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Sodom and Gomorrah (Marcel Proust) – other erin's book/poem of the month

Isn’t it natural that the greatest novel ever written should also be one of the gayest? And Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu (translated as In Search of Lost Time, or the cute Shakespearean Remembrance of Things Past) has been one of the big contenders for that title for about the last 100 years, and especially the last 60. What other work could match its depth portraying an enormous cast of characters in a changing society, its sensitivity and profundity in exploring the human mind, its stylistic innovation, as well as its enduring critical respect? Only The Dream of the Red Chamber, which is much too non-European for the people who decide these things to remember exists. Virginia Woolf said Proust was so good it made her suicidal; he has become a titanic symbol of being an asshole intellectual, and lots of cool people say in Guardian interviews the world over that they wished they had ever read any of the 1.3 million words of his novel, including Neil Gaiman a few months ago. Being a complete loser but also thinking of myself as very clever during my closeted mid-teenage years, I had read it all twice by the time I turned 17 (I developed a bit more of a life afterwards).


Proust was way too gay and way too rich thanks to his mother’s side of the family to be a functional member of society, so instead he spent most of his life being snobbish and a social climber and talking about how he was going to write a great novel without actually doing it. His parents tried to force him to get a job when he was 25, but he took sick leave for several years until it was assumed he had resigned (he was asthmatic), and he lived with his parents until they died in 1903 and 1905. He was also a big fan of prostitutes – originally women in an attempt to cure himself of his gayness, but then he switched to men and had a much better time. So it took until the age of 38, in 1909, for Proust to finally get around to being productive, at which point he started obsessively writing In Search of Lost Time, legendarily never leaving his apartment, sleeping in the day and writing all night in his cork-lined bedroom, particularly in the last few years of his life (he died in 1922 aged 51 and the last three volumes were published posthumously), but he evidently still found some time to be gay because he was recognised by police in a raid on a male brothel in 1918.


A lot of people who vaguely aspire to read Proust never get around to it, but if they do (for instance if they do Honours Comparative Literature) then they often only read the first volume, Swann’s Way, which only has one (1!) scene of explicit gayness in it, or even worse only read the novel-length second chapter of it, ‘Swann in Love’, which only has a few minor implications of gay activity. This is outrageous. The true gayness of this novel has been hidden by its extreme length from generations of pretentious literature gays, who instead think it’s all about Proust’s profound meditations on memory and portraying people ‘as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space’ (a quote from the extended very last sentence of the novel – Proust’s sentences are generally best referred to as ‘extended’). So that’s why I’m writing about the 4th volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, which (surprise surprise) is where Proust really gets into talking about Sodom and Gomorrah i.e. the gays and the lesbians. Proust remained closeted his whole life, although he was like really obviously gay and everyone who knew him knew it and also it was basically acceptable to be openly gay and talk about it in Parisian high society at the time. This means that his self-insert narrator is very straight but spends a weird amount of his time thinking about gay people and that most of the characters apart from the narrator are gay.


Proust’s reputation for being lazy and pretentious and kind of a loser hadn’t helped him when he was finally trying to publish a novel – the great (and GAY) writer André Gide famously got Swann’s Way rejected from Proust’s dream publisher Gallimard, so he had to pay for its publication and also bribed the newspapers to be nice about it (Gide later wrote to him saying rejecting Swann’s Way was ‘one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets of [his] life’, and offered to publish the rest of the novel). But by the time the various parts of Sodom and Gomorrah were published, several French intellectuals had become fervent defenders of his work as inherently ‘classical’ and ‘moral’ (which nowadays seems like a slightly crazy thing to say about one of the greatest icons of literary modernism), and they were surprised to find that his new volume was mostly dedicated to thinking about the sex lives of an old fat gay man and a bisexual (?) girl, which they didn’t think was quite so ‘moral’. Gide was also disappointed, writing that it portrayed ‘only the grotesque and abject aspects of Sodom’ – since there are an awful lot of middle-aged rich men paying random people for sex, which I’m sure wasn’t based on Proust’s life in any way at all. Luckily Proust died shortly after Sodom and Gomorrah’s publication, on the 18th of November 1922, and dying is always a great reputation-booster, so all critics united forevermore in saying that he had revolutionised French literature. 


