged from the little nucleus” (p. 384).

Some things, I’m very sad to see, may never change.

Proust’s Narrator

The unnamed Narrator of Proust’s novel is not only aware of the flaws of those he sees around him, and aware of the ways in which society is changing in the large picture, he is also self aware. While this self-awareness brings on irritation on the part of the reader as well as the narrator as he describes his own flaws,  it also inspires some of the novel’s finest passages. One afternoon he is riding on horseback along the cliffs beside the sea, bemoaning the habits he’s got into at Balbec that are holding him back from so much real and imagined work and pleasure. He says

Suddenly my horse reared; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle; then I raised my tear-filled eyes in the direction from which the sound seemed to come and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two great wings of flashing metal which were bearing him aloft, a creature whose indistinct face appeared to me to resemble that of a man. I was deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demigod. I wept — for I had been ready to weep the moment I realized that the sound came from above my head, at the thought that what I was going to see for the first time was an aero plane. Then, just as when in a newspaper that one is coming to a moving passage, the mere sight of the machine was enough to make me burst into tears. Meanwhile the airman seemed to be uncertain of his course; I felt that there lay open before him — before me, had not habit made me a prisoner — all the routes in space, in life itself; he flew on, let himself glide for a few moments over the sea, then quickly making up his mind, seeming to yield to some attraction that was the reverse of gravity, as though returning to his native element, with a slight adjustment of his golden wings he headed straight up into the sky. (p. 582)

Admonished to “write what you know,” most writers have no idea how to make that material of interest to other people. Proust did. As in the 150-page-dinner party, nothing much ever happens, but thanks to the author’s keen eye, his humour, and his intellect, the reader is mesmerized. Reading ISOLT is sort of like getting into a carriage that is drawn slowly around the countryside. We can see the detail – the unfurling of the flowers and the ocean views from the gardens of the villas –  and we get to know the peccadilloes of the people who inhabit the landscape so well that they would become intolerable if we had to live with them any longer than we do. But just in the nick of time, we move on.

The importance of memory is one of the major themes of the entire seven-volume work, and the novel itself serves as a chronicle of much that might otherwise have been forgotten. It is a pleasure to be reading it as the events that make up my own life unfold and gradually retreat into the past. Proust reminds us to pay attention.

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