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Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

September 9, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

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 Moncrief translation.

After a long introduction on homosexuality – another post, if I have enough time – the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time opens with a worldly diner at the Princesse de Guermantes. The Narrator is now a great friend of Oriane de Guermantes and is well-acquainted with the aristocratic world. He’s used to meeting them and notices their flaws and ridicules. We hear again of those ludicrous first names (Adalbert, Herminie, Antioche, Arnulphe, Victurnien, Amanien) but the Narrator has lost his illusions and sees the hypocrisy behind the politeness:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The Duchesse de Guermantes is as delicate as ever:

« La proximité de la dame suffit. Je me dis tout d’un coup : « Oh ! mon Dieu, on a crevé ma fosse d’aisances », c’est simplement la marquise qui, dans quelque but d’invitation, vient d’ouvrir la bouche. Et vous comprenez que si j’avais le malheur d’aller chez elle, la fosse d’aisances se multiplierait en un formidable tonneau de vidange. »

The proximity of the lady is enough. I say to myself all at once: oh, good lord, someone has broken the lid of my cesspool, when it is simply the Marquise opening her mouth to emit some invitation. And you can understand that if I had the misfortune to go to her house, the cesspool would be magnified into a formidable sewage-cart.

And I don’t have enough space to quote another of her verbal pearls. The Dreyfus Affair is still tearing apart the French society but the wind is shifting.

Ensuite et surtout, un assez long temps avait passé pendant lequel, si, au point de vue historique, les événements avaient en partie semblé justifier la thèse dreyfusiste, l’opposition antidreyfusarde avait redoublé de violence, et de purement politique d’abord était devenue sociale. C’était maintenant une question de militarisme, de patriotisme, et les vagues de colère soulevées dans la société avaient eu le temps de prendre cette force qu’elles n’ont jamais au début d’une tempête.

Moreover and above all, a considerable interval of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had, to some extent, seemed to justify the Dreyfusard argument, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had doubled its violence, and, from being purely political, had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm.

The innocence of Dreyfus isn’t acknowledged yet but more and more people support his cause. His detractors radicalize and the opposition between the two sides is violent. 

After a long description of that evening, the Narrator leaves to Balbec again. The departure and arrival are quite different from the first time as he now knows the place very well. In the Grand Hotel, he stays in the same room as the year before and the descriptions of the employees are little gems of comedy. He’s comfortable with this room even if it’s not the best one in the hotel. He can endure it as long as he doesn’t have to tame a new environment. At first, he’s happy to be in that room again until it reminds him that his grand-mother is dead. All the sorrow he hasn’t felt or has pushed aside crashes upon him. Mourning starts and Proust wrote beautiful pages about recovering from the death of a beloved one. That kind of pain is still ahead of me but I empathized with his description.

The Narrator’s months in Balbec are also an opportunity to get acquainted with the Verdurin circle. Indeed, the Verdurins rent a house from a now destitute aristocratic family, the Cambremer. This announces the shift in social circles that the last volumes will emphasize. The members of the circle join the parties by train, getting on the same carriage one by one. At the last station, cars wait for them. Proust depicts marvelous moments on that local train. The protegees socialize (I love that English word, it doesn’t have a French equivalent and at first, it was a puzzling notion for me.). They share easy banters or discuss etymology or literature. Professor Cottard, Saniette are there. And so is the Baron de Charlus, in love with Morel, a gifted violinist that Madame Verdurin sponsors. The Narrator takes advantage of that time to make out with Albertine. 

The Narrator’s relationship with Albertine continues. From my perspective, I thought “Poor Albertine”. The Narrator is as whimsical as a spoiled child – which he was, of course. He expects her to be available at any time of night and day. For example, he asks her to come to his place at 1 am. They had a rendezvous after his diner at the Princesse de Guermantes and she stood him up. He imagines her having fun with friends in a café and he’s so jealous that he insists on her coming to his place despite the late hour. Albertine’s freedom surprised me. She can go wherever she wants. Was it common or is it a sign that she doesn’t belong to a respectable family? Or as the real Albertine was a man, did Proust forget that a woman wouldn’t have had such a liberty? When they are in Balbec, they spend a lot of alone (and intimate) time together. She’s supposed to be his cousin but everybody knows it’s a front. It respects social conventions and doesn’t oblige his acquaintances and friends to show a public disapproval. His social circle pretends to buy the story and lets them do what they want.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. His mind is tortuous, his imagination is wild and he makes scenes for details. He’s a little tyrant and wants to have power over her. After all, he’s always had women at his service: his mother, his grand-mother, Françoise. There’s a parallel between Swann’s love for Odette and the Narrator’s love for Albertine. They are not built on reality, on the real person or on the nice moments they spend together. Their love is fueled by imagination and jealousy. Swann doesn’t love Odette until he realizes he could lose her. The Narrator doesn’t love Albertine until he imagines she could have a homosexual relationship with Andrée or another friend.

