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The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis

April 9, 2017 27 comments

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis. (2014) Original French title: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule.

Edouard Louis was born in 1992, he wrote The End of Eddy when he was 22. It is an autobiographical novel. Edouard Louis changed his name from Eddy Bellegueule to Edouard Louis when he changed of social class. He used to be Eddy Bellegueule, child of a poor working-class family in Picardie. He is now Edouard Louis, PhD in sociology. And, very important, he’s gay, was gay as Eddy, is gay as Edouard.

The End of Eddy opens with a punchy sentence: I have no happy memories of my childhood. The décor is there, you know you’re in for a lot of miserable anecdotes. And indeed, the first chapter is about with Eddy being bullied in collège (school you go to between 11 and 15) by two boys who call him a faggot. It’s a violent scene that throws the reader head first into the dark swimming-pool of his childhood memories.

His parents have five children. His two older siblings come from his mother’s first marriage. He has a younger brother and a younger sister. At the beginning, his father works in a factory and his mother stays at home to raise the children. When his father loses his job due to backaches problems, his mother starts working as a home help. He says that from early childhood he knew he was different and that he’s always been pegged as gay. He describes his life in his village in a poor neighborhood. It’s an environment where men and women have defined roles, where being a man means being tough. They don’t look into their feminine side. Being a man means playing and watching football, joking around with buddies, being tough, not going to the doctor unless you’re on death bed. In a word, and to match their language, you don’t behave like a pussy. They spend time at the pub, they drink, they fight. Women bear with them but wouldn’t want them differently. There’s a social context that make the story repeats itself: early pregnancies, early marriages, dropping out of school, poor education, poor jobs. Poor people generation after generation.

The social portray pictured in The End of Eddy is a mix of Angela’s Ashes, Billy Elliot, a film by Ken Loach and La vie de Jésus by Bruno Dumont. (Nothing to do with religion, this last one, and everything to do with a character named Freddy and living in a similar context as Eddy) Well, you see the picture. My problem was that Edouard Louis is not as plausible as the other references I mentioned. The global picture rings true but I found that he went too far. Some details don’t seem plausible for the time (we’re in the 1990s, early 2000):

Régulièrement je me rendais dans la chambre des enfants, sombre puisque nous n’avions pas la lumière dans cette pièce (nous n’avions pas assez d’argent pour y mettre un véritable éclairage, pour y suspendre un lustre ou simplement une ampoule : la chambre ne disposait que d’une lampe de bureau. (p26) I used to go to the children room, dark because there was no light in this room. (We didn’t have enough money to install a real lighting, to hang up a sheen or even a light bulb. The room only had a desk lamp)

I’m sorry I find it hard to believe that in the 1990s, in France, you don’t have a light bulb. I would have believed that his parents had trouble paying their electricity bill or that they never bothered to install a light bulb but no light bulb because it’s too expensive? No way.

In the chapter entitled Laura, he says his parents don’t have the telephone and then in the next chapter, he says his mother would call him at home when his parents were out and he was staying home alone. So, where’s the truth? I find hard to believe that they didn’t have a landline.

I have the feeling that he exaggerates details to make the picture more gruesome and miserable. The passages about the filth in houses around him is too much to be true in France in the 1990s. He wrote this when he was 22, and it might explain why he overstates his case when it’s about his family. It’s too soon after he left.

Something else bothers me. I think he downplays his own achievements in school. He writes: J’avais dix ans. J’étais nouveau au collège. (I was ten. I was new at the collège.) But the normal age to start collège is eleven. So, either the novel is inaccurate and he was indeed eleven at the time or he really was ten. If he started collège a year earlier, knowing the French school system, he was probably scouted by his primary school teachers. It means that he was brilliant in school. It is confirmed when he gets in a good lycée (high school) after collège. In the French public school system, where you live defines where you go to school. It’s possible to go to another school only if there’s an academic reason to it. So, if Eddy Bellegueule got in this other lycée, which was not the one he was supposed to go according to geography, it simply means he had outstanding grades on top of his acting skills that got him into the theatre program. All along the book, he downplays this side of his life. He must have had the school system (teachers, school directors…) on his side. They must have helped him out along the way and it’s not mentioned in the novel.

