Well, I most surely tempted fate when I signed off my last Proust post by writing that I couldn’t wait to begin volume four. Four months later and I’ve finally had time to return to Brittany, the salons of the Fauborg Saint-Germain and Marcel’s labyrinthine mind.
If volume one of In Search of Lost Time represents the novel’s overture, and volumes two and three are concerned chiefly with Marcel’s jejune preconceptions about society and their subsequent explosion, then Sodom and Gomorrah is, as its title suggests, unabashedly about forbidden passions. From Marcel’s chance witnessing of a spur of the moment coupling between an aristocrat and a tailor to the male bordellos of Paris, the book bulges with accounts of love at its most urgent, jealous, lubricious and clandestine.
It was no secret among those who knew Proust – even in passing – that he was gay. Knowing this would have appalled him, undemonstrative as he was, if he had been aware of it. But his reading public knew him only by his works, and therefore he was able to write these extraordinarily frank accounts of the Parisian homosexual demi-monde without attracting (to his noted regret) any scandal.
Indeed, following his death several essayists even praised Proust’s bravery for carrying out the research necessary to tackle such subjects. Others were less fulsome, including his friend and publisher André Gide, who castigated Proust for his cowardice in making his main character heterosexual. Indeed, it becomes apparent that Marcel – in an interesting bit of wish fulfilment, perhaps – is one of the only heterosexuals in his circle, if not in all of Parisian high society.
From the “caressing games” of young women to entire consulates staffed by youths chosen for their looks, athleticism and proclivities, Sodom and Gomorah would be a piece of high camp if it was less insightful about the sexual currents that influence, if not govern, all aspects of daily life. Proust has some fun with his opening potted history of, as he has it, “inversion”, but he tempers his playfulness with serious analysis of what it means to be gay in a conservative, albeit relatively tolerant, upper class milieu.
In this first section he alludes to the existence (pre-empting Phillip Pullman) of gay angels in heaven, and puts forward the idea that homosexuality only became unnatural when man-made laws decreed it so. Continuing on this theme, he asserts that a homosexual man’s actions can only be termed perverse when he has sex with a woman. He then supposedly changes the subject, only to begin the book’s next section with a description of evening sunlight giving the Luxor obelisk “an appearance of pink nougat” so that you might want to wrap your hand around it and give it a twist. It’s a wonderfully Jamesian moment – but in this case we’re talking Sid, not Henry.
From lascivious musings about his lover, Albertine, to passion for a young girl seen smoking a cigarette in a train carriage and Baron de Charlus’s bloodhound instinct for quick pick-ups, Sodom and Gomorrah’s sexual element flickers between the implicit and explicit, but is never entirely absent. Its corollaries, as in The Guermantes Way, are power and status; conversations are transactional to an extreme degree, whether the impetus behind them is the gaining of information, the assertion of superiority or the securing of an assignation. The accounts of Charlus, surely Proust’s greatest creation, stalking through parties hunting for sexual partners while at the same time terrified of being unmasked, are as gripping as they are psychologically complex.
The book also contains, in common with the preceding volumes, lyrical passages of extraordinary power. As the narrator gazes out into the Channel his mind, suddenly and involuntarily, transposes the land onto the sea, so that the wake of a fishing boat is a dusty road, the slopes of the ocean become rolling fields and sailors on a boat’s deck harvesters gathering crops, while a white sail doubles as “the sunlit corner of some isolated building”.
This is another in those series of moments which stud the novel, wherein the writing contrives to step outside itself and becomes – instead of an advancing narrative – a series of images that eradicate the distance between reader and text; wherein, in fact, it’s possible to feel that you are viewing an image rather than reading a succession of words. Fitting for a book so concerned with that very aspect of human nature, it is a moment of pure sensuality.