Sunday, December 28, 2014

Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah (1921-22)

CK Scott Moncrieff entitled his original translation of Sodome et Gomorrhe Cities of the Plain, as which, yes, Sodom and Gomorrah ARE referred to in the King James Version, but COME ON, MAN. This is definitely his most pointless alteration—unless, of course, the “point” was to tone down as much as possible the whole gay thing, the frankness of which was certainly not typical for the time, and I'm going to need you to stop bellowing “THE STORY OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH IS NOT ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY,” because like it or not, this is the “gay” volume, and Proust is very much using it in that long-discredited sense. And more: he has the idea that Sodom is associated with gay men and Gomorrah with lesbians, which (though I've never seen it before) is surely not original to Proust, even if it's even more atextual. Look, Biblical exegeses are not the point here. Let's move on, shall we?

Boy oh boy oh boy. Of course, we all know that Proust was gay, right, though not openly so? I've heard it suggested that some of his amours in his novel may have had their genders transposed for public consumption. Certainly, it seems quite plausible that his character's many dalliances with women fall into the “protesting too much” category. So whatever he says on the subject has to be taken in a certain light.

All this gay talk is precipitated by his realization that the Baron de Charlus—a Guermantes family member—is, in the book's parlance, an “invert.” This was pretty obvious to the reader in previous books—his interest in the narrator, for instance, hardly seemed platonic—but now it's explicit. Sooooo...we get our narrator doing a LOT of generalizing on what inverts are like, which one cannot help but find dubious. To be fair, he doesn't exactly present them as an undifferentiated mass, but...pretty close, really. Not that his gay characters are any worse than his straight characters—they're all awful—but, without having lived in turn-of-the-century France, I can't help thinking that, as long and complicated as his novel is, it's a little reductive in this area.

No worries, though—it's not just gay people being horrible; there are also plenty of straight people being horrible. In particular, we return—with a vengeance—to the Verdurins, this being the salon that Swann was involved with in Swann's Way. They were awful back then, and they're even worse now, viciously insular and destructive. Mme Verdurin has no compunctions about destroying members' romances if she's afraid they'll interfere with the status quo. It's fun. And, good lord, there are other in-groups, and all kinds of goddamn jockeying for social position, and seriously, it makes me exhausted just thinking about it. I must be out of my mind.

Then there's our narrator (let's just call him Marcel)'s relationship with Albertine, and you it really comes home to you—to me, at least—what a completely fucking horrible person he is. He uses, discards, and heartlessly manipulates women in a way that I can only describe as Patrick-Bateman-esque. You want to yell at Albertine: for god's sake, woman, RUN AWAY! It should be noted that there is a certain amount of distance between Marcel-as-character and Marcel-as-narrator—which is good, because if there weren't, one's reading would be hindered by the necessity of constantly countering the latter's judgments with “oh yeah? Well what do YOU know? You're a sociopath.” Still...bah. It's kind of odd that this central fact about the novel seems not to be widely reported. Probably just because so few people get this far.

The ending is pretty funny. Earlier, Marcel had been obsessing over the idea that Albertine might be sexually interested in women, which—for reasons which remain oddly under-explained, as if Proust just took it as a given that everyone would get it—is the most horrifying thing he can think of. Then, later on, she mentions that she's friends with a woman who, waaaaaay back in Swann's Way, had appeared in one scene with her female lover and then never been seen more. This leads him to instantly assume that OF COURSE she must be having sex with this woman and also probably EVERY SINGLE OTHER WOMAN SHE EVER MEETS and that EVER SINGLE HOUR, MINUTE, OR SECOND she's not in his presence must be just a fucking NON-STOP LESBIAN ORGY, and yeah, I'm exaggerating a little for effect, but not much. The thing is, though, when you step back for a moment, you can see that this isn't really part of his pathology. Minus the lesbian thing, I've experienced this kind of wildly irrational jealousy. It's definitely a real thing, and not (god I hope) something that makes you a monster. It is goofy as hell, though, when seen from without.

Anyway, so he had been planning on breaking things off with Albertine, but now that he knows (KNOWS, I tell you!) that she likes women, he is DETERMINED to marry her. This ought to end well. I'm pretty sure that at least the next two books are going to be all Albertine all the time, which should be...interesting.


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