Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Sodom and Gomorrah (In Search of Lost Time, Vol 4) by Marcel Proust (4/5)

First published: 1921/22
Original title:
Sodome et Gomorrhe

Original language: French
Translation to English by: C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (revised by D.J. Enright)
Page count: 496

The back says nothing, but here’s my short synopsis: The first 100 or so pages take place at a Princesse de Guermantes’ party, where we are introduced to a lot of gossip about everyone in Parisian high society. The narrator starts a relationship with Albertine in Paris, which continues when they return to Balbec. At the seaside they go to parties and gossip.
I say: It’s been a year since I read the third volume, The Guermantes Way, and it felt awkward and fumbling being back in Proust’s Paris. Not because of the writing as such, but because I didn’t feel interested in the first part dealing with the party. Even if some of the descriptions of the people were beautiful and humorous, Proust spent far too much time describing their lives and detailing idle gossip. I have little, if any, interest in Parisian high society and it was all extremely tiresome.

It took an age to make it through those initial 100+ pages.
Once the narrator leaves the party things get a lot more interesting, although I have to say that he has started acting like a complete idiot from time to time. It is understandable that he is spoiled, but the way that he treats and plays with Albertine were not to my liking at all. Granted she was playing games with him as well, but it showed a neurotic, manipulative and extremely selfish side of him that thus far had only been hinted at.

But then he returns to Balbec and remembers his grandmother in a couple of pages in which Proust so eloquently, so finely, and so perfectly describes that aching feeling you get when you want someone and suddenly, almost as if by surprise, remember that they have passed away. I was holding my breath while reading it and fell in that usual awe of Proust’s ability to so vividly and exactly dissect any human emotion and explain the process as he cuts deeper and deeper.
This level of writing makes me forgive all.

Homosexuality is a big theme – if not the theme – in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the narrator deals with it in different ways. In The Guermante’s Way we learn that Charlus is gay and in this volume we are introduced to Morel, his boy toy, and the way that society dealt with homosexuality in those days. Gay men are referred to as “introverts” and homosexuality is called “sexual inversion” – and once the word pederast is used when Charlus is discussing works by Honore de Balzac. Knowing that Proust was gay and that the narrator is really him, it was a bit troubling to read the way that he (the narrator) viewed Charlus and homosexuals.

Albeit other reasons dictated this transformation of M. de Charlus, and purely physical ferments set his material substance 'working' and made his body pass gradually into the category of women's bodies, nevertheless the change that we record here was of spiritual origin. By dint of supposing yourself to be ill you become ill, grow thin, are too weak to rise from your bed, suffer from nervous enteritis. By dint of thinking tenderly of men you become a woman, and an imaginary spirit hampers your movements. The obsession, just as in the other instance it affects your health, may in this instance alter your sex. – p 270

It’s not just Charlus that is identified as gay; the narrator suspects that Albertine has had lesbian encounters, which causes him serious distress and he tries everything to keep her away from her female friends (some known lesbians and one whom he witnessed having an encounter with Odette, if I’m not mistaken). He doesn’t see Albertine as a lesbian and tries to convince himself that she is being seduced, which leads him to make some questionable choices – much to his mother’s great dismal.

Sodom and Gomorrah is the last volume that Proust revised himself, and I’m a bit apprehensive to see what the other volumes will bring. So far, this has been the weakest, but I am anxious to find out how if the narrator is going to dump Albertine – I can’t stand her.

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