I found the social portrait too harsh and not nuanced enough and I had the feeling that he twisted the facts to give a darker image of his social background, out of spite.

The most interesting and plausible part of The End of Eddy is his inner life as a gay living in an environment where it was shameful. I think the real poignant part of the book is his struggle to conform. He wants to please his parents, he wants to have friends. At the beginning of the book, I found his statements a bit caricatural, like here:

Mes goûts aussi étaient toujours automatiquement tournés vers des goûts féminins sans que je sache ou comprenne pourquoi. J’aimais le théâtre, les chanteuses de variétés, les poupées, quand mes frères (et même, d’une certaine manière, mes sœurs) préféraient les jeux vidéo, le rap et le football. P26 My tastes were almost always automatically feminine oriented. I didn’t know or understand why. I liked theatre, variety singers and dolls when my brothers (and in a certain way even my sisters) preferred video games, rap music and football.

As the novel progresses though, his life as a gay in a homophobic environment rings true. I felt sorry for him and what he describes sounds plausible, unfortunately. Living and going to school in an area where a man is a tough guy, it doesn’t live a lot of room for boys who are different. I think this part makes the book worth reading.

A word about the title. In French, the title is “En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule” which is different from The End of Eddy. The actual translation would be To Break Away From Eddy Bellegueule. The end of Eddy Bellegueule who became Edouard Louis doesn’t happen by chance. It’s deliberate and the English title doesn’t let this on.

Something else. I understand why Eddy Bellegueule changed his name into Edouard Louis. A first name like Eddy is hard to wear in his new social circles, it really sounds like your parents picked it on TV. It gives away your social background and since he wanted nothing to do with it… But there’s more. Bellegueule means handsome mug and in French, avoir une belle gueule is a colloquial way to say that a man is handsome. The association of Eddy and Bellegueule is hard to live with, even without a chip of your shoulder regarding your origins. It sounds like Johnny Halliday or Eddy Mitchel or Mike Brant, all singers who started in the 1960s when producers made singers change their French names into American names because it was cool.

The End of Eddy was published in English recently, I’ve seen several reviews on other blogs. Even if he irritated me a lot at the beginning because I thought he was laying on it thick about his family’s actual and intellectual poverty, I was convinced by his description of his feelings as a gay in this environment.

PS: You can also read Grant’s review here

And I wish that the French publisher mentioned in a footnote that the song Eddy sings in chapter “La porte étroite” is by the French singer Renaud.

I finished reading La Prisonnière, eventually

February 1, 2013 16 comments

La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust. 1929 English title: The Captive

I ended my previous post about The Captive with the following paragraph:

Chapter 2 is entitled: Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus. (The Verdurins quarrel with M. de Charlus). Relief. He’s socializing again and we’ll get some fresh air.

Well, socializing doesn’t last long, so relief was short-lived. Sure, Marcel describes with shining details how M. de Charlus organized a music evening in the honour of Morel at the Verdurins’ and how he managed to mortally vex Madame Verdurin. The man invited the high society to his party at her place and never introduced her to his elite crowd. (Mme de Guermantes, Princesse de Guermantes…) She felt so humiliated by his behaviour that she decided to guillotine him from her Salon and cut him off Morel at the same time. The description of her way of trapping him and going for the kill is masterly crafted. It reminded me of the worst sharks in the politics of big corporations. But that part didn’t last long enough.

