Book Review

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

A La Recherche du Temps Perdu 4: This Time It's Gay

DAY ONE OF WRITING BLOG

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What’s happened to my neck? Every day I look older, feel older, feel less (capitalised) Young and less together, feel more like locking myself in a cork-lined room and just trying to get it all down, mate, trying to squeeze out the Proustian novel that could save me, save me, save me, but, alas, I never will, and I don’t even have the sweet release of knowing my lungs are painfully weak to foreshadow an early physical demise. And I’ve passed 27 now which, as we all know, means I’m unlikely to die for at least another couple of decades. What a drag.

This is Volume 4 of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, and the point where the reader goes beyond halfway through Marcel Proust’s incredibly long and broadly acclaimed multi-massive-volume masterpiece. This one – as I’m sure anyone with any edge of prurience or nodule of Bible study will be able to guess from the title – is all about homosexuality, both male and female. This is Sodom and Gomorrah or, as I prefer to call it, Proust 4: This Time It’s Gay. And it’s great, as the other three volumes I’ve read are, but it’s also, in places, a little bit boring. In fact, that would be my one sentence review of the whole project, tbh, “Great fun, but occasionally boring.”1  Here, though, the themes are broadly more to my tastes than elsewhere; here Proust is considering the development of adult sexualities and, with that, a broader understanding of the desires and hopes and heavy, weighty, biological urges that drive social interaction. Here we experience the unnamed narrator growing up, understanding the world a little better and – finally – starting to understand his own lack of importance.

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Sodom and Gomorrah opens with a wonderfully unexpected and rather bizarre extended scene in which the narrator sees Monsieur de Charlus (an older acquaintance from the society circles) pick up a tailor in a courtyard. The narrator watches them flirt, noting with confusion their body signals and the way these socially diverse men seem oddly attuned to each other. Once the motivation clicks in the narrator’s head and he finally realises the connection between these two strangers, the world opens up before him. Suddenly, questionable and confusing behaviour from years previous, from all sorts of men, begins to make sense. Unexpected asides, unexpected invitations, unexpected offence, unexpected pain, all the encounters he’d had with M. de Charlus and men who he rapidly connects to the aristocratic gay circle he’s become aware of flood into his mind and he feels relief, almost, to no longer have to question if there is gayness around him, because there definitely is. But, just to check that he hasn’t made some kind of mistake, he follows the two men to the tailor’s shop and breaks into the neighbouring building so he can listen through the wall, fascinated, as they fuck, then discuss other men in the area who’re up for casual gay sex. Odd, but engaging.

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DAY TWO OF WRITING BLOG

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Had a bit of a long pause there, as one of the editors of BSJ: the B.S. Johnson Journal got back to me over the weekend and asked if could make some edits to an essay I first submitted to them for publication in 2014. As a result of my desperate urge for publication and my growing brexit-era dream of becoming a second rate English lecturer in a third rate University anywhere in Latin America, I’ve spent the past two days in the British Library poring over Johnson academia (and a hardback of Albert Angelo that Johnson had dedicated BY HAND to his bestie Zulfikar Ghose), completing a fat, responsibility-free late night bar shift in between. It was a rather pleasant throwback to a happier time in my life, albeit one that had massive depressive episodes pretty tight on either side. Looking into memory – as I was intellectually, academically, by writing about BS Johnson’s novels Trawl and The Unfortunates, whilst revisiting my own past (the essay itself and the circumstances of working on an essay and doing a bit of casual bar work), chimed strongly with my reading of Proust, and all of this combined to make me, cynical old bastid me, feel somewhat nostalgic, though God knows for what part of my life. I read a great essay by Krystyna Stamirowska about how novels that play with autobiographic tropes always struggle with the notion that it is impossible to return to an ignorance of the future, i.e. denial of the time that existed between the memory and the time of writing. Proust engages with this by having the narrator tell the reader he knows things he hasn’t told them, the narrator anticipates revelations by admonishing his younger self for his ignorance. Proust engages with the issue, in short, which is what Stamirowska states needs to be done for any memory-based text with aspirations towards the literary.

