Nov 7, 2016

Reading the Classics: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust

Whew, finally finished this year's leg of the Proust Project. With a name like Sodom and Gomorrah, I thought something might actually happen in this volume, but not so much. Sodom and Gomorrah is 80 % boring dinner parties, 10 % beautiful description, and 10% clever insights into human nature. The problem is that you need to wade through that 80 % to get to the good stuff. Proust could have used an editor, I think.

In this volume the narrator (Marcel) discovers that same sex relationships happen in his social circle and starts obsessing about them. Homosexuality is explored through Charlus' relationships, and Marcel also suspects that Albertine has something going on with her girlfriends.  Then he spends most of the book seething with jealousy of the girlfriends and his male friends, too. Saint-Loupe gets him really paranoid by just talking to Albertine on the train. The other half of the book he is a huge jerk to Albertine, saying that he could never marry her and how it's a  pity that she's missing out on having a yacht and stuff by not becoming his wife. And then, in a last minute reversal, he decides to marry her anyway. (Spoiler alert! Okay, not really, because the French name for The Fugitive is Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone). So you know that will end well.) My edition lumps these two volumes together, so that means two more volumes to go. I'll be done in 2018, finally. I just can't handle more than one of these a year.

Many reviewers (the ones who like the book, anyway) say that this novel is full of sensuality. Okay, maybe I can see it in some of the descriptions, but to me these moments get drowned under the social climbing, gossiping, and sniping-at-each-other aspects of Proust's society scenes. If you like tempests in a teacup, this is the book for you.

Proust's view of relationships seems pretty bleak: there's not a happy one in the bunch, except maybe for Marcel's parents. The relationships are full of petty jealousy and possessiveness, slights and cruelty, and, okay, moments of passion.  I wonder if this is a Proust thing or a French thing? I've been watching a lot of French movies, and this seems to be a feature in almost all of them.

I did kind of like that infamous etymology lecture bit at the dinner party, but I'm not sure I trust Proust to give us the correct info. Is he just doing it for character building reasons and screwing with us? Yeah, that kind of took the fun out of it for me.

The bit in Balbec where he reminisces about his grandmother was one of my favourite parts. And there wasn't much of Bloch, whose pretentious way of speaking really annoys me, so that's a plus.

What I like about Proust are those gorgeous descriptions and the insightful passages about why people do what they do. There seemed to be less of these in this volume than in the earlier ones. I'm not actually that interested in the intrigues of early 1900s French salons, and I pretty much dislike every character in the book. (Why anyone would want to marry snivelling little mama's boy Marcel is beyond me.)

It is worth noting that Proust himself was gay, so it was quite brave of him to write something like this at the time. That's probably why his descriptions of the liaisons feel real. So this book does show you a version of what it was like to be a gay aristocrat in early 1900s France. It's just not as interesting as it sounds.

So not my favourite volume. And the next two are apparently the hardest ones in the series, because Proust was sick and started losing track of which characters he had killed off. Great. Something to look forward to.


  1. I think you are brave when you are reading this, all the volumes, OMG! I guess I read the first volume a long time ago and that was it. Have you ever tried to read Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi? That is something I'm always planning and I once started it... I stopped on page 30 or so...

    1. I have the book, but I haven't tried it. It actually belongs to my husband, who has read it multiple times, and he said I'd hate it. I kind of took his word for it. He also loves Proust and after reading the English translation twice is now reading it in the original French. Le sigh.


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