Home > 1920, 20th Century, Classics, French Literature, Novel, Proust, Marcel > Charlus, Albertine and others: homosexuality in Sodom et Gomorrah

Charlus, Albertine and others: homosexuality in Sodom et Gomorrah

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. 1921/1922 English titles: Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah. All the quotes come from the Scott-Moncrieff translation.

The opening quote of this volume is a verse by Alfred de Vigny which explains the title of the book: « La femme aura Gomorrhe et l’homme aura Sodome. » (The woman will have Gomorrhe and the man will have Sodome) Was it changed in the Scott-Moncrieff translation in an attempt to conceal one of its leading topic?

In Swann’s Way, “faire cattleya” (make cattleya) is the code name Swann and Odette used to call their love making. In the opening chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Narrator is in the courtyard of the Hotel de Guermantes, observing a bee and an orchid, trying to catch the moment when the bee will pollinize the orchid. He’s distracted in his task by M. de Charlus who meets Jupien for the first time. It’s love at first sight between the two men and the Narrator then digresses on homosexuality. Strangely, the growing love between these two men from totally different backgrounds echoes the love between Swann and Odette from the first book. It gives the impression of a thought through saga and I wonder how Proust managed to wrap his head around so many details.

This first chapter details from the inside what it is to be gay at this time.

I now understood, moreover, how, earlier in the day, when I had seen him coming away from Mme. de Villeparisis’s, I had managed to arrive at the conclusion that M. de Charlus looked like a woman: he was one! He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine and who in their life resemble in appearance only the rest of men; there where each of us carries, inscribed in those eyes through which he beholds everything in the universe, a human outline engraved on the surface of the pupil, for them it is that not of a nymph but of a youth. Race upon which a curse weighs and which must live amid falsehood and perjury, because it knows the world to regard as a punishable and a scandalous, as an inadmissible thing, its desire, that which constitutes for every human creature the greatest happiness in life; which must deny its God, since even Christians, when at the bar of justice they appear and are arraigned, must before Christ and in His Name defend themselves, as from a calumny, from the charge of what to them is life itself; sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie all her life long and even in the hour when they close her dying eyes; friends without friendships, despite all those which their charm, frequently recognised, inspires and their hearts, often generous, would gladly feel; but can we describe as friendship those relations which flourish only by virtue of a lie and from which the first outburst of confidence and sincerity in which they might be tempted to indulge would make them be expelled with disgust, unless they are dealing with an impartial, that is to say a sympathetic mind, which however in that case, misled with regard to them by a conventional psychology, will suppose to spring from the vice confessed the very affection that is most alien to it, just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination. And lastly — according at least to the first-» theory which I sketched in outline at the time and which we shall see subjected to some modification in the sequel, a theory by which this would have angered them above all things, had not the paradox been hidden from their eyes by the very illusion that made them see and live — lovers from whom is always precluded the possibility of that love the hope of which gives them the strength to endure so many risks and so much loneliness, since they fall in love with precisely that type of man who has nothing feminine about him, who is not an invert and consequently cannot love them in return; with the result that their desire would be for ever insatiable did not their money procure for them real men, and their imagination end by making them take for real men the inverts to whom they had prostituted themselves. Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.

It’s a long quote, but it’s the perfect summary of the ideas he develops in this chapter. He describes the angst of being different and being ashamed of this difference, the painful moments in adolescence when one acknowledges being attracted to someone their own sex. After this pleading chapter, the Narrator will mostly give examples of homosexual couples around him. The first one is M. de Charlus and Morel. They are supposed to be friends but everyone at the Verdurins’s know that they are lovers. The society knows and pretends not to see it. They don’t recognize them as a couple, officially, but call them the “demoiselles” behind their back and perfectly know what’s happening. They keep up appearances and expect the couple to do so. They don’t want to be obliged to be officially offended to abide to social conventions. All along the novel, Proust shows how gays find each other while hiding and how they always fear to be discovered and imagine double-entendre in innocent phrases, like here:

Monsieur de Charlus, are you one of them?” The Baron, who had not heard the whole speech, and did not know that she was talking of an excursion to Harambouville, gave a start. “A strange question,” he murmured in a mocking tone by which Mme. Verdurin felt hurt.

