Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 7: Twelfth Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing our banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 7: Twelfth Grade
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Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 6: Eleventh Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing our banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 6: Eleventh Grade

Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 5: Tenth Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing our banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 5: Tenth Grade

Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 4: Ninth Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing our banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 4: Ninth Grade

Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 3: Eighth Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing our banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 3: Eighth Grade

Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 2: Seventh Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing our banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 2: Seventh Grade

Seven Grades of Gay, Chapter 1: Sixth Grade

Thank you for listening to the Queer Male Canon Podcast. Charles and Travis are pausing the banter about books for seven episodes so that Travis can read to you his newly published book, Seven Grades of Gay. This is a work of young adult fiction that he wrote specifically to spur conversations about queer male inclusion in the classroom. Over seven episodes, he will read the seven chapters of this book. If you like what you hear, you can purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle (https://amzn.to/33tWynd) and print (https://amzn.to/33yoMNR)  editions. In addition, you can visit queermalecanonproject.com to find free and low cost lessons that go with each chapter of this book. Thanks again, and happy listening!

Chapter 1: Sixth Grade

The White Book (1928)

Author: Jean Cocteau

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

Jean Cocteau was a famous French artist, actor, writer, and film director. Cocteau was gay and had a long relationship with his muse, actor Jean Marais (Criterion). With Cocteau as the director, Marais starred as the beast in a gorgeous rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the titular character in Orpheus (1950) (Criterion).

Although Jean Cocteau never explicitly conceded his authorship of The White Book, it is now widely accepted that he was the book’s author. The book was published anonymously in 1928. For the 1957 edition of the book, Cocteau wrote a preface and contributed several illustrations, but he remained coy about whether he was the book’s author.

Another translation of this book is The White Paper, which is a term used to describe a government briefing document. The title means that that author is not trying to persuade his audience but rather to inform them about the reality of being a gay man.

Jean Cocteau

What is the plot of this novel?

The story begins in 1920s France with the nameless narrator acknowledging his own homosexuality. The narrator then briefly describes experiences from his childhood that help him realize that he is gay. He faints when he happens to see a naked farmer taking a break from work to swim. He fondly remembers seeing naked gypsies climbing trees on his family’s property. He even draws a picture of a naked woman to lure the interest of a beautiful male servant named Gustave. When the narrator reveals his true feelings of same-sex desire to Gustave, the latter quickly rebuffs the former.

At school, the boy forms a crush on a virile, arrogant bully named Dargelos. At first the narrator avoids Dargelos, afraid of disclosing his true feelings. Eventually, the narrator tells another boy at school about his crush on Dargelos. Surprisingly, the boy advises the narrator to reveal his desire and overwhelm Dargelos with flattery. The friend believes that Dargelos will embrace the narrator passionately.

One day the narrator invites Dargelos to talk with him in an empty classroom after school. Dargelos arrives, but the narrator can see in his cruel smile that Dargelos knows why he has been summoned. Nervous, the narrator makes up a lie and says that the vice principal is watching Dargelos closely. Dargelos retorts that if the narrator wastes his time again with a stupid story he will physically beat him. After this encounter, Dargelos develops angina from bathing in the Seine River during a camping trip. Dargelos dies, and the narrator weeps for the loss, not thinking of Dargelos’s threat of violence.

As the narrator and his peers mature, other boys become very interested in girls. In turn, the narrator feels the peer pressure to be interested in girls. The narrator starts joyless affairs with women, knowing that he is not pursuing his heart’s desires.

The narrator advances into young adulthood, and he begins seeing a woman named Rose. When the narrator meets Alfred, Rose’s brother, the two men fall in love with each other. Alfred confesses that he is Rose’s pimp, not her brother, and that he wants to run off with the narrator. Before this plan can come to fruition, Alfred aborts the plans because he cannot abandon Rose. After the narrator accuses Alfred of stealing his gold chain, Alfred threatens the narrator with a weapon. The narrator flees in a taxi, with a crying Alfred running after him in despair and grief.

