Proust Progress Report 8: The Cities of the Plain

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): The last 100 pages of Book 3, Le côté de Guermantes, seconde partie, and the first 80 pages of Book 4, Sodom et Gomorrhe

I’m reading À la recherche du temps perdu five pages a day, mostly without a dictionary and therefore with limited comprehension. Currently, as I’m making my way through seemingly endless accounts of more or less random encounters at a range of social events, I’m quite enjoying it moment by moment, but if there’s a forest I can’t see it for the trees.

The main thing in the pages that I’ve read this month is that M de Charlus has come into the foreground. He’s the close relative of the dazzling Oriane de Guermantes who visited the narrator’s bedroom at Balbec in the second volume, and creepily stroked his chin the next day (as I mentioned in my third progress report, here).

In Le côté de Guermantes, the narrator is invited to M. de Charlus’ home late at night, where he is taken completely by surprise by an angry tirade. Thinking the M. de Charlus is accusing him of slandering him, the narrator swears that he has never said anything that could have offended him. What follows, though deranged, is a fabulous model for how to respond to a faux apology of the ‘I apologise for any offence my remarks may unintentionally have given’ kind:

— Et qui vous dit que j’en suis offensé?» s’écria-t-il avec fureur … «Pensez-vous qu’il soit à votre portée de m’offenser? Vous ne savez donc pas à qui vous parlez? Croyez-vous que la salive envenimée de cinq cents petits bonshommes de vos amis, juchés les uns sur les autres, arriverait à baver seulement jusqu’à mes augustes orteils?»

(Page 1173)

In English (from this link, with one or two changes by me):

‘And who told you I am offended?’ he screamed in fury … ‘Do you suppose that it is within your power to offend me? So you do not know to whom you are speaking? Do you imagine that the envenomed spittle of five hundred little gentlemen like you and your friends heaped one upon another would manage to slobber even as high as my august toes.’

Sodome et Gomorrhe (usually called The Cities of the Plain in English, primly avoiding the suggestion of sodomy, though that suggestion is clearly intended by Proust) gets off to a riveting, though still Proustily longwinded, start with a revelation about M. de Charlus. A 21st century reader will have gathered, or at least suspected, that M. de Charlus is homosexual well before now. But it comes as a revelation to our narrator when he sees him in an erotic encounter – well, he hears the heavy-duty erotic bit through a wall; what he sees is a weird bit of strutting and flouncing that precedes it.

After this revelatory moment, Proust goes off on a mini-essay about homosexuality. Apart from conflating homosexuality and gender fluidity, his reflections about the psychic damage done by the need for secrecy has aged amazingly well. He draws a parallel to Jews and antisemitism: in both cases it’s possible to ‘pass’ and man do. He describes the way internalised oppression can lead men (so far he’s talking almost entirely about men) who are in the closet to penalise and exclude anyone who is openly gay. While it’s not clear whether he thinks Zionism is a good idea, he’s emphatically against the idea of a movement to rebuild Sodom as a homeland for ‘Sodomites’, because:

Or, à peine arrivés, les sodomistes quitteraient la ville pour ne pas avoir l’air d’en être, prendraient femme, entretiendraient des maîtresses dans d’autres cités où ils trouveraient d’ailleurs toutes les distractions convenables. Ils n’iraient à Sodome que les jours de suprême nécessité, quand leur ville serait vide, par ces temps où la faim fait sortir le loup du bois, c’est-à-dire que tout se passerait en somme comme à Londres, à Berlin, à Rome, à Pétrograd ou à Paris.

In English:

For, no sooner had they arrived than the Sodomites would leave the town so as not to have the appearance of belonging to it, would take wives, keep mistresses in other cities where they would find, incidentally, every diversion that appealed to them. They would go to Sodom only on days of supreme necessity, when their own town was empty, in the times when hunger drives the wolf from the woods; in other words, everything would go on very much as it does to-day in London, Berlin, Rome, Petrograd or Paris.

That gives you some idea of the delicate path he treads between serious and interesting analysis and satirical barbs.

But then he goes to another party and we’re back on the subject of the glittering high society that he partly despises and mostly is entranced by. In his newly illuminated state, he notices and remarks wickedly on a number of homoerotic currents. For instance, M. de Charlus makes a big fuss of the woman who is his brother-in-law’s latest mistress, even though everyone would expect him to snub her. The reason for this unexpected behaviour is not, as the narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup, back in town for the evening, is convinced, because his uncle Palamède is a womaniser, but because, as the narrator has told us, the woman in question has two strikingly beautiful sons, whose beauty is reflected in their mother’s.

There’s more. There’s lots more. There are amusingly vicious character sketches, lyrical descriptive passages, surprising asides about the nature of memory, insights into human folly sharp observations about Dreyfusards and antisemitism and, just once so far, a direct address to the reader who the narrator (correctly) assumes wants him to cut to the chase and get on with the story. I’m once again reassured by Clive James’s remark that having read À la recherche in French he then read it in English to find out what he’d read.

2 responses to “Proust Progress Report 8: The Cities of the Plain

  1. What a fascinating description, thank you. We are lucky to have you doing the hard yards with M Proust and letting us know what you’ve discovered.

    Liked by 1 person

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