Reading Proust IV

So after another hiatus of a couple months I returned to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, only this time to tackle Volume IV (or “Season 4” as I like to think of it): Sodom and Gomorrah. The previous volume, The Guermantes Way, ended with a cliff-hanger: while on his way to visit the Duke de Guermantes to confirm whether the invitation he received to the Princess de Guermantes’ party is legitimate or not, Marcel witnesses something of such monumental importance that he tells the reader that he must wait until later to tell us what it is in order to dedicate enough time and space to its discussion. And so Volume IV resumes where we left off with Marcel poking around the flowers in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes. Hidden from view, he observes the Baron de Charlus and Jupien (a tailor who has a shop in the courtyard) silently striking strange (and somewhat comical) poses that Proust compares to flowers that openly display their reproductive parts in order to attract bees to come and pollinate them. When the two men disappear into the building, Marcel goes into an adjacent shop and listens through the wall to the two men having sex, thus introducing the theme of homosexuality to this volume.

While the subject matter comes as no surprise given the title Sodom and Gomorrah, what is hugely revelatory is the Baron himself. Way back in Volume II (so long ago it seems!) when we are first introduced to de Charlus, we initially see him as an anonymous stranger, conspicuously loitering outside the Casino at Balbec and staring at Marcel in an odd, impenetrable way. Later, when Marcel is formally introduced to him, the Baron acts in a strangely hot-and-cold manner toward him, sometimes kind and charming, sometimes haughty and disdainful. Later still, in Volume III, after the party at Mme. Villeparisis’s, the Baron mysteriously offers to be something of a mentor to young Marcel in order to help him navigate society, only to become enraged when Marcel doesn’t seem particularly interested. Ah! Now all this strange behaviour makes sense!

But what’s also noteworthy is that this all goes back to that theme I mentioned in an earlier post: that nothing in Proust is ever what it seems to be. For not only is our understanding of the Baron’s sexuality proven to be wrong (he was supposedly Mme. Swann’s lover in the distant past) but, like most of Proust’s aristocratic characters, he is utterly absorbed with his own snobbishness, his position in society, his pedigree, and whom he may or may not deign to associate himself with. As we saw in the previous two volumes, the Baron only condescends to speak to Marcel (who is a member of the haute bourgeoisie) when no one else is around. Similarly, when Marcel, in Volume III, offers to introduce the Baron to his Jewish friend Bloch, the Baron flies into a rage at the temerity of being introduced to someone who is not only beneath him socially but who also happens to be a Jew. How deliciously ironic, then, to overhear the Baron fornicating with a tailor and, later still, trying to get it on with a bus driver! (Later, he becomes involved with Charles Morel, a soldier and violinist, but more on that in a minute.)

But these sorts of sexual relations between men of opposite classes are not unique to de Charlus and can be explained by the idea that in a society that still regarded homosexuality as illegal, it was to some extent safer for a man of wealth, power and privilege to have sex with a man who does not possess any of those things and to trust him to keep it hushed up; for as far as the latter is concerned, the attentions of a wealthy man would no doubt be a lucrative position to be in—as we shall see. At the Princess de Guermantes’ party, for instance (Marcel’s invite turns out to be legit after all), Proust describes a hilarious encounter between a certain Duc de Châtellerault and a servant he had picked up on the Champs-Elysées. Although the servant would realistically have little power to publicly “out” the duke, the nobleman avoided disclosing his identity at the time by pretending to be an English tourist who could not speak French. Imagine his shock when he and the servant recognize each other at the party, and it is the servant’s task to loudly call out the names of the guests as they arrive.

The Duke looked at him, recognized him, saw himself ruined, while the servant, who had recovered his composure and was sufficiently versed in heraldry to complete for himself an appellation that was too modest, roared with a professional vehemence softened with intimate tenderness: “Son Altesse Monseigneur le Duc de Châtellerault!” (49-50)

In another example, Bloch’s uncle Nissim Bernard is a man known for faithfully dining every evening at home with his wife and children and the “family virtues” (327) this would appear to suggest. But because things are never what they seem in Proust, this same man also only ever lunches at the Grand Hotel where, Marcel observes, he “keeps” a young waiter forty years his junior. Even Aimé, the headwaiter at the hotel, is willing to go to bed with his male customers, as long as it means the loyal patronage of his paying customer; after all, for Aimé, “business must come first” (530).

But getting back to the Princess’s party. Unlike the previous volumes, Marcel is suddenly very savvy about turn-of-the-century French gay culture and sees signs of it everywhere. He observes, for example, the Baron absorbed with chatting up Mme. de Surgis-le-Duc in order to give the impression of having a flirtatious interest in her and thereby casting doubt on any rumours regarding his “morals.” Even Marcel’s friend, Robert St-Loup, is fooled and interprets his uncle’s behaviour as evidence of his womanizing. But Marcel sees it for what it really is: as a means of getting to know Surgis-le-Duc’s two extraordinarily good-looking sons. There is also a certain M. de Vaugoubert at the party, “one of the few men (possibly the only man) in society who happened to be in what is called in Sodom the ‘confidence’ of M. de Charlus” (57). Unlike the Baron, however, M. de Vaugoubert has no tactic for dealing with gossip and rumours; and although he longs for the “street arabs” (58) of his youth, he is too afraid of scandal and blackmail, and Proust describes him as having the “air of a caged animal, casting in every direction glances expressive of fear, craving and stupidity” (58).

The idea of things never being what they seem also plays out when Swann, who happens to be both Jewish and a known Dreyfusard, arrives at the party and is taken aside by the Prince. Everyone assumes Swann is to be expelled from the party, but it’s the opposite that happens: the Prince confides that both he and his wife have gone against the majority opinion of their class and become Dreyfusards. While this is going on, the Duke is discussing with Marcel and Froberville his disappointment with Swann:

[…] so far as Swann is concerned, I can tell you frankly that his conduct towards ourselves has been beyond words. Although he was originally introduced by ourselves and the Duc de Chartres, they tell me now that he is openly Dreyfusard. I should never have believed it of him, an epicure, a man of practical judgment, a collector, a connoisseur of old books, a member of the Jockey, a man who enjoyed the respect of all […] I feel badly let down. […] [B]ut if only for Oriane’s sake, he ought not to have done that, he should have openly disavowed the Jews and the partisans of the accused. (104)

Later, the Duke also adds:

I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world. Now, Swann was that in every sense of the word. Well, now he forces me to admit that I was mistaken, since he has taken the side of this Dreyfus (who, guilty or not, never moved in his world, whom he wouldn’t ever have met) against a society that had adopted him, had treated him as one of his own. (105) [my emphasis]

But Proust, with his wonderful penchant for also exposing the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, reveals the Duke to be not nearly as put out by his nephew, Robert St-Loup, who at one point was also an open Dreyfusard (although unbeknown to the Duke, St-Loup has also switched sides after his break-up with the actress Rachel). The Duke rationalizes it this way:

It is true that M. de Guermantes had not displayed so profound and pained an astonishment when he learned that Saint-Loup was a Dreyfusard. But, for one thing, he regarded his nephew as a young man gone astray, from whom nothing would be surprising until he began to mend his ways, whereas Swann was what M. de Guermantes called “a level-headed man, a man occupying a position in the front rank.” (107)

Even more ironic, the Duke too will eventually convert to Dreyfusism when, much later, he tries to seduce “an Italian princess and her two sisters-in-law” (189) and is influenced by their politics.