In the town of Toulon, the narrator has an affair with a sailor who was wrongfully imprisoned for a mutiny that he did not commit. The morning after the affair, the narrator leaves the sailor, but he forgets his gloves. When he returns to retrieve the gloves, he sees the sailor weeping into the gloves through the keyhole. He also sees the face of Alfred “superimposed” on the sailor’s face. The narrator quickly leaves without getting his gloves.

Seeking comfort at the beach, the narrator meets a man who is bathing nude in the ocean. The men both believe in God, and they fall in love, believing that “God loves love,” even their love. They return to Paris together, and the narrator discovers that the man has a mistress. In fact, the man has multiple affairs with women. Each time the narrator discovers a new tryst with a woman, the narrator and his lover argue, with the lover profusely apologizing and assuring the narrator that he only loves him. Eventually the lover perishes from a drug addiction. Before doing so, the lover tells the narrator that he never loved women and that he only loved the narrator. He explains to the narrator that he had affairs with women to prove to himself that he was “free.”

After his lover’s death, the narrator is distraught, but he nevertheless wants to get married. He does not seek love or romance, just marriage; therefore, he manages to become engaged to a very masculine female friend with whom he got along well while he was studying at the Sorbonne. The narrator once again falls in love with a woman’s brother. His fiancée’s brother loves him in return, and the brother begs him to cancel the engagement to his sister. Before he can act, the brother reveals the truth to his sister in a cruel and confrontational manner. Due to his excessive cruelty, the narrator hits the brother across the face. As the narrator consoles his fiancée, her brother promptly goes into the next room and kills himself. Of course, the marriage never happens.

After this sudden tragic death, the narrator sinks into depression and a feeling of hopelessness. Because he remains Catholic, suicide is not an option. He briefly considers joining a monastery, but he does not do so because of the severity of that lifestyle. The novel ends with the narrator’s gratitude with not facing criminal penalty in France for being gay, but also with his frustration with merely being tolerated and not accepted.

drawing inspired by a Jean Cocteau drawing

How is this book queer?

Although this book is very short, it powerfully addresses the fear of commitment, the stereotyping of queer men, and the angst of being queer in a society that merely tolerates.

The narrator cannot escape the haunting resemblance of his lovers. Alfred resembles the servant named Gustave and the farmer whom the narrator observes swimming naked. The narrator also sees Alfred in the face of the sailor that the narrator leaves crying into his gloves. Perhaps Gustave’s initial rejection of his homosexuality indelibly marks the narrator’s feelings of commitment and intimacy. Furthermore, one of the narrator’s most tumultuous encounters happens with the man who does not stop having affairs with women, despite his many apologies to the narrator. When the man claims that he only had affairs with women to feel “free,” readers wonder whether he actually had the affairs to feel equal in worth to his male heterosexual compatriots.

Indeed the narrator knows the Catholic Church rejects his same-sex desires, and the narrator realizes that his country merely shrugs at these desires. Nevertheless, the narrator remains Catholic and French, hating himself as the major institutions in his country strive to ignore his queerness. From his earliest memories, the narrator knows deeply that he is a gay man. It is this innate conviction about the naturalness of his queer feelings that eventually help the narrator triumph over the bigotry of his religion and nation. By the novel’s end, the narrator observes that his country, which does not criminalize homosexuality, does not sufficiently embrace and welcome queer people. Even as much of the world enacts anti-discrimination laws, many queer people today feel that schools, religious institutions, and other public spaces do not do enough to promote queer acceptance.

Nevertheless, despite the forward-thinking central message of this book, the narrator also succumbs to stereotyping. Even as a queer person, the narrator draws conclusions based on stereotypes about queer people. For example, the narrator believes that his father is secretly gay because of the way that he walks and the unusual phrases that he uses in conversation. In addition, the narrator draws conclusions about his male lover that cause great anguish. The narrator assumes that his male lover is gay because the lover primarily socializes with women. According to the narrator, gay men are primarily friends with women while heterosexual men are only friends with other heterosexual men. This assumption crumbles when the narrator discovers that his lover has affairs with women. The narrator does not anticipate the possibility that his lover could be sexually fluid, and he commands his lover to choose between loving him or women. The narrative portrays the lover as confused and burdened with drug addiction when the narrator is actually the unreasonable party. After all, love and relationships should happen with a mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations, regardless of the lovers’ specific sexual orientations.