The rest of the volume is still devoted to Marcel’s unhealthy behaviour and twisted relationship with Albertine. His games lead them to break-up, which isn’t a spoiler since the next volume is called Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone). He’s obsessed by a question: is Albertine a lesbian? Is she acquainted with lesbians? While he casually speaks about M. de Charlus sexual orientation and his relationship with Morel, he is truly horrified by the idea that Albertine could be a lesbian. Most of what he calls love holds by his imagined mission to save Albertine from lesbian encounters. Speak of a knight in shining armor and what a sick basis for a relationship. Personally, I don’t understand why he makes such a difference between gays and lesbians. Knowing that Proust was a homosexual, being so against lesbians is as odd to me as black men being racist. When you’re yourself the target of racism or homophobia, how can you behave the same way toward other people? That question lingers in my head and I can’t grasp why the Narrator is so shocked by the idea of lesbian relationships.

The book also echoed strangely with the current parliamentary session in France. You’re probably not aware of this, but our députés are currently discussing a law that will legalize marriage for homosexuals. We have had pretty nasty comments and demonstrations from conservative and catholic militants. A pro-law député received a threat in the form of a mail full of excrement. This still happens in 2013. It was just a loud reminder that the door to the worse is always ajar and that contemptible behaviours just wait for an opportunity to spring free. While I listened to the news with consternation and followed a bit of the debates between French bloggers on Twitter, I couldn’t help wondering “Which side would Marcel Proust take these days?” If I read La Prisonnière very literally, I wouldn’t be too optimistic and think he would be against this law. But then, I can’t forget that it was written in the 1920s and that if he were alive now, his thinking would have kept up with his time. The man who supported Dreyfus from the start wouldn’t stick with the stinking conservatives right now, would he?

Expo_ProustAnd with this my minds leaps to my latest Proustian moment, when I attended the exhibition Du côté de chez Swann. Jacques-Emile Blanche. Un Salon à la Belle Epoque. For a glimpse at the exhibition, click here. Jacques-Emile Blanche is the painter who did Proust’s portrait you can see on the exhibition poster. This is probably the most famous portrait of this literary genius. They said at the exhibition that he loved this painting and moved it around with him every place he lived. Jacques-Emile Blanche is a social painter of the time. He is well introduced in the fashionable artistic salons of his time. His father was Maupassant’s physician and himself was a close friend to Proust. Well, they weren’t on speaking terms for 15 years because of the Dreyfus Affair. (Proust was Dreyfusard and Blanche anti-Dreyfusard). Blanche also painted Marguerite Saint-Marceaux, who became Madame Verdurin, Méry Laurent, who inspired Odette de Crécy (and Nana by Zola), Robert de Montesquiou who inspired M. de Charlus. There were also paintings of the Halévy family who are partly portrayed in the Guermantes and paintings of the Baignères who also inspired the Swanns. So the Swanns are made up with Charles Haas, Méry Laurent and the Baignères. I enjoyed the visit very much. Blanche was always a socialite and later befriended with Cocteau and Gide. I have a book entitled La vie élégante by Anne Martin-Fugier that retraces the history of salons from 1815 to the Belle Epoque. It’s on the TBR, I may read it after I finish Is That a Fish in Your Ear? which is a bit challenging to read in English for a French with no academic background in the field of translation, language and other related theories.

Marguerite Saint-Marceaux painting by Jacques Emile Blanche

Marguerite Saint-Marceaux painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

Robert de Montesquiou painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

Robert de Montesquiou painted by Jacques Emile Blanche

But back to Proust. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading Albertine disparue because I know it’s a difficult volume too. The reward is really in Le Temps retrouvé which is an absolute masterpiece. I guess I’ll have to soldier on and think about this wonderful last volume.

In the presence of an excellent book

May 4, 2012 35 comments

En l’absence des hommes by Philippe Besson. 2001. English title: In the Absence Of Men.

