Pondering Proust IV: Sodome et Gommorhe, or Cities of the Plain

(Another installment in our Proust series. Artwork, again, by David Richardson)

“After ten years on the stuff you live in this other world where everybody you know is one.” Keith Richards, in the documentary 25 x 5, The Further Adventures of the Rolling Stones.

The “cities of the plain” in the Bible are Sodom and Gomorrah, and Sodome et Gomorrhe is the French title of the fourth book of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This volume opens with M. as voyeur again, this time eavesdropping on the Baron de Charlus and Jupien the tailor as they have homosexual sex in Jupien’s shop. M. had always been told by Saint-Loup that Charlus was a notorious womanizer, but now M. has first-hand knowledge of the Baron’s true nature. Charlus is a closeted homosexual, or in Proust’s term, an invert, and he prefers to have sex with workmen and men of the lower classes. Jupien, though he has just met the Baron, becomes his procurer and protector. M. now has an explanation for Charlus’ seemingly irrational behavior. It is due to his repressed homosexuality, and his fear of being “found out”.

Although France was more tolerant of homosexuality than other countries in the late 1890s and early 1900s (Proust’s friend Oscar Wilde was sentenced in England to 2 years hard labor for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas), homosexuality was considered morally wrong, and the French police used various public indecency laws to harass and imprison homosexuals. So Charlus and his acquaintances were part of a clandestine subculture, much like drug addicts today, in which they lived in fear of exposure, and used covert signs and language to communicate their proclivities to others. Proust himself was homosexual, and he is thus able to give us an accurate account of the seamy underworld that Charlus frequents.

After his discovery of Charlus’ secret, M. attends a reception at the palace of the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes. Gilbert, Prince de Guermantes, is the cousin of Basin, the Duc de Guermantes as well as that of his wife, Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes. Basin and his wife Oriane are also cousins. Charlus is the Duc de Guermantes brother, which makes the Prince his cousin also. As we can see from this, there has been a lot of inbreeding in the Guermantes family. It was meant to preserve the family name, one of the oldest in France, but it also has had some strange genetic side-effects.

Being received by the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes represents the pinnacle of social success in the Faubourg Saint-Germaine, and M. has now “arrived” in society. With his new found knowledge of Charlus’ sexual preferences, M.’s eyes are now also opened to the world of Sodom – male homosexuality. Keith Richards, in the quote above, was referring to heroin addicts when he said “everybody you know is one”, but the same applies to the homosexual world of Charlus and his fellow aristocrats. We find out that the Duc de Châtellerault is homosexual, as is the Prince de Guermantes himself. Legrandin, the snobbish neighbor from Combray is one, while the Marquis de Vaugoubert is so closeted and so terrified of being exposed in public that he has married a woman who resembles a man so that he won’t be tempted to exercise his “vice”.

At the same reception, the Prince draws Swann aside and confesses to him in private that he has become a Dreyfusard, as has his wife, the Princess. Basin, the Duc de Guermantes also becomes a Dreyfusard, under the influence of three beautiful women whom he wishes to seduce. Robert Saint-Loup, on the other hand changes from Dreyfusard to anti-Dreyfusard after his break with Rachel. And thus the Dreyfus affair continues to weave its way through the story, with characters being defined by their changing positions.

M. has given up hope on a liaison with Mme Stermaria, but Saint-Loup informs M. of another prospect for his lust: Baroness Putbus’ chambermaid. Saint-Loup describes her as “… that big fair girl, Mme Putbus’s maid. She goes with women too, but I don’t suppose you mind that. I tell you frankly, I have never seen such a gorgeous creature.” M. has found out that the Verdurins have rented Mme Cambremer’s country home, La Raspelière, near Balbec, for the summer. Knowing that Mme Putbus is a frequent visitor to the Verdurins, M. agrees to a second season at Balbec so that he can attempt a conquest of the Baroness’ luscious maid. However, our protagonist’s first days at Balbec call up memories of his dead grandmother that he had suppressed since her funeral, and he gives himself over to several days of deep, almost paralyzing grief.