References

Cocteau, Jean. The White Book = Le Livre Blanc. City Lights Books, 1989.

“Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais’s Creative Marriage.” The Criterion Collection, 2017, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4501-jean-cocteau-and-jean-marais-s-creative-marriage.

The Great Gatsby (1925)

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald had a famously tumultuous marriage with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald. Some scholars have suggested that he saw himself as the more submissive partner in his marriage and that he hated this aspect of his life (Delistraty). For Fitzgerald, some scholars argue, homosexuality was a character weakness (Delistraty). Nevertheless, Fitzgerald knew that one of his close friends, Gerald Murphy, was gay, even though Murphy was married to a woman (Delistraty). Fitzgerald used himself and Murphy as the basis for characters in tumultuous marriages in his novels, such as Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby, in which a beautiful woman dominates a weak man (Delistraty).

F. Scott Fitzgerald

What is the plot of this novel?

Set in New York City and Long Island during the early 1920s, The Great Gatsby is a book of a very particular time and place. However, the excess and lavishness described in the book continue to this day in the United States. The mansion of millionaire Tom Buchanan in fictional East Egg, Long Island and the mansion of millionaire Jay Gatsby in fictional West Egg, Long island are just two examples of this excess. Tom is a white supremacist who comes from a wealthy family in Chicago. He is married to the socialite Daisy Buchanan, who hails from Louisville, Kentucky. Daisy is beautiful, selfish, and superficial, yet Jay pines for her. Gatsby and Daisy were lovers before Daisy even met Tom, but Gatsby left her to fight in World War I. 

When Gatsby returns from the war, he amasses a fortune through various criminal activities in order to woo Daisy. Gatsby imagines that he is Daisy’s one true love and that she will gladly leave Tom for her. Indeed, there are cracks in the foundation of Tom and Daisy’s marriage. Tom engages in a tumultuous affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of mechanic George Wilson, whose garage Tom passes on the way from East Egg to his job on Wall Street.

Into this emotional turbulence unknowingly steps the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who is also the catalyst for the main action. Nick is Daisy’s cousin, and he moves to West Egg upon accepting a job as a bond salesman. Although Nick is Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, he rents a modest house that does not compare to the grandeur of Gatsby’s mansion. 

After Nick moves to West Egg, he socializes with Daisy and Tom, and he meets Jordan Baker, a successful golfer and a friend of Daisy. The two have a very tepid romance that is truly an afterthought in the narrative. The primary focus of Nick’s energy is his friendship with Gatsby. Gatsby throws exuberant, opulent parties at his mansion, hoping that Daisy will discover him. When Gatsby discovers Nick’s link to Daisy, he asks Nick to stage a reunion between him and Daisy, who is unaware that Gatsby lives not far from her. The reunion is successful, and Daisy and Gatsby have an affair. 

Daisy awkwardly makes their affair explicit when Gatsby, Tom, Nick, and Jordan are visiting one afternoon. The five of them travel together to a swanky hotel room in New York City on a sweltering day in the summer. Tom and Gatsby have a contentious argument for Daisy’s affections. Tom pledges his devotion to Daisy and exposes Gatsby as an unreliable swindler. On the way home from this heated encounter, Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle with Gatsby’s car as the two of them drive to Long Island. Seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, George kills Gatsby, whom he believes was driving the car that killed Myrtle. Later, Nick discovers that Tom told George that Gatsby was Myrtle’s murderer. 