Proust also explores lesbian relationships. We had a glimpse at them in Swann’s Way, with Mademoiselle de Vinteuil. After a remark by Cottard, he now fears that Albertine might be Andrée’s lover. (Note that both girls have boy names in the feminine form) He spies on them, he’s jealous and supposedly repulsed by such a thought. I was under the impression that it’s a way for him to spice up his relationship with Albertine. It definitely fuels his love for her. In Proust’s times, lesbians were running very famous cultural salons in Paris, like the American Natalie Barney or the princesse de Polignac. They were part of the avant-garde, showing a tolerance of the society, very different from what was happening in London at the same time. After reading the chapter about women, sex and mores in La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock, I understand better why Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t censored. Even at the turning of the century, there was a scientific and societal interest for sex and questions about women’s sexuality. The society was less uptight than I thought it was. By the way, I wonder how a robe postiche (literally a false dress) becomes an imaginary spirit in English and generally speaking I wonder how Scott-Moncrieff dealt with all the homosexual allusions and descriptions and the censorship of that time. Perhaps it’s worth reading this one in newer translation.

Proust doesn’t cover gays and lesbians the same way. For men, I think he insists a lot on appearances. He describes the way M. de Charlus dresses and moves, betraying his sexual orientation.

À force de penser tendrement aux hommes on devient femme, et une robe postiche entrave vos pas. By dint of thinking tenderly of men you become a woman, and an imaginary spirit hampers your movements.

He also wears make up and is pictured as middle-aged and fat. I can’t help seeing him as David Suchet playing Poirot. Under Proust’s prose, lesbians don’t give any hint of their sexual preferences in the open. Either he can’t read the signs or they aren’t any.

Of course, everyone knows that Proust was a homosexual and it gives an extra-dimension to the text, as we know he experienced all this. Maurice Sachs, homosexual himself, relates that Marcel Proust used to do the peeping Tom in some Parisian brothels. I don’t know if it’s true.

  1. October 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I think that the way homosexuality is perceived changed and changes constantly. There were always times and societies that were more accepting than others. It’s certainly interesting to see whether this is linked to sexuality in general. I also think that it depended on the circle in which you moved. Probably it was far less problematic for an aristocrat than for someone from the working class.

    • October 3, 2011 at 11:30 am

      I think it also depends on how religious your social circle is. According to the Winock book I’m reading, France was already de-christianised at the turning of the century. Religion was strong in some region and social classes (the bourgeois, mostly). It wasn’t strong among the working class.
      Still, it’s freer than England at the same period, whatever the social class. How was it in Germany?

      • October 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm

        Of course, you are right, religion is importan. I have no idea about Germany but probably it was more restricitive. I’m thinking of Thomas Mann and others who never really admitted.

  2. October 3, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Wikipedia says that Proust was the first European writer to opnely mention homosexuality. I wonder if that is correct. It’s an interesting scenario: a homosexual writer writing about homosexuals through the eyes of a man engaged in the throes of a hetrosexual love affair. Can’t help but wonder if Proust included some ideas that straights thought: for example the gays who pay for so-called “real men,” the problems of recognition (where’s the gaydar?), and the gays who fall for men who are not “feminine”. Did Proust really think this? Or does Proust think this is how his straight narrator thinks?

    • October 3, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      I don’t think he’s the first one. There must be something in Sade. And there’s Sapho 1900. Maurice was written in 1913 but published after Forster’s death.

      The Narrator is supposedly straight but all the girls he likes have boys names. And when he describes them, he doesn’t write like heterosexual men writers do. (no notable descriptions of breasts, décolletés, ankles, bottoms…) I think he took the opportunity to write about what he knew but it was too early in the century to have a gay Narrator. He was published by Gallimard, a top publisher, which makes me think it wasn’t that shocking a topic, in the wordly Paris, at least.
      The Narrator’s reactions are strange, if you think about it. He’s not at all repulsed by Charlus and Morel but he’s thoroughly repulsed by the idea that Albertine and Andrée could make out. He observes Charlus and Morel with an amused eye and also a sadness to think that this man has to hide. Homosexuality isn’t described as a perversion but as an “inversion”: a woman’s mind unfortunately living in a man’s body. His look on Charlus falling for Jupien is as tender as it would be if it were a man and a woman.
      So I’m not sure he’s trying to write as he thinks a straight man should express.

      • October 3, 2011 at 9:06 pm

        I was in a class once and the prof said that the work we were studying was the first example of evil in literature. I said, ‘what about the Marquis de Sade?’ (which predated the work at hand). The prof said that didn’t count.