As mentioned above, there are two main focuses of gayness in this novel. The old fat man is the ultra-high-society aristocrat the Baron de Charlus, who is very interested in his family’s noble history and how much lesser everyone else is, and at one point almost convinces himself to fight in a pointless duel in order to give onlookers the pleasure of seeing his knightly ancestors’ spirits manifest themselves in him. He often comes off as slightly pathetic, but he is also always portrayed as the most intelligent and cultured person in the room – just a bit detached from the real world. He thinks of himself as closeted but everyone knows he’s gay, and he’s based on real-life similarly ultra-aristocratic gay Robert de Montesquiou, who aspired to be the most photographed person in the world and may also have been an inspiration for Dorian Gray, and apparently vomited for 24 hours after sleeping with the great actress – and friend of Proust’s – Sarah Bernhardt. The girl of questionable sexuality is upper-middle-class orphan and sort-of lover of the narrator Albertine Simonet, who was probably based at least partly on two of Proust’s (straightish) secretaries, Albert Nahmias and Alfred Agostinelli. Proust became very jealous of Agostinelli as he flagrantly continued to have a relationship with his wife (and several other people) in spite of the extremely rich and only slightly reclusive twink throwing vast amounts of money at him to in fact probably only like cuddle at most and not even have sex.


The book starts with talking about Sodom: 33 pages of Proust’s narrator voyeuristically watching the Baron de Charlus and a tailor, Jupien, approach each other in a gay way and then hook up, described with many metaphors of flowers and the birds and the bees. Proust then explains his philosophy on the gays, or ‘inverts’ in lots of extremely long sentences (one of which is genuinely two and a half pages). He falls into the classic trap of associating sexuality with femininity or masculinity, and says that gay men all secretly desire straight men – his idea is that gay men’s ‘ideal is virile, precisely because their temperament is feminine’ – but he also makes powerful appeals for sympathy for gay men:


‘A race on which malediction weighs and which must live in falsehood and in perjury, because it knows that its desire, which, for every created being, is life’s sweetest pleasure, is held to be punishable and shameful, to be inadmissible; which must deny its God, since, even if Christian, when they stand arraigned at the bar of the court, they must, before Christ and his name, defend themselves, as if from a calumny, from what is their life itself; sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie even in the hour when they close her eyes; friends without friendships’.


The narrator sees Charlus again on a beach holiday in Balbec, where he falls hopelessly in love with the self-important violinist Morel, who exploits him pitilessly for the rest of the book. Charlus’ love, paralleling the narrator’s, is ‘of an anti-social kind’, an ‘example of the imperceptible yet mighty force of these currents of passion, in which the lover, like a swimmer being swept away unawares, very soon loses sight of land’.


A lot of the time when Proust talks about gay men he does it in silly little anecdotes, a fair amount of which feel like they must have been based on real experiences. The silliest and most elaborate is that one day Morel runs into Charlus’ cousin, the Prince de Guermantes, who immediately arranges to meet up with him in the Palace, a local and frequently-mentioned/used brothel by most of the characters in the novel. Charlus finds out that Morel is going to the Palace, bribes the owner to let him spy on him, and is eventually shown Morel ‘as after death, drained of colour’ among a bunch of women, whom the staff brought to him after telling him someone had paid a lot of money to watch him. Morel becomes paranoid that Charlus is constantly spying on him but rearranges for the next night with the Prince, this time at the Prince’s house – he goes in, walks into the drawing room, sees Charlus in a family photo on the mantelpiece and ‘wild with terror’, ‘not doubting that this was an ambush into which M. de Charlus had led him as a test of his fidelity’, runs away terrified.