Disillusioned with New York, Tom, and Daisy, Nick moves back to the Midwest, from which he came. Before doing so, Nick is dismayed to discover that he is one of only a few guests at Gatsby’s funeral. The many business associates who always phoned Gatsby and the revelers at Gatsby’s grand parties are nowhere to be seen. 

How is this book queer?

Overt queer male themes and characters do not appear in The Great Gatsby. A careful reading of the book suggests that Nick Carraway is queer and that he may also be an unreliable narrator, adding an additional layer to the male posturing so prevalent in this book. Readers may infer Carraway’s queerness from his descriptions of characters, his actions in certain scenes, and his relationship with Jay Gatsby.

While Jordan Baker may seem like the love interest for Nick Carraway, his interest in her is not abiding. Upon meeting her, Nick “enjoys” looking at Jordan. He describes her as “small-breasted” and compares her posture to that of a “young cadet.” This is a curiously masculine description of a female romantic interest. As Nick gets to know Jordan, he has a “tender curiosity” about her, but no feelings of love. Ultimately, the reader wonders if Nick ever has strong feelings for Jordan. Mild flirtations between Jordan and Nick mildly pepper the narrative. By the time the relationship dissolves in a telephone call, the dissolution seems like friends parting ways. Indeed, Nick does not remember who hung up “with a sharp click” and he did not care.

Even more telling is Nick’s description of Myrtle Wilson. While Myrtle seems to be the curvaceous bombshell who attracts Tom’s interest, Nick describes her in an unflattering way. Nick first notices Myrtle’s face, which in his estimation contains “no facet or gleam of beauty.” Nick describes Myrtle as “faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” Not appreciating the femininity of Myrtle, Nick is unimpressed with Myrtle’s “wide hips.”

Nick’s seeming apathy for Jordan and Myrtle contrasts with his characterizations of male characters. He describes George Wilson, the novel’s tragic weakling and eventual murderer, as “spiritless,” “anemic,” and yet also “faintly handsome.” While Nick struggles to find beauty in Myrtle, he can appreciate the handsomeness of her husband. Similarly, Nick describes Tom Buchanan, the novel’s most obvious jerk and racist, as “sturdy,” and he praises the “enormous power of that body” even in “effeminate” riding clothes. Nick notices the “rare” smile of Gatsby that contains a quality of “eternal reassurance.” Perhaps Nick believes that Gatsby intuits Nick’s queerness and accepts him nonetheless, which would explain the rare, reassuring nature of Gatsby and Nick’s fascination with Gatsby. Lastly, in contrast with his “handsome” wife, Chester McKee, the photographer at a party hosted by Myrtle, is a “pale feminine man.” These two descriptions imply Chester’s queerness, and Nick’s observations of his queerness imply his own queerness.

During the party scene with Chester McKee, Nick becomes very drunk and has a very suggestive encounter with Chester. Near the end of the party, Nick wipes away “the remains of the spot dried lather” from Chester, who sleeps in a chair. Later in the elevator on the way out from the party, Chester invites Nick to lunch. Before Nick can answer, the elevator boy scolds Nick for touching the lever. Not knowing where his hands are, Nick does not even realize that his hands are on the lever, a sign that Nick is very drunk and not in control of his movements. Nevertheless, Nick does accept Chester’s lunch invitation, though the narrative never discusses their lunch date. Fitzgerald uses an ellipsis to omit details in the narrative and thereby suggest that this is more than just a friendly encounter. Nick suddenly finds himself “standing beside” Chester’s bed as Chester sits in his underwear on the bed “with a great portfolio in his hands.” Through the ellipsis device, Fitzgerald next suddenly places Nick at Penn Station waiting for the 4:00 train, not knowing how he got there. The implication is clearly a drunken tryst between Chester and Nick.