After all this time, people start to expect a wedding (wait, what about the cousin front?) and his mother informs him of the gossip. Does he intend to marry her? With an incredible gift for guilt and psychology, she lets him understand she’d rather he didn’t marry her. She doesn’t think Albertine is a good match. So far, he has pushed the question aside but now, he’s forced to think it through.

In this volume, the Narrator has an idle life. Writing and working aren’t on his program. I felt him more actor of his life than spectator like before. Although he’s still ill, there’s more vitality, it’s less contemplative and there are very few digressing on art, on woman’s beauty or feelings. I suppose that’s also why I found this volume more caustic and purposely comical. (I’ll try to write something about that too.) I also enjoyed reading about the new technologies. He talks about “téléphonage” for “phone call”, and no one uses that word now. I smiled when he describes the first times he rented an automobile and wonders at all the things he can do in one afternoon.

PS: I mentioned in my post on Rilke that sometimes he sounded like Proust. Here is Proust sounding like Rilke.

dès que, pour y parcourir les artères de la cité souterraine, nous nous sommes embarqués sur les flots noirs de notre propre sang comme sur un Léthé intérieur aux sextuples replis, de grandes figures solennelles nous apparaissent, nous abordent et nous quittent, nous laissant en larmes.

as soon as, to traverse the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked upon the dark current of our own blood as upon an inward Lethe meandering sixfold, huge solemn forms appear to us, approach and glide away, leaving us in tears.

  1. September 10, 2011 at 3:18 am

    At first I thought you were reviewing the crime film…
    Anyway, once again I am convinced I have to read this. not yet though, but it’s moving closer. Love that first painting.

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    • September 10, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      What made you think that?
      I saw that painting in the Musée Carnavalet, in that Belle Epoque room I mentioned before. I bought the postcard. It is entitled Couple dans un compartiment de train (Couple in a train carriage) It was painted by Ricardo Lopez-Cabrera, circa 1890.

      The second painting wasn’t available in postcards, so I added my picture. When I saw it, I thought about that particular passage when the Narrator imagines Albertine in cafés with girl-friends. It’s entitled Femmes au café and was painted by Mariano Perez-Alonzo

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      • September 11, 2011 at 1:08 am

        mainly because I’m fixated on crime films, I suppose. Gomorrah is the title.

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        • September 11, 2011 at 9:02 pm

          The one about the mafia in Italy? I heard it’s very good.

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  2. September 10, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    The Guermantes Way has stalled for me. I haven’t read any in over a week. Your excellent post makes me want to push on. I love the Verdurins in a love/hate kind of way. Thank you!

    (And I had better research Dreyfus before I read much further…)

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    • September 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      Thanks.
      You’re right, it’s better if you read about Dreyfus before The Guermantes Way.

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  3. September 11, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    I also love that painting. The book sounds very different from the first two or three I read. Or I read them in a different way. On the other hand Proust is difficult to review. You can summarize it but then you have to leave aside a lot of other elements that have nothing to do with story.
    I can’t remember now whether this is a re-read for you. It is, no?

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    • September 11, 2011 at 9:07 pm

      The tone of this one is different, mostly comedy. (I’ll write about that)
      Homosexuality is also one of the main topics. I’ll try to write about it too. (depends on how much free time I have)
      It’s difficult to summarize, even in French. I just hope to share my enthusiasm. It’s nice that Sarah, Richard and Max are reading Proust too.

      It’s a re-read for me. That’s why I know the next two ones aren’t my favourite (but perhaps that will change after so many years) and that the last one is mind blowing.

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  4. September 12, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Emma. I liked the film a lot but I wouldn’t rave about it.

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  5. September 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    You’re steaming ahead of me on these. I’m having to be a little careful with respect to spoilers, though spoilers aren’t really an issue for Proust – it’s not as if I read him for the plot after all.

    I would be interested in a post about homosexuality in Proust. I still have a follow up planned on the second volume relating to art, though work and blog backlog has got in the way of that so far.

    I do think he’d be very tiresome to have as a lover. Rather self-obsessed and prone to tyrannical whim as you note. Still, that’s where some of the drama and comedy comes from.

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    • September 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      I’m afraid I don’t take precautions regarding spoilers when I write about Proust. As you say you don’t read him for the plot and anyway I cover a tiny part of the material.
      I’m interested in your take on art in Proust. I hope you’ll have time to write it.

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  6. September 10, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    I am so happy! This is amazing! I will read them all! I will read some often everytime I visit the site. Thanks for sharing your opinion and knowledge with us.

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    • September 10, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      I’m not a scholar and I can’t pretend to write essays. So I just write my thoughts and try to make Proust sound less daunting.
      I hope you’ll read them all and spend a good time in the Narrator’s company. I know you don’t expect this but Proust is FUNNY.

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  1. June 15, 2015 at 7:32 pm

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