C’est une semaine de l’été 1916. J’ai seize ans, les cheveux noirs, les yeux clairs. Je m’appelle Vincent de l’Etoile. C’est une semaine d’un soleil énorme. La semaine de tous les bouleversements. Celle de ma rencontre avec Marcel P et avec Arthur V., de ma confrontation avec un esprit et un corps, d’un rendez-vous inattendu avec la vie facile et avec la mort possible. Je crois au hasard, si bien que je ne souhaite voir dans cette simultanéité qu’une coïncidence. It is a week in the summer 1916. I’m sixteen, I have dark hair, pale green eyes. My name is Vincent de l’Etoile. It’s a week with a harassing sun. The week of THE disruption. The week I met Marcel P. and Arthur V. and faced a mind and a body, the week of an unexpected rendez-vous with easy life and possible death. I believe in chance and I only want to see a coincidence in this simultaneity.

I’m writing this billet about half an hour after turning the last page of the novel. I needed time to come back from the journey. This novel is the kind of book that leads you far away and far inside at the same time. You’re with the characters in a distant place and in a distant past and you’re visiting some distant places in yourself. Two simultaneous journeys that cannot leave you indifferent.

Summer 1916. Vincent de l’Etoile, is 16, has dark hair and pale green eyes. It’s the war, it hovers over the Parisian life, young men are absent. Vincent meets Marcel, who is 45, a famous writer, a socialite. Who else can it be? Proust. A kind friendship kindles between the adolescent and the older man. At the exact same time, Arthur has a seven’s day leave. He’s the housekeeper’s son, he’s gay and terribly in love with Vincent. Now the time has come for him to confess his love and Vincent welcomes it, drowns into it. He abandons himself to new feelings, new sensations. His afternoons with Marcel and his nights with Arthur are his new way of life.

The first part of the novel relates seven days of Arthur’s furlough, the second is epistolary between Vincent and Marcel, Vincent and Arthur.

I was moved to tears, touched by the raw emotion coming out of the pages. Like in Un homme accidentel manages to communicate love, passion and pain without overdoing it. It’s a specific love story and yet universal. Literature is there, with Marcel and Arthur, two brilliant first names of French literature.

Using Marcel Proust in a novel was risky; it’s a success. His Marcel is convincing, I noticed in the letters specific words from In Search Of Lost Time, like homosexuality called “inversion”. There are beautiful passages about writing and I wondered if Philippe Besson also wrote about himself here. Probably yes, doesn’t he write Raconte-t-on jamais autre chose que sa propre histoire? (Do we ever tell anything else than our own story ?) When Marcel writes about homosexuality, it echoes with the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe. Of course, it does.

And Arthur. Probably named after Rimbaud whose poetry and boldness filter through the pages when a comparison of Vincent and Arthur’s relationship to a bateau ivre (a drunk boat). It could be fake but it’s not. Arthur is youth, burning like the sun, physical sensations and overwhelming love. Like Rimbaud was, a meteorite in the literary sky. The letters from the front line are poignant and highly realist.

The two men represent a different approach to Time. Marcel endeavors to resuscitate the past and Arthur lives in the present, doesn’t want to recall his past and can’t think about a future. Seven days is the time God needed to create the world, according to the Bible. Seven days is what these two men needed to create a new world for Vincent, to separate him from his childhood and change him into a man.

I won’t give any details here but what I read brought back memories that I thought were buried deeper than that. Isn’t that amazing to be brought back to your own past when reading a book with Proust as a character, to see old feelings and sensations resurrect through a writer’s words? I loved the descriptions of silences and the quality, the texture of silences and the communication there.

Vincent’s voice stayed with me each time I closed the book. I needed time to readjust to my life, be aware again of my surroundings. I was in my own bubble, his voice echoing in my head, refusing to let me go back to mundane tasks, get out of the tramway, cross the station, reach the mall and be part of the crowd. He kept me with him. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s pure bliss.

I haven’t read Rouge Brésil by Jean-Christophe Rufin, who won the Prix Goncourt in 2001 and I can’t compare it to En l’absence des hommes. All I can say is that if Gilles Leroy won it for Alabama Song, then Philippe Besson deserved it as well. I don’t want to think that a remnant of Puritanism prevented the jury from granting a prestigious prize to a homosexual love story.

I am absolutely delighted that it is translated into English and I’d love to read other responses to it.

