In Search of Lost Time: Sodom and Gomorrah (1921/1922)

Author: Marcel Proust

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

Marcel Proust was born into an upper middle-class existence in the Parisian suburb of Auteuil in 1871. Proust’s mother was of Jewish descent, and his father was a renowned doctor. While Proust grew up in Paris, he spent a lot of time in his family’s country home. With much anguish, he acknowledged his homosexuality, and he had an affair with composer and pianist Reynaldo Hahn. Violent asthma attacks prevented Proust from having a traditional professional life, but he did manage to infiltrate aristocratic social life and attend many parties with the elite. After his mother’s death and subsequent declining health, Proust retreated from public life and devoted himself almost entirely to writing. During this time, he wrote the manuscripts for the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Sodom and Gomorrah was the last volume of In Search of Lost Time that was published before Proust died. Proust’s friend and acclaimed writer André Gide, who was also gay, disliked Sodom and Gomorrah because its depiction of homosexuality did not emphasize youth, beauty, and passion.

Marcel Proust

What is the plot of this book?

The seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time portray the relationships of the French elite in the early twentieth century. The main families of distinction include the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Cambremers. Sodom and Gomorrah is told from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator as he attends myriad parties and dinners in and around Paris and Balbec, a French coastal town. The story opens with the narrator waiting for the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes to arrive. As the narrator waits, he instead covertly observes a tryst between the duke’s brother, Monsieur de Charlus, and Jupien, a tailor. This encounter causes the narrator to reflect on the experience of being an “invert,” the outdated term for a queer person.

As the narrator continues to socialize with Charlus and many other characters throughout the novel, queer themes continue to emerge in the actions of Charlus and also in those of Albertine, the woman who the narrator loves. Despite ambivalence over Albertine’s lower social standing from the narrator’s family, the narrator continues to pursue a relationship with Albertine. Jealousy overwhelms the narrator as he repeatedly suspects Albertine of having same-sex desires. Albertine has a particularly close relationship with another woman named Andreé. Nevertheless, the narrator decides ultimately that he must marry Albertine.

In addition to the queer themes, Proust also addresses anti-Semitism and the passing of time. The narrative unravels as the Dreyfus Affair vexes France. Controversy emerged when a French Jewish captain was accused of treasonously selling military secrets to the Germans (Britannica). The captain’s Judaism gave rise to anti-Semitism, and a backlash emerged when evidence came to light supporting the captain’s innocence (Britannica). The Jewish characters and supporters of the captain are outcasts in a similar way that the queer characters are outcasts. As Proust had Jewish heritage, his empathy for otherness in religion and sexuality is apparent. Moreover, the narrator’s grief over his grandmother’s passing echoes the grief that Proust seemed to experience over the passing of his mother. Proust devotes large sections of the text to the memories of his grandmother that inundate him as he revisits a vacation spot in Balbec and the phenomenon of remembering the deceased.

The novel is named Sodom and Gomorrah in an irreverent allusion to the Biblical story. In the story of Sodom of Gomorrah, God destroys these two cities because of the inhabitants’ wickedness (Britannica). Although this wickedness has traditionally been interpreted as homosexuality, modern interpretations have identified the vice as inhospitality (Britannica). Nevertheless, the narrator believes that the angels posted at the gates of Sodom should have been Sodomites, or queer people. If the angels had been Sodomites, they would have been able to determine who was lying about their “vices.” Since this did not happen, Sodomites, especially those that castigate others about their homosexuality, have thrived. This explanation is an apparent criticism of policing sexual conduct among consenting adults.

How is this book queer?

The title Sodom and Gomorrah is a bold declaration of queerness, and the book opens with a very queer scene. The narrator happens to observe the main queer character Charlus initiate a sexual encounter with Jupien the tailor. Proust juxtaposes the interaction between the birds, bees, and flowers in the background with the flirtation between Charlus and Jupien. Proust compares Jupien with flowers and female birds, and Proust compares Charlus with pollinators like hummingbirds and bumblebees. In common parlance, “the birds and the bees” is an expression for the natural act of sex between two consenting people. This phrase usually refers to heterosexual sex, yet Proust extends this imagery to gay sex. In doing so, Proust classifies gay sex as a very natural act, just as heterosexual sex is.

Charlus and Jupien

While the opening scene normalizes gay sex, the narrative perpetuates some outdated attitudes about queer men. Proust equates male queerness with femininity, and he confuses sexual orientation with gender identity. While true mutual love is rare among heterosexual people, Proust believes that it is even rarer between queer men. He theorizes that most queer men are effeminate, yet they seek masculine men as lovers. As a result, he believes queer men must make concessions in order to find lovers. In other words, he opines that queer men cannot afford to be choosy if they want to find lovers. According to him, effeminate queer men will inevitably be lovers to each other, even if they seek masculine lovers. Further, Proust even traces queerness to “hermaphroditism,” an outdated term, in organisms that have both sexual organs. In summation, Proust is completely incorrect on the science of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Even as the narrator characterizes Charlus as very effeminate, Charlus is the central, commanding queer character in the novel. Indeed, in the first party scene Charlus informs Vaugoubert, a closeted queer man, about “the inverts” in attendance at the party. Vaugoubert is married to a masculine woman in what is assumed to be a marriage without passion. This does not matter to Charlus, who commands respect from fellow queer men. Similarly, at the party Charlus exchanges knowing glances with another queer man, the Duke of Sidonia, but the two men give each other distance. Proust, through the narrator, believes that queer men, at least in this era in France, are either lovers or rivals.