        • October 3, 2011 at 9:19 pm

          Excellent story. His books aren’t considered as “normal” books.

    • October 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Lesbianism is certainly mentioned in “The Count of Monte Cristo”: Eugénie Danglars runs off with another girl,and they are later discovered in bed together. As for homosexuality, there is a passing reference in Henry Fielding’s “Amelia” in Part 1, Chapter 4: this part of the novel is set in a prison, and Fielding describes a gay prisoner being viciously beaten by the other inmates. Although Fielding says that the man was “committed for certain odious unmanlike practices, not fit to be named”, his sympathy in this instance is clearly on his side.

      I’m sure there must be other open references to homosexuality before Proust.

      • October 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm

        I’ve never read Fielding.
        You remind me there are also lesbians in La Fille aux yeux d’Or by Balzac.

  3. October 3, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    The strangest scene along these lines is the fight between Marcel and Albertine in The Captive where she utters a fragment of a phrase that is then analyzed by the narrator until he finally does figure out the whole thing, leaving the Moncrieff reader utterly baffled.

    I’m thinking of the “se faire casser le pot” scene.

    The earlier wrestling-with-Gilberte scene is also pretty darn strange.

    • October 3, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      I don’t recall that scene. I’ll keep it in mind. Re-reading La Prisonière won’t happen before December I’m afraid. Proust doesn’t qualify for the German literature month.

      I didn’t think the wrestling with Gilberte that strange. I remember such teenage wrestlings with exactly the same purpose: touching. Must be a French thing.

      How would you answer to Guy’s question?

      • October 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm

        Oh, I don’t know. Some mix, I suppose, of Proust’s ideas and his ideas of other people’s ideas. It’s the same with the Jewish theme – Marcel has to be “not Proust.” Everybody turns out to be gay except the narrator! I’m joking, but sometimes it seems that way.

        I will defer to you about the Gilberte scene.

        Aside: the first Russian “coming out” novel is from 1906 (!), Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin. Robert Musil’s Young Torless, also 1906, is also explicit about homosexuality.

        • October 3, 2011 at 7:15 pm

          Yes you’re right he has a lot of homosexual persons among his acquaintances.
          Thanks for the references. It sounded strange to me that Proust was the first one.

      • October 3, 2011 at 7:13 pm

        Oh, and Gide, The Immoralist (1902). “a boy from Catania, lovely as a line of Theocritus, vivid, scented, savory as a fruit” etc. etc.

        • October 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

          I haven’t read this one in 20 years. I read your review. L’Immoraliste is about homosexuality but it’s not as open as Proust. There is no essay like in Proust or really direct descriptions.

  4. October 3, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    I haven’t got as far as specific reference to male homosexuality yet, but I was really taken back by the hostility towards lesbian activity in Swann’s Way. First the narrator spying on the women through the window, and then Swann’s reaction to Odette. If I recall correctly he suspects that she has been with a woman, and this upsets him more than if she had been with a man.

    I find this quite difficult to get my head round. During the corresponding period of English history, perhaps slightly earlier, male homosexuality was criminalised and female homosexuality was considered something of a joke. There is an apocryphal story that Queen Victoria asked ‘What do the poor things do?’ refusing to believe in the existence of lesbianism. Not a true story, I am sure, but I think it gives a good idea of how little significance was attributed to female sexuality.

    • October 3, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      Proust was a frequent visitor to salons run by lesbians. That’s why I don’t understand his hostility. In Swann’s Way I took it as rememberances from a child.
      But here in this volume it’s blatant. It’s like the fear of syphilis. (A disease never evoked, which is strange for the time)
      He’s not interested in women’s sexuality albeit it was actually a hot topic at the time.
      I’ll try to post about that history book I’m reading. It’s full of keys for French literature. The historian often gives books as examples which is perfect for me.

  5. October 6, 2011 at 10:30 am

    A very fine and erudite post. I have not yet read Sodom and Gomorrah but now know what I am in for. Malcolm Bowie in Proust Among the Stars says, “When Proust writes about sex, and he often does, he plays dangerous games in the border territories between the very particular and the very general. Sexual desire in A la recherche du temps perdu is highly localised but it also the abyss into which all other forms of desire threaten to sink”.

    I think it is generally acknowledged that some of Proust’s young women were actually young men – am I right? – we note some of the feminised names such as Albertine and Adnrée.

