My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sodom and Gomorrah (In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV, Books I & II ~ 1921 & 1922) by Marcel Proust continues the French Narrator’s journey in life as he becomes more aware of homosexuality in people he knows in high society, and this fully formed awareness begins to press him concerning the “true” sexuality of Albertine Simonet, his lover and the young woman he wishes to one day marry.
Homosexuality is first introduced (albeit briefly) in Swann’s Way, Vol. I and the theme is touched upon throughout the next three volumes until in Sodom and Gomorrah the Narrator has come of age and entered fully into high society, where he begins to notice subtle and covert mannerisms and flirtations between Baron de Charlus and Jupien, “an ex-tailor poised on the threshold of his shop” (p 5).
In Swann’s Way, Vol. I, long before the tryst between the Baron and Jupien, the Narrator as a young boy spies one evening through an open window two women acting amorously, and this act of sapphism haunts him when his romantic relationship with Albertine, whom he first met at Balbec in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II, begins to become more serious in Sodom and Gomorrah and the Narrator deliberates either ending his relationship with Albertine or marrying her.
As a young boy, in Swann’s Way, Vol. I, this is what the Narrator witnesses through the open window:
“Having gone as far as the Montjouvain pond, where I enjoyed seeing again the reflection of the tiled roof of the hut, I had lain down in the shade and fallen asleep among the bushes on the steep slope overlooking the house, just where I had waited for my parents, years before, one day when they had gone to call on M. Vinteuil. It was almost dark when I awoke, and I was about to get up and go away, but I saw Mlle Vinteuil… who had probably just come in, standing in front of me, and only a few feet away, in that room in which her father had entertained mine, and which she had now made into a little sitting-room for herself. The window was partly open; the lamp was lighted; I could watch her every movement without her being able to see me; but if I had moved away I would have made a rustling sound among the bushes, she would have heard me, and she might have thought I had been hiding there in order to spy upon her…
“Presently her friend came into the room. Mlle Vinteuil greeted her without rising, clasping her hands behind her head and moving to one side of the sofa as though to make room for her…
“In the V-shaped opening of her crape bodice Mlle Vinteuil felt the sting of her friend’s sudden kiss… At last Mlle Vinteuil collapsed on to the sofa, with her friend lying on top of her. The latter now had her back turned to the little table on which the old music-master’s portrait had been arranged” (pgs 224-233).
Monsieur Vinteuil’s sonata (first introduced later on in Swann’s Way, Vol. I, see pages 300-303 and 496-499) and the reference to Vinteuil’s sonata often reappear and connect a subtle thread of themes found throughout In Search of Lost Time. Also note, Art in the forms of paintings (Elstir’s paintings), literature (Bergotte’s books), and music (Vinteuil’s sonata) continually reappear throughout all the volumes as well: “On the days when I did not go down to Mme de Guermantes, so that time should not hang too heavy for me during the hour that proceeded Albertine’s return, I would take up an album of Elstir’s work, one of Bergotte’s books, or Vinteuil’s sonata” (The Captive, Vol. V, p 65). The reminder of Vinteuil, his sonata, and his daughter, a lesbian, help to close out the novel Sodom and Gomorrah:
“But beyond the beach at Balbec, the sea, the sunrise, which Mamma was pointing out to me, I saw, with a gesture of despair which did not escape her notice, the room at Montjouvain where Albertine, curled up like a great cat, with her mischievous pink nose, had taken the place of Mlle Vinteuil’s friend and was saying amid peals of her voluptuous laughter: ‘Well, all the better if they do see us! What, I wouldn’t dare to spit on that old monkey?’ It was this scene that I saw, beyond the scene which was framed in the open window and which was no more than a dim veil drawn over the other, superimposed upon it like a reflexion. It seemed, indeed, itself almost unreal, like a painted view” (p 722).
Also, the volume-four title Sodom and Gomorrah takes its name from two historical “cities of the plain,” so named Sodom and Gomorrah, and from several Bible verses, mainly:
“Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;” (Genesis 19:24)
“And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.” (Genesis 19:25)
“And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt.” (Genesis 19:29)
Another famous novelist named Cormac McCarthy wanted in the 1990s to call one of his Border-Trilogy novels Sodom and Gomorrah but, instead, the official title ended up being Cities of the Plain (The Border Trilogy # 3, 1998).
Proust (likely the unnamed Narrator of Sodom and Gomorrah) wanted nothing more than to be a novelist and he eventually went on to achieve world fame and immortal success with In Search of Lost Time (previously translated as Remembrance of Things Past from the French title À la recherche du temps perdu).
The editors, however, did eventually add Marcel’s name to solidify the Narrator as the author himself in the six volumes that establish In Search of Lost Time:
“Then she would find her tongue and say: ‘My—’ or ‘My darling—’ followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be ‘My Marcel,’ or ‘My darling Marcel.’ After this I would never allow a member of my family, by calling me ‘darling,’ to rob of their precious uniqueness the delicious words that Albertine uttered to me” (The Captive, Vol. V, p 91).
