Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Notes: Sodom and Gomorrah (Proust)

Wow, it's been a while since I posted one of these! I got sort of sidetracked by reading as much of Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler as I could get my hands on. Also, I'm still writing what's either going to be a dissertation or a letter of recommendation to an insane asylum. (Cough!) It's sort of a strange life being a grad student- I wake up and read old books and old documents all day, eat dinner, relax with a half-hour of Latin, watch a movie or cuddle with my wife, and then read Proust until I fall asleep. And yet, I never feel like I get much chance to read!

Anyway, we're up to the fourth book of Proust's epic and our narrator is deciding whether or not to marry Albertine. She's probably a good pick, but he's becoming consumed with suspicion about her supposed secret life, which will have devastating consequences in later books, and which mirrors Swann's suspicions about Odette and Robert Saint-Loup's suspicions about Rachel in previous volumes. Proust seems to believe that all relationships end in jealousy. In his world, everyone seems to have a secret life of some sort; they all belong to various "circles", which are somewhat unaware of each other. A major theme in this volume is the secret life of M. de Charlus, who was behaving oddly at the end of the third book.

The nature of his secret life might be obvious from the title; in the opening chapter, Proust's narrator is observing a bee in the courtyard of the Hotel de Guermontes and oversees Charlus with a young male lover. Proust was one of the few writers of the era to deal with homosexuality, and he does so in a fairly straightforward way. The scene is very well described in the "Reading Proust" blog, which makes an interesting point:
"The long disquisition about inverts and solitaries (gay men who remain alone all their lives rather than reveal their sexuality) feels like a curious departure from the encounter between the two men in the courtyard. For the overriding imagery that flows through the whole section is organic, botanical, and natural."
Proust's narrator, you see, explains homosexuality as inversion- men with women's souls and vice-versa. The blogger sees this as being at odds with the natural historical tone of the passage, but recognizes that Proust and the narrator are not one and the same. Personally, I see the narrator as something of an anthropologist, who tends to divide and subdivide groups within society and explain them to the best of his ability. While Proust was homosexual, the narrator is not. Therefore, it's hard to tell how Proust saw homosexuality from the text.

Admittedly, I do see some value in talking about sexuality in terms of a "soul" or "spirit". I think a "gay spirit" that is less determinate than a "gay gene" might make sense. So people with a "gay spirit" are inclined to behave and feel in a certain way, likely from early childhood, which leads the society around them to respond in a way that nudges them towards adult homosexuality, or maybe doesn't. I don't see sexuality as being so set in stone as to call it "biological", or so fluid as to call it "cultural". But, that's maybe just me.

Anway, Charlus's homosexuality is one of the main themes of this volume. Proust is fascinated with the ways that Charlus tries to hide the fact, and the ways that others respond to him. It is interesting how many of the high society circle around him know anyway, including the narrator, and are just too sophisticated to care. There is a parallel here to the Jewish "tribe", which was an earlier theme. Again, Proust sees it as a circle overlapping another circle awkwardly.

The narrator has more of a problem with Albertine's potential lesbianism, as commented on by a bystander watching her dancing with a friend, and partially catalyzed by his changed understanding of Charlus. In the next books, as I remember, the narrator becomes an unlikeable jealous husband; but there are hints of that aspect of his character in his overwhelming need for his mother in the first book and his quasi-stalking of Mme de Guermantes in the third book. We must note the amazing fact that Proust planned the entire work in advance.

The narrator also sees this pattern in his own life, in this long, but important passage:
"...they reminded me that it was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination; for there are people- and this had been my case since youth- for whom all the things that have a fixed value, assessable by others, fortune, success, high positions, do not count; what they must have is phantoms. They sacrifice all the rest, devote all their efforts, make everything else subservient to the pursuit of some phantom. But this soon fades away; then they run after another only to return later on to the first. It was not the first time that I had gone in quest of Albertine, the girl I had seen that first year silhouetted against the sea. Other women, it is true, had been interposed between the Albertine whom I had first loved and the one whom I rarely left now; other women, notably the Duchesse de Guermantes. But, the reader will say, why torment yourself so much with Gilberte, why take such trouble over Mme de Guermantes, if, having become the friend of the latter, it is with the sole result of thinking no more of her, but only of Albertine? Swann, before his death, might have answered the question, he who had been a connoisseur of phantoms. Of phantoms pursued, forgotten, sought anew, sometimes for a single meeting, in order to establish contact with an unreal life which at once faded away, these Balbec roads were full."
In the end, he is cursed to never fully know any of the women he loves. Proust sees the paradox of romantic love: we have the urge to fully know and be with the other, but if we followed the need through to its satisfaction, we would make them into a prisoner and therefore miserable. The narrator's central character trait, I would say, is his fascination with the people around him, particularly the women in his life, driven by his insatiable need to know and possess them. This trait makes him, and Swann, Saint-Loup and even Charlus, miserable. But, it's also what will make him an author.

No comments: