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NA316112 - PROUST, M.: Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 4: Sodom and Gomorrah (Cities of the Plain): Part I (Abridged)
Sodom and Gomorrah
(Cities of the Plain) Part I
Sodom and Gomorrah (Cities of the Plain) Part I opens with the Narrator,
Marcel, awaiting the return of the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes in the Hotel de Guermantes, their mansion in Paris, in which Marcel’s family occupies an apartment. The ducal premises also provides accommodation for Madame de Villeparisis, aunt of the Duke and Duchess, while on a lower level, both architecturally and socially, the tailor Jupien runs his business with the help of his niece.
The Duke’s brother, the Baron de Charlus arrives to visit Madame de Villeparisis, and finding her out or indisposed, is about to leave when he finds himself confronted with Jupien.
Their meeting provides the occasion for Marcel to witness a homosexual encounter, which opens his eyes to the Baron’s sexual proclivities, and enlightens him regarding de Charlus’ hitherto inexplicable behavior towards himself. It also affords the author the opportunity of drawing a skillful and witty parallel between a horticultural and a human conjunction, as Marcel’s absorption in the scene between Charlus and Jupien leads to his missing the possible fertilization of the Duchess’s orchid, which has been left out in the courtyard in the hope of attracting the attentions of a passing bee.
In this way, Proust introduces us to the theme of homosexuality, male and female, announced in the title. It is a subject on which Proust speaks with an understanding and sympathy born of his own homosexual way of life, which he felt obliged to keep secret, and which he carefully disguises in this autobiographical novel, where the Narrator, who is undoubtedly Proust himself, falls in love only with women.
Proust scholars and researchers have identified female characters in the book as disguised versions of men with whom Proust had had love affairs, although it is also suggested that his relationships with certain women are unlikely to have been entirely platonic. However, I would suggest that these speculations are of interest principally in explaining the depth of understanding Proust shows in his exposition of the theme of same-sex love, and his sympathy for the pain and frustration it causes those whose sexual nature is condemned by society and who are obliged to live lives of secrecy and duplicity.
There is particular poignancy in Proust’s reference to “sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie all her life long and even in the hour when they close her dying eyes “, in view of his own need to hide his private life from his adored mother, and to his description of “the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theater in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head”, clearly recognizable as Oscar Wilde, then living out the remains of his life as an exile in Paris, and a friend of the young Proust.
And perhaps it is as well for those who would condemn Proust for his lack of openness regarding his sexuality, to be reminded of the distance society has traveled since his lifetime, and of the legal punishment and social ostracism which then awaited those who were known to transgress the accepted norms of sexual behavior.
If the activities of the Baron de Charlus serve as an introduction to the world of Sodom, it is the Narrator’s love for Albertine, which takes us into the realm of Gommorah, or female homosexuality.
The subject of unrequited love is no novelty in literature, and yet in Proust’s hands it is fashioned anew. It would be a remarkable psychologist who was able to analyze Proust more perceptively than he analyzes himself.
He unerringly connects the painful sense of exclusion Marcel feels when he fears Albertine does not love him, with the childhood experience of his mother’s refusal at Combray to give him the benediction of her good-night kiss. Here is the classic Oedipal situation in which his wish to have his mother entirely to himself is thwarted by the existence of his father.
Added to the pain felt by every rejected lover, is the knowledge that he has no chance of possessing Albertine if his suspicions about her ‘Sapphism’ are confirmed. He would in that case be constitutionally unable ever to
satisfy her desires.
If it is true, as has been suggested, that the character of Albertine is a disguised version of Proust’s real life male lover, the author’s own situation will be seen as equally impossible – that of a man in love with a man who preferred women. And it is Proust’s personal experience of an anguished yearning for love he can never obtain, which invests his fictional study with such compelling authenticity.
But not only Oedipal frustration and gender preference stand between the Narrator/ Proust and the unconditional love for which he craves; there is also that last and greatest obstacle of them all – death. On the occasion of his second visit to Balbec, memories of the first visit undertaken in the company of his grandmother suddenly overwhelm Marcel, and he is faced for the first time with the irreversible reality of the death of the person who, next to his mother, he loved most in the world.
Here again Proust displays the depth of his psychological insight as he charts Marcel’s slow progress from despair to resignation in observing the workings of his unconscious mind through the medium of his dreams.
Once more the reader is privileged to witness the miracle performed by the author of turning the events of his transient life into an enduring work of art.
Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871. His father, a distinguished professor of medicine, was from a Catholic family, while his mother was Jewish.
Although intent on becoming a writer from an early age, Proust was riddled with self-doubt. During his twenties he co-founded a short-lived review, Le Banquet, contributed to La Revue Blanche and had his first book published, a collection of articles and essays entitled Les Plaisirs et les Jours.
He became an enthusiastic admirer of the work of Ruskin and translated his Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies into French. A novel, Jean Santeuil, which was the precursor of Remembrance of Things Past, was eventually abandoned and only published long after his death, in 1954.
For much of his youth he led the life of a man of fashion, frequenting fashionable Paris drawing rooms and literary salons, and these formed the background for a number of his stories and sketches, and subsequently of Remembrance of Things Past.
The death of his adored mother in 1905 resulted in a nervous collapse and aggravated his chronic asthma and insomnia. But despite his grief and the sense of loss from which he never recovered, his mother’s death freed him with regard to his homosexual emotional life and allowed him to address homosexuality in his writing, albeit in a manner which treated such experiences as happenings to others rather than to himself.
In 1907 he moved into an apartment in the Boulevard Haussmann where, in the bedroom which he had lined with cork to keep out noise, he embarked upon his great work A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past).
This long cycle of autobiographical novels was published in eight sections: Du Côté de Chez Swann (Swann’s Way) in 1913; A L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (Within A Budding Grove) in 1918; Le Côté de Guermantes I (The Guermantes Way I) in 1920; Le Côté de Guermantes II and Sodome et Gomorrhe (Cities of the Plain I) in 1921; Sodome et Gomorrhe II in 1922; La Prisonnière (The Captive) in 1923; Albertine Disparue (The Sweet Cheat Gone) in 1925; Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained) in 1927.
Proust was obliged to publish Swann’s Way at his own expense, and even after it had appeared, he had trouble finding a publisher for the next volume, A L’ Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur. However, when it appeared in 1918 it received considerable acclaim, and was awarded the Prix Goncourt the following year.
By the time Proust died on November 18, 1922, the first four parts of the cycle had been published, leaving the others to appear posthumously. The English translations by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, from which this abridged audiobook version has been prepared, were published between 1922 and 1930.
In Remembrance of Things Past, the minuteness of Proust’s observation, the depth of his psychological understanding and the vividness of his descriptive powers have combined to create one of the most poetic and magical works in all literature.
Notes by Neville Jason
Neville Jason trained at RADA where he was awarded the Diction
Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co., the Old Vic Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in films and musicals. Jason has appeared in popular television serials such as Maigret, Emergency Ward 10 and Dr. Who, as well as playing classical roles such as Orestes and Horatio. Formally a member of the BBC Radio Drama Co.,
he can be frequently heard on radio. Jason’s passion for Remembrance of Things Past comes alive in his adaptation and reading of the series, for which he has received worldwide praise.
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