“My gratitude was even greater when a cyclist brought me a note from her bidding me be patient, and full of the charming expressions that she was in the habit of using. ‘My darling dear Marcel, I return less quickly than this cyclist, whose bike I should like to borrow in order to be with you sooner. How could you imagine that I might be angry or that I could enjoy anything better than to be with you? It will be nice to go out, just the two of us together; it would be nicer still if we never went out except together. The ideas you get into your head! What a Marcel! What a Marcel! Always and ever your Albertine’” (The Captive, Vol. V, pgs 202-203).
In the “Introduction” of In Search of Lost Time, Richard Howard explains of Proust and his un-named protagonist:
“What is narrated is not the Narrator’s life, but his desire to write. Time thwarts this desire, tends it toward a conventional chronology (which must be continually subverted, for what is merely successive is surely lost: only the circle can be retrouvé, a word that means not only regained but rediscovered, recognized, repossessed)—and how many challenges, discouragements, and rivalries must be endured before the desire to write achieves an ultimate triumph” (Vol. I, p xiv).
Proust, himself, would agree with this “other self” who narrates his epic:
“A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we mean to try to understand this self it is only in our inmost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved” (Vol. II, p vi).
Proust would also explain further about this concept of a “book” in relation to the “self” and “habit” in The Fugitive:
“At times the reading of a novel that was at all sad carried me suddenly back, for certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, abolishing habit, bringing us back into contact with the reality of life, but for a few hours only, like a nightmare, since the force of habit, the oblivion it creates, the gaiety it restores through the powerlessness of the brain to fight against it and to re-create the truth, infinitely outweigh the almost hypnotic suggestion of a good book which, like all such influences, has very transient effects” (Vol. V, pgs 757-758).
The Great French Novel (a single novel originally published as separate books), In Search of Lost Time (Volumes I-VI re-published with an updated translation by The Modern Library in 1992) is a major work (and piece of art) in World Literature and without question one of the longest books (excluding Addenda, Notes, Synopsis, etc.) at a total page count of 4,347 pages:
Volume II ~ Within a Budding Grove (1919) = 730 pages
Volume III ~ The Guermantes Way, Books I & II (1920 & 1921) = 819 pages
Volume IV ~ Sodom and Gomorrah, Books I & II (1921 & 1922) = 724 pages
Volume VI* ~ Time Regained (1927) = 532 pages
*Note* ~ Proust died on November 22, 1922 before the last two volumes (or the last three books) were originally published
Major Characters in Sodom and Gomorrah
Narrator ~ officially un-named but interpreted (and later edited) as the author Marcel
Albertine Simonet, a young girl from Balbec who becomes a love interest to the Narrator in Paris (first introduced in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II)
Narrator’s Mother (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Baron de Charlus (also Baron Palamède de Charlus, and informally as Mémé), who is the younger brother of Duc de Guermantes, and the nephew of Mme de Villeparisis, and Robert de Saint-Loup’s uncle known as Uncle Palamède, and who is a member of the Guermantes family (first introduced as Charles Swann’s confidant in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Charlie Morel, a violinist and Baron de Charlus’s lover
Mme de Guermantes (also known as Oriane and the Duchesse de Guermantes; first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Duc de Guermantes (also known as Basin, the “Duke,” and first introduced in The Guermantes Way, Vol. III)
Princesse de Guermantes (known as Marie-Gilbert and first introduced in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II)
Prince de Guermantes
Charles Swann, aristocrat, often taking on myth-like status to the Narrator (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Odette de Crécy (Mme Swann), wife of Charles Swann (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray (also known as Robert de Saint-Loup, who befriended Narrator in Balbec in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II)
The Verdurins (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Plot Outline in Sodom and Gomorrah
Part One (pgs 1-44)
- On Homosexuality (p 20)
Part Two (pgs 45-724)
Part Two: Chapter One (pgs 45-203)
- Princesse de Guermantes and her party (p 51)
- Charles Swann and “an approaching death” (p 121)
- Robert Saint-Loup arrives in Paris and the party (p 123)
- Mme de Surgis and her sons: Arnulphe and Victurnien (p 131)
- Albertine calls the Narrator on the telephone late at night after the party (p 177)
- Albertine arrives in the middle of the night to meet the Narrator (p 182)
Part Two: The Intermittencies of the Heart (pgs 204-245)
- Narrator arrives in Balbec (p 204)
- Reflections on the Narrator’s dead Grandmother (p 210)
- A Dream (p 216)
- “the dead annex the living” (p 228)
- Another Dream (p 241)
Part Two: Chapter Two (pgs 246-514)
- On the beach at Balbec (p 248)
- The fourteenth (p 256)
- The Cambremers visit the Narrator in Balbec at the Grand Hotel (p 277)
- On Art (p 290)
- An emotional conversation with Albertine about her sexuality (p 308)
- Sapphism (p 325)
- Marie Gineste & Céleste Albaret (p 332)
- Sodom and Gomorrah (p 339)
- On Names & Places: Etymologies (p 388)
- Narrator arrives at the Verdurins in the country (p 404)
- The Profanation of the Mother (p 416)
- The Narrator’s Great-Grandfather (p 418)
- The Cambremers arrive at the Verdurins (p 421)
- The Cenacle (p 430)
- Elstir’s Roses (p 465)
Part Two: Chapter Three (pgs 515-698)
- “The horses of sleep” (p 517)
- “A common oblivion obliterates everything” (p 522)
- Albertine and the motor-car (p 536)
- The mythic Aeroplane (p 582)
- The Baron and his duel for Morel’s honor (p 631)
- The Baron’s trap for Morel at the Palace (a brothel) in Maineville (p 651)
Part Two: Chapter Four (pgs 699-724)
- A Choice: Albertine or Andrée (p 699)
- The approaching sunrise (p 720)
Thoughts on Themes Found in Sodom and Gomorrah
“A poetical, vain image of memory and dreams,” writes Proust towards the end of Sodom and Gomorrah (p 723), and these themes intersect and collide with more themes of how truth and knowledge can cause suffering that shape, constantly reshaping, human experiences found in the Narrator’s journey of sexuality and love, but deeper still is perception affecting the psychology of the emotional-cognitive foundation of being constructed from virtues (In medio stat virtus): “The truth being rather a current which flows from what people say to us, and which we pick up, invisible though it is, than the actual thing they have said” (p 677).