In the second half of Volume IV, Marcel returns to Balbec. For me, the seaside vacation town that Marcel first visited in Volume II was one of my favourite sections of the novel of so far. Gorgeously written, vibrant, fresh and alive, it was also the place where Marcel first meets, among other characters, the “little band” of girls, including Albertine and Andrée, and where his subsequent sexual awakening takes place. In keeping with Proust’s predilection for flipping things around, that Balbec of yesteryear seems so very innocent compared to the Balbec we see this time around, and it’s as though Marcel’s eyes have suddenly been opened. Albertine has also returned to Balbec for the season, but something is different about her now. One night, for example, while Marcel and Dr. Cottard (of the Verdurin set) are at the Casino, they observe Albertine and Andrée dancing together. Marcel regards it innocently enough, but Cottard says that “parents are very rash to allow their daughters to form such habits. I should never let mine come here” (264). He goes on to add that because their breasts are touching “they are keenly roused” (264). Cottard’s words have forever changed the way Marcel perceives Albertine, and now he sees evidence of her “Sapphic tendencies” everywhere:

[…] pained by this suspicion, I would finally succeed in banishing it. No sooner was I cured of it than it revived under another form. I had just seen Andrée, with one of those graceful gestures that came naturally to her, lay her head lovingly on Albertine’s shoulder and kiss her on the neck, half shutting her eyes; or else they had exchanged a glance; or a remark had been made by somebody who had seen them going down together to bathe: little trifles such as habitually float in the surrounding atmosphere where the majority of people absorb them all day without injury to their health or alteration of their mood […] (275)

Proust highlights numerous other examples of women picking each other up by, for example, pretending to recognize each other as childhood friends, while the “guileless husband” (340) remains in the dark about what is really going on and the hand-holding under the table. At one point Bloch’s sister and a retired actress also cause a scandal when they “choose to flaunt their dangerous embraces before the eyes of all the world” (326), even going so far as to occupy a corner of the big ballroom and make “no more attempt to conceal what they were doing than if they had been in bed” (327). And although two military officers who were visiting the hotel file a complaint with the manager, nothing actually happens because, as visitors, “they could not be of any use to the manager” (327); that and the fact that the two women were under “the protection” (327) of Bloch’s uncle, the aforementioned Nissim Bernard who, as I’ve said, not only keeps a young waiter, but also maintains excellent relations with the head waiter Aimé. Marcel spends much of the rest of the volume steering Albertine away from meeting Andrée and other girls, while Albertine similarly expends as much energy trying to convince him that she isn’t that sort of girl, even openly and egregiously flirting with St-Loup when he makes a brief visit.

Volume IV also sees the return of the Verdurin set whom we first met in Volume I. But instead of staying at the Grand Hotel, Mme. and M. Verdurin have rented a house from the Cambremers. Like in Volume I, Mme. Verdurin continues to have her weekly Wednesday dinner parties, and among the “faithful” is not only the previously mentioned Dr. Cottard, but—to my complete surprise—the Baron de Charlus! On the one hand, this is astonishing given that the Verdurins are not members of the aristocracy and are more of a Bohemian set concerned with music and art. Yet, on the other, it’s also a completely natural choice for the Baron to associate with them because here he is far away from Paris and the Faubourg St-Germain and has far less need to be circumspect in his words and actions; in fact, in the company of the Verdurins, he is actually quite open about “his vice” (598), as they call it. De Charlus has brought with him Charles Morel, a soldier and violinist he picked up at the local train station and whose father was once Marcel’s Uncle Adolphe’s valet. At first it is understood that de Charlus was showing exceptional sensitivity by “sponsoring” this young and talented (and good-looking) violinist, but it soon becomes quite clear what the real nature of their relationship is. “Mme. Verdurin would then give them adjoining rooms, and, to put them at their ease, would say: ‘If you want to have a little music, don’t worry about us. The walls are as thick as a fortress, you have nobody else on your floor, and my husband sleeps like a log’” (602).

