Monday, 1 March 1999

Marcel Proust: Sodome et Gomorrhe (1922)

Translation: As Cities of the Plain by C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin (1981)
Edition:  Penguin, 1985
Review number: 220

The fourth volume of Remembrance of Things Past introduces homosexuality as a major theme for the first time. (There is a brief description of a lesbian couple in the first volume, but they are only mentioned in passing - which means four or five pages in Proust's terms.) The French title indicates this rather more strongly than that used in this English translation. The two parts of Sodome et Gomorrhe were originally published separately, but they are really a single unified novel.

The theme of homosexuality dominates the book from the beginning; the first incident recorded by the narrator is an overheard meeting between his friend M. de Charlus and one of his neighbours, which makes Charlus' sexual orientation quite clear. This radically changes the way the narrator understands the inconsistencies in their relationship, with the older man welcoming one moment; cold, brusque and rude the next.

It is not just male homosexuality which forms the theme of this novel. In other words, it is not just about the actions associated with Sodom but includes those associated with Gomorrah as well - lesbianism is also important. The narrator has continued his relationship with Albertine, who is now his mistress; he begins to suspect that she is actually bisexual, and is having a lesbian affair with Andrée, one of her schoolfriends.

Proust has some interesting, if now rather old-fashioned ideas about homosexuality. (They would of course have been distinctly advanced at the time he was putting them forward.) He describes Charlus, for example, as a woman in a man's body, all the masculine appearance on the top being an acted sham to disguise his true nature. (Despite his high position in society, he could not have been openly homosexual.)

The second, related, theme of Sodome et Gomorrhe is the development of the narrator's relationship with Albertine, which swings from jealousy to indifference and back again. Indeed, it is the contrast between his thoughts and his actions which Proust uses most skilfully to show how much he really cares for her, and that he is unwilling to admit this even to himself. At the very end of the novel, his declaration to his mother that he will marry Albertine shows that now one phase of his life has ended and another is about to begin.

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