Whereas most of the gay men in the novel are old, most of the gay women are young, because even incredibly gay authors like Proust who write very cool and complex female characters who are generally more important and interesting than the male ones – even Proust is not free from weird ideas about young women and sexuality, and generally in this novel young women have lots of sex and then they get married and no longer exist as sexual beings (maybe also because a lot of the young women are kinda genderswapped versions of Proust’s crushes and the older women in society are based on actual women he knew). In this volume Proust’s narrator becomes increasingly suspicious that his beloved Albertine (with whom he constantly claims not to be in love) is secretly gay, and is having sex with other women all the time when she isn’t with him. She says that she will drown herself ‘like Sappho’ if the narrator doesn’t trust her – very suspicious – and when she sees a ‘quite openly’ gay couple her eyes are filled with ‘that sudden and profound attentiveness that sometimes lent this mischievous girl’s face a serious, even solemn expression, and left her looking sad afterwards’. She has a lot of skinship with her old friends Andrée and Rosemonde, and at one point suggests going on an afternoon trip with Charlus instead of spending the day having sex with the narrator. The narrator grows more controlling, and Albertine more defensive, responding to his endless interrogations with a ‘“no” in which the n [is] too hesitant and the o too resonant’. He hires a motor car (very new and exciting) so that he can take her further away from town and any new pretty women that might turn up on the beach, some of whom he sees looking at her. Then catastrophe strikes: the narrator mentions the composer Vinteuil from his village of Combray, and Albertine suddenly says,


‘You remember my speaking to you about a girl-friend, older than me, who was like both a mother and sister to me, whom I spent my best years with in Trieste and who, moreover, I’m due to meet in Cherbourg in a few weeks’ time, from where we’ll be travelling together (it’s a little weird, but you know how I love the sea), well, this friend (oh, not at all the type of woman you might suppose!), and isn’t this extraordinary, is in actual fact the best friend of this Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well. I only ever call them my two big sisters.’


The narrator, of course, knows these two. They’re the ‘practising and professional Sapphists’ (which is such a cool way to refer to someone btw who wouldn’t want to be a practising and professional Sapphist like I would do a PhD in the poetry of Sappho just to be able to say I was a professional Sapphist) from the one gay sex scene all the way back in Swann’s Way – dun dun DUUUUUUNNNNNNN. He immediately comes to a realisation, in one of the funniest last sentences of a book ever written: ‘I absolutely must, and let that be decided here and now, because I now realise clearly, because I shan’t change again, and I couldn’t live without it, I absolutely must marry Albertine’ (he doesn’t). 


You see, Proust never really had a healthy relationship in his life – his narrator says ‘I was too given to believing that the moment I was in love, I could not be loved and that self-interest alone could attach a woman to me’ – and his big idea running through all the important relationships in the novel is that love is most felt when you are jealous, and love is really the desire for possession, but once you feel like you can trust your partner then you immediately fall out of love (if you believe this go to therapy instead of writing a novel about it). So when the narrator hears this and becomes basically convinced that Albertine is a closeted lesbian, he becomes incredibly in love with her and his only thought is to use his power and money – he says ‘my wife will have a motor-car and a yacht’ – to immediately take her back with him to Paris and make her live with him, where he will monitor her every move and constantly gaslight her that every time she goes anywhere or meets her friends it’s to cheat on him. Eventually of course (spoilers for the next two volumes, The Prisoner and The Fugitive, ) Albertine runs away and dies in a horse-riding accident – Proust’s secretary Alfred Agostinelli also ran away, could not be lured back by Proust’s offerings of a Rolls-Royce and an aeroplane, and died in a plane crash.


Albertine is one of the most interesting and complex characters in fiction. On one hand she is in many ways a genderswapped version of men Proust was in love with, and the narrator’s doomed love and jealousy reflects Proust’s struggles with his sexuality and the seeming impossibility of him being in a genuine relationship with them. On the other she is an incredibly moving portrait of being queer and closeted, and pushed by money and societal pressures into doing everything Proust’s narrator asks of her in the hope of a stable life and marriage which he would never give her. She is the only character in the novel inside whose mind we never see. She never gets to truly speak for herself, and we never learn about her real sexuality or her life when she isn’t with the narrator, or her actual feelings about life or the narrator. She remains forever a mystery, at who se thoughts or hopes in life we can only guess at from her actions and her speech, reported by the unreliable narrator. She feels incredibly sympathetic and human.


So wow this got quite long huh but I really love this book and there are two main ideas which I hope you got out of it:

  1. Damn this book has got lots of fun and cool ideas and characters in it even if you probably don’t want to read it because it’s really long and boring

  2. Rich French people in the fin de siècle were all gay and completely insane.


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other erin (she/her)


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