Sodom and Gomorrah is about the end of youth, I suppose, late youth, early adulthood. Proust is always vague with ages, but everything here feels a bit early 20s, and this volume is about the pursuance of lust and love and the power that comes with both. We meet young men and young women willing to sell their bodies to older, richer, men or women, or – in several cases – both men and women. This isn’t as simple as poverty stricken prostitutes, as high end, high-jinks-having, Best Little Whorehouse in Texastype prostitutes, but the whole gamut of morally confused sexual relationships between people with power and money and people without either. Young straight male violinists become the kept companions of fat old men because the latter have good connections at the conservatoire; young women enjoy the scandal of an overly public lesbian affair safe in the knowledge that their connected husbands will hush it up to preserve the perceived slight against their sexual dignity-

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DAY THREE OF WRITING BLOG

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I look a lot better for having shaved, washed, put contact lenses in and bothered to wear a lovely jumper and a shirt. I’ve also just had a delicious coffee from Machine (a hipster bike shop/coffee bar over the road from my hipster “lifestyle” shop, Modern Folk), which means I’m feeling pumped up, jumped up and like the world is a good place. Don’t worry, though, in about 30 seconds I’ll remember the shame of the EU referendum and the resultant curtain-removal that the UK is going through, exposing its nasty, pig ignorant, out-dated, white power, britannia rules the waves bullshit rotting skeleton. Well, that was easy, I’ve made myself depressed again. God, I’m sick of England.

You could say that I’ve been distracted.

Last week the shop I have been working on/with/at for the last two months officially opened, which is one of the many reasons why it’s taken me so long to a) read this book and b) finish a fucking blog post about it. I’m at the shop now – look at the above picture, see some of the beautiful things we sell. WARNING, ADVERTISING: Check this link – www.modernfolkshop.com – or visit us at 98 Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey, London, SE1 4TP and buy some things.

But that’s commerce, that’s business, and this is a blog about books, i.e. pleasure2 , and Sodom and Gomorrah is a book about pleasure, about wanting to control it and the powerlessness that comes with the knowledge that the people we know – especially our lovers – are separate entities from us and able to pursue whatever pleasures they want. In Proust’s narrator’s case, the huge anxiety comes from the knowledge that his kinda girlfriend, Albertine, is enjoying flesh elsewhere in a way he cannot compete with: for Albertine is bisexual, and the narrator understands that if she is hunkering after Woman, there is nothing his body can do to satiate.

This volume includes some very funny passages, with a lot of humour being eked out of society circles trying to hide their own feelings. This occurs in two ways: either one attempts to obscure homosexuality by openly talking about rumours circulating around other people, or one attempts to hide homophobia by loudly espousing liberal tolerance. It’s quite a simple gag, I suppose, the idea of no one telling the truth despite no one believing them, but Proust constructs these comic passages well and they made me laugh a lot. (I like to laugh.) As well as humour, there are too many of the dull, detailed, passages about aristocratic lineages that (I felt) dried up Volume 3, and a few too many sections where the narrator discusses the etymology of town names with an academic. Proust knew these sections were boring, as peripheral characters keep commenting on how dull the conversations are,  but still he kept them in. One of the benefits of Proust’s early death and wish to complete the project in full is that the final three volumes are much shorter than those in the middle, hopefully without the weighing waffle. Then again, maybe the last three solely consist of dull bits, which I really hope is not the case, because I’m really looking forward to pressing on.

There is glorious stuff here about grief, about ageing – in regards to the older members of his family and his social circles – and about sensuality and sexuality as a keen point of purpose to life. Proust’s narrator, like all of his characters, is horny, is loin-driven, but also cripplingly jealous and unhappy due to the lack of power he actually wields. He is setting himself up for withdrawal, one almost feels it, the occasional whiffs we get of the present day, from which all is being remembered, offer nothing, imply an existence without life. Life is over, so he’s writing it down. Proust produced something masterful, and something important, and though I can imagine he did feel some sort of satisfaction for that, I doubt that he was happy…

I enjoyed Sodom and Gomorrah. I cried, I laughed, I felt pushed towards personal reminiscence and from that felt properly sad. Reading something more upbeat next. Reading something light.

This giant novel is definitely worth reading.


1. A bit like, from my experience, alcoholism.

2. You should never mix business with pleasure. And for me (as I regularly say in follow up to that line, possibly quoting myself from a sketch I wrote as a student), sex is always business.

2 comments on “Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

  1. Now, more to add to my pile of future reading. It’s endless, isn’t it — always more treasures to discover.

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  2. I think this was my favourite of the whole series. It’s funny because it feels like everyone in the novel ends up being gay….except for the Proust-like narrator. I agree that bits of ISOLT are a bit dull; the problem is that he really could have used an editor to trim some of it down.

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