Noir Désir

January 21, 2012 25 comments

Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. 2007. Not translated into English, very sadly.

Jack m’entraînait là où aucune rémission n’était possible, où aucun pardon ne serait accordé, où la survie n’était envisageable qu’à condition de mentir, de se cacher, où les jours toute façon seraient comptés puisque la vérité finit toujours par nous rattraper. Et j’acceptais ce sort. Mieux, j’allais à sa rencontre. Jack was dragging me to a place where no remission was possible, where no forgiveness would be granted, where survival was possible provided that we lied and hid, where days were numbered because truth always catches up with us. And I surrendered to that fate. Better, I was heading toward it.

Our Narrator has no name and relates the events that blew his life away. One year ago, he was married to Laura. They were expecting a baby. They were in love. He was a lieutenant at LAPD, in Beverly Hills, a quiet job according to him. Life was good until June 15th 1990, the day Billy Greenfield got murdered and dumped down on the manicured lawn of a rich man’s house. Billy was a prostitute. Searching his apartment for clues, the Narrator finds a notebook with the names of Billy’s clients. Among them, Jack Bell, a famous young actor. On June 17th, the Narrator pays a visit to Jack, to investigate the murder.

Then things get out of control when Jack and our Narrator fall in love.

Love at first sight, you say in English. It conveys a sweet image of a romantic encounter between a starry-eyed young girl and her righteous beau. Only the French can describe what happens here. Coup de foudre, lightening stroke. It has everything in it: the suddenness, the blinding quality, the violence, the fire, the storm and the destruction it brings in their lives. Coup de foudre.

Besson excels in describing the whirlwind love between the two men. Our Narrator discovers his homosexuality; he recounts his fatal attraction to Jack and their summer of love. The Narrator doesn’t hide or doesn’t try to find excuses. He doesn’t want pity. He takes full responsibilities of his actions and accepts their consequences. With a little hindsight, he deciphers the key moments, the tiny seconds of hesitation, of flawed decision-making. A hand that lingers too long, a look a little too insistent and the wrong words at the wrong moment. Still he doesn’t complain. No should-haves or would-haves here. He quietly unravels the events, not concealing that he had a choice and purposely headed to disaster, blown away by his relationship with Jack.

The LA setting is well-described but you can tell it’s not written by an American author, that he knows the city as a foreigner. Sometimes his comparisons betray his nationality. I can’t imagine an American novelist writing this:

C’étaient des paroles ordinaires, des choses de presque rien, comme en disent les couples qui s’arrêtent sur des aires d’autoroute, le jour des départs en vacances. These were ordinary words, small talk couples make when they stop on a motorway rest area when they go on holiday.

When I read this in French, I see the flow of tourists on the French motorways on August 15th. I see families pick-nicking on wooden benches between the gas station and the children playground, not a couple in California.

Despite this minor flaw, I couldn’t put this book down, Besson is a sensitive writer. He builds his style around short and forceful sentences, creating a plausible flow for a confession. There’s a music behind the words, a gift for little observations.

Je l’ai observée quelques instants avant de me signaler. J’ai toujours aimé observer Laura sans qu’elle s’en rende compte. C’est beau, une femme qui ne fait pas attention, qui se coupe du monde, qui n’est concentrée que sur son geste. I observed her for some time before showing up. I’ve always loved watching Laura, unnoticed. It’s beautiful, a woman who doesn’t pay attention, who shuts the world out, who only concentrates on her movements.

Or

Dans les étreintes, il y a tout ce qu’on abandonne. In our lovemaking lays everything we give away.

An accidental man. The title says everything. Falling in love is an accident. Meeting Jack is an accident, two parallel worlds colliding. Homosexuality is accidentally discovered. The murder is an accident. The Narrator’s life is accidental.

This novel isn’t translated into English, this is why you get my translations for the quotes. If I’m being honest, reviews are far from unanimous. Some hated it, some loved it. I loved it, but I guess you know that by now.

PS: the soundtrack in my head was A l’arrière des taxis by Noir Désir.