    • October 6, 2011 at 10:49 am

      Fascinating quote. Sodom and Gomorrah is very funny, perhaps the funniest of In Search of Lost Time.

      It is acknowledged that Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s chauffeur inspired the character of Albertine. They have the same destiny. Yes, the Narrator keeps falling for girls with a feminised name. (Andrée, Gilberte, Albertine) If Andrée and Gilberte are rather common names for women of that time — I have one of each in my family — Albertine is more unusual.

  6. Steve
    November 23, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Interesting posts and interesting comments. But the line of thinking about names is not very helpful for several reasons. In French culture, the names are not thought of so strictly as “masculine” or “feminine”–so it’s just a bit silly to think of “Andree” as the feminine form of “Andre” when the reverse is equally true. It’s even less useful to pursue the thought that Proust’s female characters (notably Albertine and Gilberte) are “really” young men. The novel itself does not allow that kind of reading; and anyway, where does it get you? There’s more to be gained in reading closely and thinking about (for example) how Proust’s narrator describes Albertine….how she is associated with Balbec, “silhouetted by the sea,” her voluptuous laugh, her cat’s nose, etc. There’s no doubt that the Albertine of the novel is a woman.
    That said, it is NOT clear from the novel that the Narrator (OK, Marcel) ever has sexual intercourse with Albertine. The most sensual passages, including what the Narrator does and sees when Albertine is sleeping, don’t quite make that clear. The Malcolm Bowie quotation cited above (“border territories”) is right on the mark.

    • November 23, 2011 at 11:15 pm

      Hello Steve,

      Thanks for visiting and for this interesting comment. I only write my thoughts which aren’t backed up by reading lit crit on the subject. Nobody says –and especially not me– that I’m right.

      I never said that Albertine was a man. I just noted that the Narrator always falls for girls whose name is the feminine form of a man name. And for the French woman that I am –and also for the French husband I have — Andrée IS the feminine form of André, just like Gilberte IS the feminine form of Gilbert.
      I also think that what the Narrator finds attractive in Albertine (nose, laugh…) is not the usual things you usually read when men describe attractive women. (usually you get descriptions of necks, ankles, gracious hands, thin waist, fine skin…)

      It’s not clearly written in the Novel that the Narrator has sex with Albertine, but really, what do you think they were doing when she visits him at night in his room in Paris? Discussing metaphysics?

      • Steve
        November 23, 2011 at 11:28 pm

        Hi Emma, thanks for your prompt response. To your last question: I think that the Narrator and Albertine were “making love,” (or if you will, having sex) but that no (genital) penetration was taking place… I think that the Narrator, despite his seeming horror (mitigated by occasionally more thoughtful comments) of lesbian love, loves Albertine “like a woman….” with kisses, caresses, listening to her breathing, etc. We agree that he does not describe Albertine (usually) in the ways that men typically describe women in amorous settings, and the Narrator employs a notably odd description of the erect male organ (something like a clamp that has been left on a statue… sorry, I don’t have my text handy) . It’s clearly not as simple as “gay” or “straight.” I think that the Narrator has a basically heterosexual orientation BUT he is just a very odd fellow, and always has been, and has told us so from the first pages of the novel.
        But actually: they also discuss metaphysics!

        • November 23, 2011 at 11:41 pm

          Of course detailed technicalities aren’t described. I feel –and I think you know the text far better than me– that what sounds odd is that it is a gay man (the writer) trying to describe a heterosexual intimate relationship and betraying himself when he doesn’t follow the usual path. For me, in the novel, the Narrator is heterosexual and Albertine is a woman, I never saw her as a man in the novel. But the sexual orientation of the writer filters through his writing, in spite of him. After all, his own experience and life is the raw material for In Search of Lost Time.
          Or as you say, the Narrator is just “a very odd fellow”.

  7. Paul
    July 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I cannot see any justification for the excessive horror the narrator is depicted as feeling when confronted by the possibility that Albertine has had sexual relationships with other women. In fact Proust’s handling of heterosexual relationships generally rings as false as his handling of homosexual relationships rings true (and for obvious reasons).

    • July 23, 2012 at 8:33 pm

      Hello Paul,
      Thanks for visiting.
      I rather agree with you. I’m going to read The Captive soon and I wonder how this theme continues in that volume. I don’t remember this one very well, except that I didn’t like it as much as the others.

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