Sodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Cependant, rien que par mes rêves quand j’étais endormi, j’aurais pu apprendre que mon chagrin de la mort de ma grand’mère diminuait, car elle y apparaissait moins opprimée par l’idée que je me faisais de son néant. Je la voyais toujours malade, mais en voie de se rétablir, je la trouvais mieux. Et si elle faisait allusion à ce qu’elle avait souffert, je lui fermais la bouche avec mes baisers et je l’assurais qu’elle était maintenant guérie pour toujours. J’aurais voulu faire constater aux sceptiques que la mort est vraiment une maladie dont on revient. Seulement je ne trouvais plus chez ma grand’mère la riche spontanéité d’autrefois. Ses paroles n’étaient qu’une réponse affaiblie, docile, presque un simple écho de mes paroles ; elle n’était plus que le reflet de ma propre pensée. Meanwhile, if only from my dreams when I was asleep, I might have learned that my grief at my grandmother’s death was diminishing, for she appeared there less oppressed by the idea I had been forming of her non-existence. I saw her as an invalid still, but on the way to recovering; I thought she looked better. And if she alluded to what she had suffered, I stopped her mouth with my kisses and assured her that now she was cured for ever. I would have liked to make the sceptics acknowledge that death is in truth an illness from which we recover. Only I did not find in my grandmother the rich spontaneity of old. Her words were only an enfeebled, docile response, a mere echo almost, of my own words; she was no longer anything more than the reflection of my own thoughts.

When I first read this a decade ago, I wrote:

I’m more than half way through the seven-volume epic now, and sufficiently engaged to be sure that I will indeed finish it in due course. Sodom and Gomorrah puts homosexuality front and centre; at the very beginning, we discover that the monstrous Baron de Charlus is in fact perpetually on the lookout for attractive men; and throughout the second half of the book the narrator is tormented by the idea that his girlfriend Albertine is having affairs with her girlfriends. Proust is himself a gay but very closeted writer, putting words in the mouth of a heterosexual narrator who observes but is horrified by homosexuality, and for today’s reader there is more of the fascination of watching the author’s mental train wreck than the idea that we are learning anything.

There is other stuff going on as well. At first I was afraid that we would have yet more bitchy and superficial social events, but we have the interesting compare and contrast between two key relationships – the narrator and Albertine, and Baron de Charlus and the young plebeian musician Morel – which drives the narrative. There are a couple of interesting confrontations with modern technology – the elevator, the motor car, the aeroplane. There are reflections on art and how people respond to it (a discussion continued from earlier works). And the significance of placenames is a major sub-theme of the last third of the book. All quite fascinating, and yet again I feel will reward re-reading in due course.

A couple of things struck me more strongly on second reading. Most obviously, I should have spotted that Sodom and Gomorrah respectively are male homosexuality and lesbianism; the plot moves from one to the other, and in fact it’s crystal clear that Albertine’s fun with her girlfriends is real and not just in the narrator’s paranoia. What Proust captures very well, however, is precisely the paranoia of someone newly in lust who cannot cope with the idea that the person they are obsessed with may perhaps have other interests – and of course the hypocrisy of his narrator also getting it on with several of Albertine’s friends himself, even if that happens mainly offstage. So the final twist (the set-up for the next volume) is entirely believable, when the narrator decides that rather than dump Albertine, he will marry her, the better to continue his fascination with her./

I’m a bit more familiar with the Dreyfus case than I was last time round, and so am more appreciative of the way attitudes to it weave through the social set-up and the complex intersection of Dreyfusards with respectability and homosexuality – not completely orthogonal, but not strongly aligned either. I also appreciated the minor character Brichot’s obsession with the origin of place names, pointing to hidden histories among humans as well as villages.

On the other hand, I felt there were a few too many soirées of rather unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other here, and the class mockery of servants is getting a bit tedious. So although I still think it’s a great read, it has its limitations. You can get it here.

Onwards! To The Prisoner and the Fugitive!

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