Couple these thoughts with society, culture, customs, and expectations from those who live among and around us, one can begin to see how people, events, moments appear in one vision while later on (hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades) memory (more imperfect as the years grow us into the ground) alter the visions into new and uncertain realities which force us to question our own truths, our own selves, and one another:
“People never cease to change place in relation to ourselves. In the imperceptible but eternal march of the world, we regard them as motionless, in a moment of vision too brief for us to perceive the motion that is sweeping them on. But we have only to select in our memory two pictures taken of them at different moments, close enough together however for them not to have altered in themselves—perceptibly, that is to say—and the difference between the two pictures is a measure of the displacement that they have undergone in relation to us… The question is not, as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong” (pgs 571-572).
And what of love? The Soul? Mortality? These questions and more haunt the young novelist throughout his multiple-volume journey in Swann’s Way, Vol. I, Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II, The Guermantes Way, Vol. III, and into Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. IV:
“It was natural, and yet it was not without importance; they reminded me that it was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination; for there are people—and this had been my case since youth—for whom all the things that have a fixed value, assessable by others, fortune, success, high positions, do not count; what they must have is phantoms. They sacrifice all the rest, devote all their efforts, make everything else subservient to the pursuit of some phantom. But this soon fades away; then they run after another only to return later on to the first. It was not the first time that I had gone in quest for Albertine, the girl I had seen that first year silhouetted against the sea. Other women, it is true, had been interposed between the Albertine whom I had first loved and the one whom I rarely left now; other women, notably the Duchesse de Guermantes. But, the reader will say, why torment yourself so much with regard to Gilberte, why take such trouble over Mme de Guermantes, if, having become the friend of the latter, it is with the sole result of thinking no more of her, but only of Albertine? Swann, before his death, might have answered the question, he who had been a connoisseur of phantoms. Of phantoms pursued, forgotten, sought anew, sometimes for a single meeting, in order to establish contact with an unreal life which at once faded away, these Balbec roads were full. When I reflected that their trees—pear-trees, apple-trees, tamarisks—would outlive me, I seemed to be receiving from them a silent counsel to set myself to work at last, before the hour of eternal rest had yet struck” (pgs 559-560).
Proust even goes so far as to explain that “imagination outreaches reality” (p 530), and, as though predicting (perhaps inspiring) George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty–Four, frequently published as 1984 (1949), Proust elaborates: “In any case, to learn that there may perhaps exist a universe in which two and two makes five and a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points” (p 538).
Even if imagination consumes and transcends reality, imagination is still held by the capacity of the brain housing the power and faculties of the mind which stores all the memories of one human being. What then of death? Does the mind survive? The Soul? Proust’s pre-existentialism begins to exhibit signs of Lockean Memory Theory (or simply put: “memory theory of personal identity”) when he writes:
“In spite of all that may be said about survival after the destruction of the brain, I observe that each alteration of the brain is a partial death. We possess all our memories, but not the faculty of recalling them…
“We do not recall our memories of the last thirty years; but we are wholly steeped in them; why then stop short at thirty years, why not extend this previous life back to before our birth? If I do not know a whole section of the memories that are behind me, if they are invisible to me, if I do not have the faculty of calling them to me, how do I know whether in that mass that is unknown to me there may not be some that extend back much further than my human existence? If I can have in me and round me so many memories which I do not remember, this oblivion (a de facto oblivion, at least, since I have not the faculty of seeing anything) may extend over a life which I have lived in the body of another man, even on another planet. A common oblivion obliterates everything… The being that I shall be after death has no more reason to remember the man I have been since my birth than the latter to remember what I was before it” (pgs 522-523).
Regardless of these unanswerable questions of pre-life, life, after-life, the reader has to ask: How much of the novel Sodom and Gomorrah is real? Imagined? Legend?
And one more thing: Does the reality of life unfold and take shape in the memory, the soul, alone?
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers