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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.

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