Charlus, Albertine and others: homosexuality in Sodom et Gomorrah

October 3, 2011 26 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-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.

The Narrator and Molière: comedy in Sodome et Gomorrhe

September 11, 2011 12 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. Translated into English as Sodom and Gomorrah or Cities of the Plain (C.K. Scott Moncrieff) I used this translation for the quotes.

I thought that this volume is the most comedy-oriented so far and I imagined it deserved a special review. There’s no thinking or admiring hawthorn bushes. Molière and vaudeville hover over the book; the Narrator interacts with the reader:

« Tout ceci, dira le lecteur, ne nous apprend rien sur le manque de complaisance de cette dame ; mais puisque vous vous êtes si longtemps arrêté, laissez-moi, monsieur l’auteur, vous faire perdre une minute de plus pour vous dire qu’il est fâcheux que, jeune comme vous l’étiez (ou comme était votre héros s’il n’est pas vous), vous eussiez déjà si peu de mémoire, que de ne pouvoir vous rappeler le nom d’une dame que vous connaissiez fort bien. » C’est très fâcheux en effet, monsieur le lecteur. All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, gentle author, to waste another moment of your time in telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he be not yourself), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not recall the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is indeed a pity, gentle reader.

Reading it again, it resonates with theatre too. In Molière’s play, a character can be alone on stage, talking to the public and explaining the situation or his intentions.

The evening at the Princesse de Guermantes is clearly the opportunity to mock the aristocrats. The Narrator is more used to them now and the awe is gone. He observes them with a caustic eye and sees how vapid, snobbish and silly they can be. They are down from their pedestal. This stems from a double phenomenon: on the one hand, the Narrator is more mature and on the other hand, he’s used to them now. The repetition of diners dispels the magic.

Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was ‘no help,’ they had made up their minds not to be silent but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia; without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to breathe, the interval was filled by the murmurs of the Grandee of Spain who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

The bourgeois world, ie the Verdurins, isn’t better. Madame Verdurin may have good taste in art, her world is as codified and as narrow as the aristocratic circles. The Narrator ridicules them too. He also makes fun of the employees at the Grand Hotel, but the tone is kinder. Comedy is spread through the novel in the description of characters or in particular scenes. References to Molière are frequent and that’s why I think there’s an assumed aim at comedy and irony in Sodom and Gomorrah. I could quote many comical passages, I laughed a lot and Proust proves again how funny he is. I thought that in the previous volumes, he was observant and amused. In this one, I thought he was still incredibly observant but also more nasty. The Narrator himself is never nasty but he reports other people’s speeches. Here is M. de Charlus unleashing his irony on Mme de Surgis:

Peut-être aussi M. de Charlus, de qui l’insolence était un don de nature qu’il avait joie à exercer, profitait-il de la minute pendant laquelle il était censé ignorer qui était le nom de ces deux jeunes gens pour se divertir aux dépens de Mme de Surgis et se livrer à ses railleries coutumières, comme Scapin met à profit le déguisement de son maître pour lui administrer des volées de coups de bâton.

Perhaps too M. de Charlus, whose insolence was a natural gift which he delighted in exercising, took advantage of the few moments in which he was supposed not to know the name of these two young men to have a little fun at Mme. de Surgis’s expense, and to indulge in his habitual sarcasm, as Scapin takes advantage of his master’s disguise to give him a sound drubbing.

I really thought there was a deliberate constant reference to Molière who used comedy to violently criticize his time. Proust isn’t soft with his world either. In the previous quote, Scapin is a valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière. He’s a scoundrel who plots against his master to help the son’s master marry the girl he loves. Now, the Narrator describes the lift-boy’s way of speaking, using a comparison with Molière:

J’ai pas pour bien longtemps, disait le lift qui, poussant à l’extrême la règle édictée par Bélise d’éviter la récidive du pas avec le ne, se contentait toujours d’une seule négative. Haven’t any too much time,” said the lift-boy, who, carrying to extremes the grammatical rule that forbids the repetition of personal pronouns before coordinate verbs, omitted the pronoun altogether.

