the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and translated by Kilmartin and Moncrieff

I’m not sure why Proust is so rarely described as a great comic writer. Perhaps it’s because readers focus instead on the beauty of his prose or his extraordinary psychological insight. It could be because contemporary literary culture undervalues comic fiction. I think though the real reason is that those people who read Proust know perfectly well how funny he is, but most people who discuss or refer to him don’t actually read him. See also: Joyce.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah kicks off with Marcel inadvertently seeing a gay hookup between M. de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien. M. de Charlus is of course one of the Guermantes; at the pinnacle of the social ladder (he frequently looks down on royalty). M. Jupien is a tradesman.

Normally two men of such disparate backgrounds would never become friends or have any kind of social contact. Homosexuality though is a bridge across such barriers. When any romance you might have is already forbidden, it doesn’t much matter if the target of your affections is the wrong class.

Proust uses this apparently trivial incident to springboard a near-40 page consideration of what he considers the miracle of gaydar (though obviously he doesn’t call it that); the misery of isolated gay men living with what they consider a shameful perversion (lacking a wider gay community to contextualise their emotions); and the vagaries of gay love and life in then-contemporary France.

If that sounds modern, it’s because Proust is quintessentially modern. That’s part of his genius. Another part though is that Proust takes these topics, shocking at the time and tragic with hindsight, and just plain has fun with them.

For the two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants (according to Genesis) had indeed done all the things the report of which had ascended to the Eternal Throne must have been, and of this one can only be glad, exceedingly ill chosen by the Lord, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomite. Such a one would never have been persuaded by such excuses as “A father of six, I’ve got two mistresses,” to lower his flaming sword benevolently and mitigate the punishment. He would have answered: “Yes, and your wife lives in a torment of jealousy. But even when you haven’t chosen these women from Gomorrah, you spend your nights with a watcher of flocks from Hebron.” And he would at once have made him retrace his steps to the city which the rain of fire and brimstone was to destroy. On the contrary, all the shameless Sodomites were allowed to escape, even if, on catching sight of a boy, they turned their heads like Lot’s wife, though without being on that account changed like her into pillars of salt.

For the rest of the book homosexuality remains a major theme. M. de Charlus is a key figure in this volume, and a brilliant comic creation with his mix of vanity, snobbery and lust (I particularly liked that M. de Charlus is widely known to be gay, but utterly convinced that he’s fooling everyone and completely incognito). Lesbianism also features heavily, but I’ll come back to that separately.

From gay sex and cross-class dating (hard to know which is more shocking), Proust goes on to nearly 130 pages describing a party thrown by the Guermantes. After all that, you’re still only a third of the way through the book.

Marcel turns up at Oriane’s uncertain as to whether or not he’s actually invited. As Oriane has burly footmen present to chuck out any gatecrashers he’s naturally a little anxious, but Marcel by now is an accomplished party-goer and something of a figure in society. He is a prized guest, much in demand.

The party itself is full of wonderful comic set-pieces. Here M. de Charlus is speaking with his excellency the Duke of Sidonia. Proust has revealed they share a common vice, but it’s not the one the reader expects:

M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s [vice], which was in both cases that of being monologuists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was “no help,” they had made up their minds, not to remain silent, but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the sort of confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia—without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to draw breath, the gap was filled by the murmuring of the Spanish grandee who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

Marcel passes on leaving them to their soliloquies, but having made it past the door guards soon finds himself facing another social challenge. Marcel has not been introduced to the prince, M. de Guermantes, who is hosting with Oriane. Marcel cannot of course introduce himself, but equally he must greet his host. How then can he arrange an introduction?

What follows is a series of stratagems and ruses to effect an introduction to a man Marcel has previously spoken with, but who by society’s rules he has not been introduced to. After several attempts he gets M. de Charlus to agree to introduce him, but then a chance comment offends the ever-prickly Charlus and Marcel is no closer. Then he tries Mme de Souvré, who knows both him and the prince:

Mme de Souvré had the art, if called upon to convey a request to some influential person, of appearing at once in the petitioner’s eyes to be recommending him, and in those of the influential person not to be recommending the petitioner, so that this ambiguous gesture gave her a credit balance of gratitude with the latter without putting her in debit with the former. Encouraged by this lady’s civilities to ask her to introduce me to M. de Guermantes, I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.