Mme Putbus’ maid remains unattainable while M. is at Balbec, but Albertine reappears. After his grief for his grandmother passes, M. sends for Albertine, longing for her laughter and her “little band” of friends, and they begin seeing each other again. However, a chance meeting with Dr. Cottard (a faithful member of Mme Verdurin’s salon) at the casino at Incarville casts a cloud over their relationship. M. goes to the casino on an outing with Albertine and members of the “little band”. Cottard, visiting a patient in Incarville, has stopped there also. One of Albertine’s girlfriends sits down at the piano and starts to play, and Albertine and Andrée begin dancing with each other. Cottard remarks to M. “… they are certainly keenly roused. It’s not sufficiently known that women derive most excitement through their breasts. And theirs, as you see, are touching completely.” This remark goes through M. like a shot. He had sometimes wondered if Albertine was attracted to women, but this seemed to be indisputable proof. M. is now introduced into the world of Gomorrah — lesbianism.

At Balbec, Bloch’s sister has been carrying on a lesbian affair with an actress, and they begin to flaunt their relationship before the guests at the Grand Hotel. M. now starts to see potential lesbian encounters for Albertine cropping up everywhere, and he strives to control her, and thus protect her. He hires first a carriage, and then a motorcar to take her out into the countryside to paint. He also becomes a regular at the Verdurins’ salon at La Raspelière and brings Albertine with him as his “cousin”, when he is sure that Mme Putbus’ chambermaid is not there, noting the words of Saint-Loup that “she goes with women too.” At night, M. spends hours with Albertine, fondling and kissing her, but he has already grown tired of her and is certainly not in love with her. He longs to break off their relationship, but his strange jealousy of her possible relations with other women keeps him from doing so.

As M.’s desire for Albertine fades, a new love affair begins: Baron Charlus and Charlie Morel. Morel is the son of the valet of M.’s uncle Adolphe, but he is also a very gifted violinist, and he wants to make it in Parisian society despite his low birth. Charlus encounters him, is attracted by his good looks, and offers to take him under his wing in exchange for sexual favors (something that we now realize he was trying to do with M. earlier on in volume three). Charlus now becomes the most faithful of all Mme Verdurin’s followers, since he uses her salon as a place to carry on his affair with Morel. Morel, however, is an unprincipled, truly despicable person, who tolerates Charlus only because he will further his career. In an extremely comic scene, the Prince de Guermantes meets Morel and offers him money to accompany him to a brothel, where they can consummate their lust. However, Charlus and Jupien have been spying on Morel, suspecting him of being unfaithful to the Baron, and they get wind of this assignation. One of the prostitutes at the brothel sets them up in an adjoining room so that they can eavesdrop on the liaison, but the Prince is tipped off and escapes. Charlus never finds out that his own relative was trying to have his way with Morel. The affair between Charlus and Morel very much mirrors that of Swann and Odette, with Charlus as the wealthy aesthete (Swann), and Morel as the deceiving, unfaithful courtesan (Odette). Just as Swann did with Odette, Charlus suffers terrible jealousy and pain at the hands of the depraved and ruthless Morel.

By the end of The Cities of the Plain, M. has finally decided to break off his relationship with Albertine, and he even tells his mother, who is quite relieved. However, one evening on the way home from the Verdurins, and just as M. is about to tell her that they are finished, Albertine tells M. that she knows Mlle Vinteuil’s friend intimately, as well as Mlle Vinteuil, because she spent “the happiest years of my life, at Trieste” with Mlle Vinteuil’s friend, and she calls them both her “big sisters”. She is unaware that M., spying on Mlle Vinteuil and her friend at Combray, knows that they are both lesbians. She then tells M. that she will be joining the two of them in a few weeks, at Cherbourg, to go on an extended cruise. This immediately ignites M.’s jealousy and desire to protect Albertine from her attraction to women. He decides to take her back to Paris with him, and to marry her! And thus begins an affair that is based not on love, not on pleasure, but on jealousy and suspicion, as was Swann’s and Odette’s affair, and as is Charlus’ and Morel’s. The next volume of the novel details this strange relationship.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you, Michael!
    This is

    Thank you, Michael!
    This is the oversized rusty iron key to Philip Roth’s The Humbling I’ve been searching for in all the wrong places (terrible, terrible places). I am doing a Jules Feiffer victory dance. He is the best, the absolute best, poker play in the multiverse.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I’m keeping
    Thanks, Michael. I’m keeping these essays in a PDF book to savor many times in the future, and to give to others who will appreciate them. Can’t wait for the next installment!

    We were going to vacation in Paris this summer, then looked up the plane fares. I see why you moved back.


  3. Frances, I haven’t read The
    Frances, I haven’t read The Humbling, but I scanned a couple of reviews and one could definately see a similarity between M. – Albertine and Axler – Pegeen. Albeit Roth provides lurid detail that Proust rarely attempts, except when describing Charlus in his male brothel. But that’s getting ahead of the story…

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