In keeping with Proust’s penchant for opposites, the Baron that we see in this volume is exceptionally different from before. Previously, de Charlus was one of those characters one loves to hate. An utter snob, quick to anger, pompous and arrogant, he previously seemed despicable and one-dimensional. In Volume IV, though, one sees a different baron, one who’s vulnerable, weak, and maybe a little pathetic too, particularly in terms of the lengths he’ll go to maintain his doomed relationship with Morel and his unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that, for Morel, it really boils down to money. In this sense, their relationship closely resembles St-Loup’s relationship with the prostitute/actress Rachel and Swann’s relationship with Odette (and maybe even Albertine’s relationship with Marcel; we’ll find out). As a result, the Baron is wilfully blind to the fact that Morel is truly vile, and that he’ll go with anyone, man or woman, for money. At one point, the Baron’s cousin, the Prince de Guermantes even makes a surprising assignation with Morel and the two agree to meet at a local brothel; but the two men never end up getting it on as the Baron keeps following Morel and spying on him, and the two cousins (quite hilariously) never find out each other’s identity.

Meanwhile, Marcel and Albertine are often together, and it’s while they’re in the back of the car being chauffeured between the Verdurin’s summer home and Parville where Albertine is staying that they do most of their fooling around. And yet, it’s at these moments, when Marcel “has” her that he grows bored and loses interest. At one point, Marcel decides to break it off, but when she happens to reveal that she’s close friends with a certain Mlle. Vinteuil, a woman of “disrepute” and whom Marcel has seen having sex with another woman through an open window back in Volume I, Marcel takes it as solid evidence of Albertine’s “Gomorrah side.” With his jealousy now inflamed and feeling helpless in this now uneven playing field, he takes it upon himself to not only to do his best to keep Albertine away from Mlle Venteuil, but he decides that she must live with him in Paris as soon as possible and that they must get married. So ends Sodom and Gomorrah, the title of the next volume, The Captive and The Fugitive, offering us a hint of what we’re in for.


So what to make of Proust’s fondness for flipping things around and portraying people and places as their opposites? Quite simply it has to do with change, that nothing is static and immutable. Everything changes and this change happens over time, colouring our memories and making them unreliable. When Swann suggests to Marcel at the Princess’s party to write to his daughter Gilberte, the idea doesn’t appeal to him because he realizes how much he’s changed. He’s no longer the same person who was in love with Gilberte and says it’s hard to imagine agonizing over her the way he once did, or to even understand what caused that agony in the first place. As Marcel says, “I myself had changed, quite as much as she had changed in my eyes” (274). Even Marcel’s feelings toward Swann have utterly transformed. In Volume I, the Swann name was mystical and mysterious to him; he was the quintessence of urbanity, a role model to live up to. Here, in Volume IV, Marcel wonders what he ever saw in him; in fact, Swann is now portrayed as a sick, old man whose death goes by without the usual Proustian philosophizing, but is simply reported in one sentence. Even Mme. de Guermantes, the object of Marcel’s fascination in Volume III, “no longer spoke to [his] imagination” (190). In fact, everything loses its value as something to be prized and pursued once it’s acquired. But it’s not only Marcel who’s changed; it’s the reader, too, who’s different. The things that the reader of the earlier volumes interprets as minor and inconsequential (Charlus’s strange behaviour, Mlle. Venteuil, Nissim Bernard, Charles Morel), things we may have overlooked and considered unimportant—oh, how naïve we were when we first set out on this journey!—all come back as playing a much more significant role than we had imagined; and the novel, which had hitherto seemed so shapeless and unstructured, now starts to reveal itself in the second half to be in fact highly structured and symmetrical. (Who’d’ve thought?) And so, in the same way that our ideas (indeed our memories) of the earlier events in the novel are challenged or have otherwise started to become hazy in our imaginations, so too does Marcel’s search for lost time. Proust writes:

The images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as elusive as those which the imagination had formed and reality has destroyed. There is no reason why, existing outside ourselves, a real place should conform to the pictures in our memory rather than those in our dreams. And besides, a fresh reality will perhaps make us forget, detest even, the desires on account of which we set out on our journey. (205-206)

When reading about In Search of Lost Time I often came upon the phrase “first-time readers of Proust,” and I balked at the thought of reading this novel a second or third time. (Once is enough, thank you!) But I can now clearly see the need—in fact, it even seems tempting, even unavoidable to me now—to read it through yet again, but with more experienced eyes in order to more fully grasp (if such a thing is even possible) the world of this novel and the elusiveness of time and memory.