With queer men acting as either rivals or lovers, it is natural for love affairs to extend beyond class divides. Charlus’s initial encounter with Jupien lasts through the course of the novel, as Jupien becomes Charlus’s secretary and later his accomplice. However, Charlus’s true love is Morel, a bisexual violinist in the military band. Charlus becomes Morel’s patron and lover, and the two manipulate each other into staying together. There is even a suggested queer relationship that does not include Charlus. The Duc de Châtellerault, a very minor character, meets the usher of the Princesse de Guermantes while he goes incognito to the Champs-Élysées, and the two seem to bask in the romance of Paris. The usher, of course, recognizes the Duc de Châtellerault as he enters a party, and the latter is frightened his identity, and his sexuality, will be revealed.

The ruses that Charlus executes are for more elaborate than that of the Duc de Châtellerault. Charlus feigns disinterest in and even criticizes the beautiful adult sons of his brother’s mistress, Madame de Surgis. In doing so, he engages Madame de Surgis in defending her sons, which eventually allows him a path to introduce himself and invite the sons to lunch. Similarly, Charlus lies to the narrator about knowing Morel so that the narrator will facilitate an introduction between the two men. For his part, Morel angles to replace Jupien as the Charlus’s primary beneficiary. Indeed, Morel and Charlus have an impassioned relationship that gives way to arguing when Charlus tries to control his career. Charlus tries to convince Morel to adopt the artistic name of “Charmel,” in recognition of Morel’s first name, Charlie, and the commitment to his patron. Feeling stifled, Morel vehemently objects. To win back his affection, Charlus tricks Morel into thinking that he will engage in a duel with Morel’s military superiors, whom Charlus falsely claims have slandered their relationship. Even more, Charlus, with the help of Jupien, secures Morel’s complete fidelity when  Charlus convinces Morel that he is always being watched. One way or another, Charlus will have his man to himself.

The intensity of Charlus’s affection for men does not go unnoticed, and Charlus does not attempt to contain his personality to appease a heteronormative society. Charlus speaks openly about his interest in the homoerotic passages of Balzac’s work. The narrator even interprets Charlus’s flamboyant expression of his preference for strawberry juice over orangeade as a sign of Charlus’s preference for the “stronger sex.” Charlus’s flamboyance arises in his daily interactions, as he ogles masculine laborers and even makes conversation with them. Charlus requests the service of a waiter named Aimé, whom is married to a woman and whom the narrator recognizes as just the type of man that would appeal to Charlus. When Charlus feels neglected by Aimé, he writes a scathing letter to him decrying his insolence and castigating him for possibly thinking that Charlus hoped for more than simply good customer service from Aimé. A confused Aimé is nonetheless relieved to read that Charlus does not maintain any bitterness against him. Charlus’s plans unravel again when he requests the company of Madame de Chevregny’s masculine, rustic footmen. Confused at his request, she sends her effeminate footmen to Charlus. Naturally, Charlus is not at all interested in the effeminate footmen, who may in fact be queer.

Practically every character knows that Charlus is queer, even as Charlus never openly acknowledges his sexuality or his relationship with Morel. Morel faces teasing and jokes from his fellow soldiers, but he does not contend with bullying or physical harassment. Perhaps because of his high social standing, Charlus is spared any explicit ridicule. While some characters joke and gossip about his sexuality, others even accept and support his relationship with Morel. Madame Verdurin gives adjoining rooms to Charlus and Morel when they stay at her home, and she assures them not to worry about making noise due to the “thickness of the walls.”

Who would enjoy reading this book?

Patient readers who enjoy the deliberate pace of novels from long ago will enjoy Sodom and Gomorrah. The novel contains many characters and subplots that will keep the reader engaged despite the slow pacing. Those who like to read about French culture will certainly enjoy the novel’s portrayal of the social hierarchy. Sodom and Gomorrah contains many long sentences, which will mean more upon repeated reading. In fact, listening to the audiobook version and then reading the text again would be an excellent method for experiencing the richness of this book. Lastly, the theatricality of the seminal queer character Charlus cannot be missed. Charlus reminds the reader of a character Oscar Wilde or countless other queer authors of the last one hundred years would imagine. Indeed Charlus is sly and scheming in his sexuality, and on the other hand erudite and a lover of culture, as seen in the pageantry of his devotion to the archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel.

References

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Dreyfus Affair.” Encyclopædia

Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/event/Dreyfus-affair.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Nov. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Sodom-and-Gomorrah.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah. New York: The Modern Library, 1993. Digital.

Proust, Marcel. Sodom and Gomorrah: Remembrance of Things Past – Volume 4. Narrated by Neville Jason. Naxos, 2012. Audiobook.

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