Nick and Chester

Fitzgerald also uses the ellipsis device in another scene that seems like a non-sequitur to the central plot. While Nick rides the train from Long Island to Manhattan during a sweltering summer day, a woman sitting next to him drops her pocketbook. Nick picks it up and gives it to her, “holding it at arm’s length and by the extreme tip of the corners to indicate” having “no designs upon it.” Nick almost seems disgusted by the feminine pocketbook, suggesting his disgust with the actual female physique. The ellipsis transports the reader to a juxtaposition with the train conductor asking passengers if it is hot enough and leaving sweat stains on tickets as he takes them. Curiously, Nick is not disgusted. Instead, the encounter with the conductor makes Nick wonder if the extreme heat does not make people care whom they kiss. The comment suggests Nick’s interest in sexual fluidity is inspired not by the dropped pocketbook but rather the deposit of the train conductor’s bodily fluids on tickets.

In addition to the encounters with minor characters, Nick’s relationship with Gatsby may be the strongest indicator of his desire. Although not initially having a good time the first time he attends a Gatsby party, Nick’s mood lifts once he actually talks to Gatsby. Jordan asks him, “Having a gay time now?”, to which Nick replies, “… much better.” From this first positive encounter, it is no surprise that Nick becomes Gatsby’s confidante and eventually his lone defender. After the car accident, as Gatsby’s grim fate begins to unravel, Nick talks with Gatsby and intently listens to Gatsby’s actual life story. Nick even eats breakfast with Gatsby and contemplates missing work because he “didn’t want to leave Gatsby.” While Gatsby waits desperately for Daisy’s phone call, Nick calls Gatsby several times from his job. By the novel’s end, Nick is the only one on Gatsby’s side. At Gatsby’s funeral, Nick tells Gatsby’s father that they were “close friends.” Nick’s devotion to Gatsby, a known swindler and criminal, is inexplicable. Perhaps Nick hoped to be more than “close friends” with Gatsby.

While Nick’s loyalty to Gatsby is never fully explained, Nick may be an unreliable narrator with regard to how he describes his sexual identity and emotional desires. At the beginning of the book, Daisy pesters Nick about rumors of his engagement to a girl in the Midwest. Nick shrugs off the rumors by claiming that he moved to New York to escape the rumors, an implausible explanation. Equally unusual is Nick’s claim that he ends an affair with a woman in his office because of her brother’s disapproval. Only later in the book when Nick commits to getting more serious with Jordan does the reader discover that Nick has been writing insincere love letters to a woman in the Midwest. Nick is suspiciously abrupt about the women he sees to the point of questioning his allegiance to these women.

While Nick’s approval wavers on at least one occasion, it is not enough to deter him from his devotion to Gatsby. At the novel’s end, Nick tells Gatsby that he is “worth the whole damn bunch together,” affirming Gatsby’s superiority to Tom, Daisy, and their lot. In doing this, he privately admits to himself that he “disapproved” of Gatsby “from beginning to end.” However, Tom Buchanan observes that Gatsby throws “dust in his eyes” and in the eyes of Daisy to make them love Gatsby despite their disapproval. Nick’s devotion to Gatsby until the end happens most plausibly because he is in love with Gatsby. Symbolically, this is clear from the beginning of the book. Upon leaving Daisy’s house and returning to his own house, Nick sees Gatsby in his yard looking at a green light across the bay. Gatsby strives to win Daisy’s affection as Nick strives to win Gatsby’s affection. When Nick looks at the green light, Gatsby disappears, and Nick is “alone again in the unquiet darkness,” the turmoil of his inner desires.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are interested in the tragedy of the pursuit of the “American dream” and tales of New York, this book will interest you. If you are interested in differences between film portrayals of novels, it is interesting to compare the many film versions of The Great Gatsby, namely the 1974 and 2013 productions. Both film versions omit the suggestively queer scenes with Nick Carraway. An open embrace of Carraway as a queer character would better explain his devotion to Gatsby on the big and small screen.

References

Delistraty, Cody. “Distinctly Emasculated.” The Paris Review, 5 Dec. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/04/24/distinctly-emasculated/.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and James L. W. West. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Olear, Greg. “Nick Carraway Is Gay and in Love with Gatsby.” Salon, Salon.com, 9 Jan. 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/09/was_nick_carraway_gay/.

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.