Oops, Bélise, the pedantic character of The Learned Ladies was lost in translation. And now Céleste and Marie, the two chamber maids, playfully chiding the Narrator:

Ah! Sac à ficelles, ah! Douceur ! Ah perfidie ! Rusé entre les rusés, rosse des rosses! Ah! Molière!

Oh! The story-teller! Oh! The flatterer! Oh! The false one! The cunning rogue! Oh! Molière!”

This sounds like the passage in L’Avare. (Ma cassette!) or in Les Fourberies de Scapin (“What the devil was he doing in that galley!”) or maybe Toinette, the energetic maid in Le Malade Imaginaire. It reminds me of the scenes where characters yell and dupe others which are rather frequent in Molière’s plays. The English version is slightly bowdlerized, btw.

Medecine and physicians are attacked, as the Narrator sees his doctor more often than he’d wish to and as Cottard is a famous physician. It starts softly with a general sentence like this one:

C’est que la médecine a fait quelques petits progrès dans ses connaissances depuis Molière, mais aucun dans son vocabulaire.

The fact is that medicine has made some slight advance in knowledge since Molière’s days, but none in its vocabulary.

It’s an allusion to a famous scene in Le Malade Imaginaire where Purgon stabs Argan with complicated medical words and words in Latin and Greek. Purgon’s power over Argan partly lays in his supposedly superior knowledge. But he’s totally inefficient as a physician. This play is also present in the following phrase:

Il est tombé de la neurasthénie dans la philologie, comme eût dit mon bon maître Pocquelin. He has lapsed from neurasthenia to philology, as my worthy master Pocquelin would have said.

Pocquelin was Molière’s real name and it’s another allusion to the Malade Imaginaire. He died on stage when he was playing Argan. And another one, directed at Cottard:

L’éminent professeur, dit Brichot, s’exprime, Dieu me pardonne, dans un français aussi mêlé de latin et de grec qu’eut pu le faire M. Purgon lui-même, de moliéresque mémoire ! The eminent Professor,” said Brichot, “expresses himself in a French as highly infused with Latin and Greek as M. Purgon himself, of Molièresque memory!

Argan, the main character of Le Malade Imaginaire, thinks he’s sick and is in the power of his doctor, named M. Purgon. This play is a strong attack against charlatans and so-called doctors. It’s not exactly flattering for Professor Cottard, who’s an eminent physician too.

On another tone, here is Cottard speaking:

Vous avez, dit Cottard, une veine de… turlututu, mot qu’il répétait volontiers pour esquiver celui de Molière. You have,” said Cottard, “the luck of… turlututu,” a word which he gladly repeated to avoid using Molière’s

The missing word is “cocu” (a “cocu” is a deceived spouse) There’s a French idiom that says “avoir une chance de cocu”, ie to be very lucky. It’s colloquial. I hope you have a footnote in your English edition for that sentence or it must be rather obscure. One of Molière’s plays in entitled Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire.

What is really interesting is that characters from all social classes (employees at the hotel, artistocrats and bourgeois) refer to Molière. As a great fan of Molière too, I wanted to point out the wonderful tribute Proust does to that playwright, the most popular of French theater, the one that even the dullest French teacher cannot ruin. I didn’t remember all these references to Molière and honestly, Molière isn’t the writer I’d associate to Proust at first thought. Proust’s image is more linked to digressions, thoughts and reverie than to comedy. I suppose that it comes from the first volumes but Sodom and Gomorrah anchors Proust in the tradition of French literature and French “spirit” in other ways than his love for Balzac. It’s all in the nasty but witty observations and descriptions. I don’t know how to call that, but I can hear the particular tone used to utter those cutting remarks that are the basis of French sense of humour. In the 17th C literature, the Narrator’s grand-mother may worship Madame de Sévigné, the Narrator himself prefers Molière.

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

September 9, 2011 14 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.

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