The party is filled with other comic vignettes, including one man who is so fawning that he has “an excess of politeness which he maintained even when playing tennis, thus, by dint of asking leave of the eminent personages present before hitting the ball, invariably losing the game for his partner)”. There are, however, darker currents also.

At this point in the narrative, evidence is emerging that Dreyfus is in fact innocent and that senior army figures lied. Until now whether you were a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard was more a matter of tribal allegiance than anything else; a short-hand for describing your broader politics. With evidence of innocence though, that starts to change.

Some anti-Dreyfusards faced with new facts start to question their beliefs, though mostly quietly so as not to be ostracised by their friends (there is a nice sequence where a husband and wife both form Dreyfusard views, but each keep it from the other). Some however see the weakening of their case as reason to argue it all the more strongly, such as M. de Guermantes “who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

Worse yet, as the Dreyfus case begins to unravel the anti-semitism rife in French society becomes even more outspoken. Swann is among those who become known as Dreyfusards. His views are no longer particularly unusual, but while one cannot easily condemn a prince for Dreyfusard sympathies Swann is a Jew and one may always condemn the Jews:

“I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world.”

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

There is of course a kind of parallel here; gays and Jews both being outsider groups having to assimilate into a dominant and intolerant culture. Ostensibly, society accepts Jews and condemns gays. Proust, however, has an unerring eye for hypocrisy and is only too aware that his society will accept gays provided they are discrete but will never regard Jews as truly French.

Following the party, Marcel goes on holiday (for several months) to Balbec. It’s his first visit since his grandmother’s death, and while to date he hasn’t really felt her loss somehow being back in that context brings it suddenly home. He can no longer knock on the wall between their rooms and expect her to come round to tend to him. He can knock all day, but she will never again answer.

Proust’s description of Marcel’s grandmother’s final decline and death was one of the highlights (if that’s the right word) of The Guermantes Way. Here Proust writes of grief with the same skill. Once it emerges it’s everywhere. Even when he feels moments of happiness, the fact of feeling happy itself triggers the grief anew as he feels guilty for not feeling sad.

Grief swallows Marcel, and through it he sees too how much his grandmother’s loss has devastated his mother. No emotion though, happy or sad, can entirely consume us indefinitely even if we would wish it to. Soon, Marcel is attending such society as Balbec presents and otherwise spending his days with Albertine, whom he may or may not love but certainly desires.

Proust contrasts the glitter of Paris society, explored in the Guermantes’ party, with the more provincial and bourgois Balbec scene. Here the Verdurin’s rule. They are a family of bourgeois who rent a highly desirable house from the Cambremer family. The Cambremer’s have title and position, but no money, and Proust has great fun with the sniping and condescension between the two.

Marcel is again in high demand (hardly surprising given his status in Paris) and soon becomes part of the Verdurin set. M. de Charlus also shows up, pursuing a romance, and himself becomes a highly prized Verdurin catch (they are however so far out of mainstream society that they ask M. de Charlus if he has ever met the famous M. de Guermantes, unaware that the two are brothers and unsure whether to believe him when told).

Marcel should then be happy. He is in his beloved Balbec; he has society and he has Albertine who being of a slightly lesser family than Marcel’s and not having much by way of money is as affectionate as he might wish. Marcel though has spent his entire life with women who catered to his whims, and as we saw in the first volume when his mother did not come immediately to tuck him in at night he takes poorly to his women (the possessive is intentional) having any kind of life beyond his needs.

In particular, Marcel becomes fixated on the thought that Albertine may be a lesbian. He finds this unbearable, less because it means she is unfaithful than because it makes her part of a world utterly beyond his control. Marcel is both jealous and unreasonable, putting her constantly to the test and never satisfied for long with the answers he gets.

I could have dispensed with seeing her every day; I was happy when I left her, and I knew that the calming effect of that happiness might last for several days. But at that moment I would hear Albertine as she left me say to her aunt or to a girlfriend “Tomorrow at eight-thirty, then. We mustn’t be late, the others will be ready at a quarter past.” The conversation of a woman one loves is like the ground above a dangerous subterranean stretch of water; one senses constantly beneath the words the presence, the penetrating chill of an invisible pool; one perceives here and there the treacherous seepage, but the water itself remains hidden.

To be fair, there is some evidence that Albertine may be gay, or at least bisexual. Partly this allows Proust to discuss gay women just as he has gay men, with Marcel obsessively seeking out information about women he has heard are lesbians so as to discover Albertine’s connections to them. Partly too this shows a less attractive side of Marcel, and his obsessive and controlling nature.

I could easily keep writing, but I’ve already written far too much. In a few weeks I’ll try to write a follow-up post on the role of the car and airplane in this volume and how these new technologies epitomise the arrival of modernity, but I’m already well over 2,000 words here and I’ve not managed to say as much as I’d have liked about the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, or the dynamics of the Verdurin set, or the comic descriptions of the hotel staff (including for me the only missed beat in the book – the hotel managers wearying malapropisms which aren’t nearly as hilarious as Proust seems to think they are), or a hundred other things…

At times I found The Guermantes Way heavy going; I had to push myself through parts of it and it tested my desire to read the whole sequence. Sodom and Gomorrah though, with its insight, its humour and its sheer richness, restored me. This was the first of my #TBR20. If I have another #TBR20 after this one, volume five will definitely be among that number.

Other reviews

Emma of Book Around the Corner has a page devoted to Proust, here. She wrote three separate pieces on this volume alone, and I recommend all of them. Her main piece is here, she wrote an article on the treatment of homosexuality in this volume here, and I found this piece on the comic nature of this volume (drawing comparisons with Molière) particularly fascinating. If you read only one of Emma’s read the Molière (then read the others, they’re worth it). Emma also helpfully links to this piece from Caravana de Recuerdos and this rather good one from Vapour Trails.

Finally, Allan Massie in The Telegraph, shows here that at least some of the more mainstream commentators do get that Proust is, among much else, a great comic writer.


Filed under French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Proust, Marcel

12 responses to “the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

  1. I must really go back and crack open Proust again. I think it is the size that puts me off. This volume sounds intriguing to me. Yesterday I was talking to a group of gay and trans friends about gaydar. A couple of the men present came out in their late 40s when everyone else knew they were gay BUT they did not. I imagine Proust’s angle would be interesting especially because the subject could not be discussed openly in his time. Even today, for all we believe we are enlightened about homosexuality, the lived experience is much more complicated, even confusing, than many understand.

  2. Great post, Max. It’s hard to stop writing about it, isn’t it? If I had to pick a book to stay on a desert island, I’d take In Search of Lost Time. There’s so much to discover, you could read it so many times and always discover something new.

    I thought this volume was really daring for the time. I’ve never read anything like this about homosexuality before or during Proust’s time. One can argue there were several notorious gays in his time (Cocteau, Radiguet, Gide) and that he was part of the gay scene too.
    He manages to picture many aspects, from their need to hide to the quiet acceptance of the society that looks the other way. Charlus’s love affairs also show the readers of that time and later (homosexuality was a crime in France until 1981) that these affairs are about love and lust, just like the ones between a man and a woman. He introduces some “normalcy”.

    In this volume, we also start to discove the Narrator’s dark side. He must have been high maintenance and I bet Proust was high maintenance too. The Narrator tortures himself with such little things that I was really annoyed with him.
    Maybe Albertine is bi-sexual. Maybe she just want to have fun and escape the Narrator’s heavy stare and careful watch. Who would want to live under such a magnifying glass? I understand her wish to avoid him and have girl-time.

    Thanks a lot for all the links to my posts. I really appreciate it. I encourage everyone reading that comment to discover Proust and to read Molière. You can’t pretend to know anything about French lit if you haven’t read Molière.

  3. Great Max like Joe I need to crack open my proust and get pass volume one which I have never done .I think.he must have had some humour as he was so sickly in real life he must have had humour to get through one imagines

  4. Thank you for reminding me of how much I loved this volume. I think that a lot of the humour in Proust is cumulative, many of my favourite jokes work because of previous conceptions built up by Marcel (for example, the irony that Charlus is gay after being presented as heterosexual in Swann’s Way). Looking forward to your thoughts on modern transportation in the books – it sometimes feels like late 19th century books are all about trains, but I’ve never thought of looking in detail at the evolution of transport for the C20th.

  5. Great stuff Max. Brought back many happy memories. And I agree about the humour.

  6. Tredynas Days

    As others have said I’ve not managed to get past the first couple of volumes of A la recherche, many years ago. I hadn’t thought of Proust as a humorous writer, so after this impassioned piece and Emma’s endorsement I feel inclined to add it to the list again. As you probably know, Max, I’m not doing an official TBR20, but the pile does continue to grow…Btw, I’ve read varying accounts of the merits of this translation: any thoughts on that? I seem to recall some saying Moncrieff’s is too Edwardian and inaccurate?

  7. An inspiring post, Max. I really must give Proust a try. Having read the first two Knaugaards, I’m seriously considering abandoning that series especially as the reviews of books three and four have been somewhat mixed. I’m not convinced it’s a valid comparison, but either way I’m sure my time would be much better spent with Proust. I should give it a go at least.

  8. As you know Max, I failed on my Proust project, but I hope to give it another go later. Great cover BTW.
    Jacqui: Gert Loveday abandoned the series too.

  9. Max, you are now assuming the form of an on-going reproach to my reading stamina and habits. When you started on Proust I was midway through Guermantes. Now, a couple of years later, you have powered onto vol. 4 while I am – still midway through Guermantes. Oh well!

    Funnily, following your posts (I have only skimmed this one) the thing that strikes me is how much of the books I have retained. I feel pretty sure I could pick up Guermantes and dive back in. May try that later in the year.

  10. Thanks, Guy. Yes, I’ve been following Gert’s reviews of the recent Knausgaards. They liked Boyhood Island, but not book four, Dancing in the Dark. That’s the one that really turned me off…

  11. Rough, I think you’d like him. The size is an issue I admit. I find I have to have decent chunks of time to read him in. Trying Proust in 20-30 minute blocks is a recipe for misery.

    The tv show Caprica had one of the more interesting portrayals of gay life I’ve seen. It’s set in the distant future on an alien world, and the culture is sexuality blind. It’s not a major part of the plot, it’s not integral to the story, it’s just how they are. Where characters are gay nobody comments on it and it isn’t necessary to the character concept, it’s just a detail.

    It’s an oddly revolutionary approach, possible only in SF of course. In real life we’re a long way from that, so I think we’re not all that enlightened just yet.

    Emma, it’s incredibly rich. This is a particularly daring volume, and it’s remarkable how much territory he covers in this one volume.

    Agreed on the narrator, he’s more fun to read than he would be to date. Albertine’s sexuality is actually fairly hard to judge, because the narrator doesn’t really see her but more his desires and fears regarding her. I’d want to escape him too, she’s very patient though he is her best chance of a good marriage.

    Where would you start with Molière?

    Stu, it’s in translation, so you owe it to yourself to give it a go. There’s huge amounts of humour, though much else also. You just need a decent chunk of time to take a run at it.

    Shoshi, good point on the cumulative nature. One point I didn’t mention above is at one stage Marcel congratulates himself on how unsnobbish he is and how he sees a duke and a liftboy as equals. It’s incredibly reminiscent of Oriane’s remarks in the previous volume, which Marcel ridicules, but here as narrator doesn’t realise (though it’s evident to the reader) that he’s now committing the same hypocrisy she did. That only works from cumulative effect.

    The transport post will probably be in a month or so. There’s some really interesting stuff on this one on cars and planes.

    Sam, thanks!

    Simon, he’s not always humorous, much of it isn’t funny at all and as Emma says this volume is funnier than most, but it’s definitely a core element. It was the comic writing that actually got me started with him, I read a bit in a bookshop and found myself laughing as I read, and was sold.

    I can’t speak to accuracy, but Edwardian works for me here as that’s the period in question. I think the other translators helped update it, but the key advantage is the entire sequence is in a single translation which aids consistency. The Penguin editions have different translators for different volumes, which must impact the voice over time.

    Jacqui, as you know Knausgaard hasn’t tempted me. This is the source material for books like that (and of course Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, which if anyone doesn’t know I’ve reviewed in full here). He’s worth giving a try.

    Guy, it’s not the cover I have funnily enough, but I couldn’t find pictures of mine online. It’s more a line drawing of a character, coloured in a light pink. It’s very effective, but I agree the flower also works well.

    I’ve had to abandon a volume twice and return later. It is a big beast, so I think there’s nothing wrong with finding it takes a couple of goes to get into.

    Ian, so it goes. I think you’re right that you could dive back in without too much trouble even after a couple of years. He’s very memorable.

  12. Pingback: Reflections on a reading year | Pechorin's Journal

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