The 14-Minute Marcel Proust
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Sodom and Gomorrah

The two-minute 'Sodom'

Marcel spies on an encounter between the Baron de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien, after which he goes to a soirée at the Princesse de Guermantes's. Returning home, he expects a routine midnight visit from Albertine, and is put into a fever of lust and suspicion when she is slow to appear.

He then returns for a season at Balbec. Albertine is staying nearby, and continues to demonstrate her usual astonishing freedom of action (for a young woman at the turn of the 20th century). By being available to Marcel, but not committed entirely to him, Albertine enslaves him in the usual Proustian fashion.

Also nearby are the awful Verdurins. Like Swann before them, Marcel and Charlus join the "little clan" for their private reasons, which sets off another of Proust's hilarious 100-page salon scenes. Mme Verdurin has recently inherited a few million francs, which will lubricate her ascent into society. This woman is so terrible that you find yourself cheering the baron as he jousts with her.

Of high society, memory, and sexuality

Sodom and Gomorrah One of the recurring themes in Proust's novel is the interplay among the select invitees at one or another Paris salon. In Swann's Way, the salon belongs to Madame Verurdin, whose "little clan" includes a young painter (who morphs into the genius Elstir, based perhaps on Whistler), a foolish doctor (who turns out to be a great diagnostician), and other luminaries who age and evolve throughout the novel. In The Guermantes Way, we move into more distinguished circles, first at the Marquise de Villeparisis's, then at the Duchesse de Guermantes's. And here, in Sodom and Gomorrah, we reach the very highest of Parisian high society: a soirée at the Princesse de Guermantes's. But Proust is not content merely to climb the ladder. Just as his characters rise and descend—and rise again, like Sisyphus pushing the stone up the hill through all eternity—so do the salons rise and fall. I don't think I am betraying a confidence by revealing that the beautiful Duchesse will be cast down as a result of her own bad behavior, while the awful Madame Verurdin will rise in the world thanks to her great wealth.

When Young Marcel (he is now about 21) returns to Balbec for the season, he is overwhelmed with grief for his grandmother, whose death was detailed in The Guermantes Way, but whom at the time he mourned only in perfunctory fashion. Now he sees the wall that, several years earlier, had separated him from his grandmother, and upon which they had been accustomed to tap messages to one another. As with "voluntary" and "involuntary" memory, so it with with voluntary and involuntary grief: triggered by the sight of the wall, Young Marcel realizes for the first time what he has lost:

I knew that now I could knock, more loudly even, that nothing could again wake her, that I would not hear any response, that my grandmother would never again come. And I asked nothing more of God, if there is a paradise, than to be able to give there the three little taps on that partition that my grandmother would recognize anywhere, and to which she would respond with those other taps that meant, "Don't fret yourself, little mouse, I realize you're impatient, but I'm just coming," and that he should let me remain with her for all eternity, which would not be too long for the two of us.

Was ever grief more beautifully expressed?

Soon, however, grief is forgotten and Marcel is once again sniffing about the "young girls in flower" who infatuated him in the novel's second volume. There are two mysteries here: the nature of the sexual relations between these people; and their gender. As to the first, it is never entirely clear to me whether Marcel actually gets it on with his "girls." He claims at one point that he enjoyed "moments of pleasure" with, and was "granted their fragile favors" by, no less than fourteen young women during this second summer at Balbec. They know one another, are scarcely twenty years old, come from upper-middle-class families—and Queen Victoria is still on her throne! Marcel would have done quite well, it seems to me, if he had succeeded in kissing fourteen girls that summer.

Of the fourteen, Albertine is his beloved. Marcel suspects her of hankering after women, and he sees every woman who comes to Balbec as a likely bedmate for her. Was female homosexuality really so rampant in 1900s France? As earlier with Gilberte, his relations with Albertine often seem easier to understand if we take off the feminine ending: a pretty young man named Albert could certainly come and go through the Balbec nights, and if the lover suspected him of hetereosexual tendencies, then he might have reason to fear the arrival of each new woman. (The girl who most often makes a third with Marcel and Albertine also has an ambivalent name: Andrée.)

Altogether, this is my favorite of the Penguin Proust translations thus far. A wonderfully funny study of society, if not of sex!

British vs American editions

Sodom and Gomorrah In my determination to own hardcover copies of all six books of the new translations, I managed to double up on Sodom and Gormorrah, so I'm able to compare the British edition (Allen Lane, 2002, shown at left; click on the cover to see the paperback at Amazon.co.uk) with the American (Viking, 2004). Viking's Sodom is much more handsome: the pages are larger, and they're stitched instead of glued to the backing. The dark gray dustcover stands up better to handling than Allen Lane's mostly black jacket, which already shows my fingerprints after very little use. Viking's cloth cover, too, strikes me as more distinguished.

There are the expected small differences in usage: hair-colour becomes hair color; theatre becomes theater. The most dramatic change, however, is the treatment of literary quotations: in the Allen Lane edition, Samson is quoted as saying 'Les deux sexes mourront chacun de son côté', with a translation in the chapter notes; Viking renders the quote as "The two sexes will die each on its own side" and banishes the French to the back of the book. Being the typical monophone American, I prefer Viking's treatment.

Gotcha!

I was trained to use the possessive before a gerund, so I winced at this phrase on page 121: "I don't understand Basin letting her talk ..." (instead of Basin's, as Scott Moncrieff rendered it, and as I would have done). But Sturrock is not consistent: on page 165, he reverts to the old ways: "I can understand its annoying you ..." Why not it?

A similar small barbarism: on page 446, Sturrock has Proust writing that Charlus was doing his best to try and please Morel. (UK readers have pointed out that this is common English usage--but think about it. If try and please are equal verbs, as indicated by the conjunction, then there must be two thoughts, which can be rendered as to please Morel, which makes sense, and to try Morel, which doesn't.)

Here's a typo on page 260: ... these common travelers would have been less interested than I was had—despite the notoriety some had acquired .... This is one of Proust's many-layered sentences, and there should be a comma after was. The British edition gets it right (and of course there's a double l in travellers :)

Here's a gotcha! that must be laid at Proust's door: on page 360, Mme. Verdurin says to Marcel, speaking of Charles Swann as a member of her "little clan": "... he was very fond of you, for that matter; he spoke about you in a delightful way ..." But Marcel hadn't yet been born when Swann was exiled from the Verdurins' circle. Odette, as his wife, occasionally received Mme. Verdurin, but there is no indication that Swann ever went to the Verdurins' after his marriage.

And another: on page 393, the narrator muses the towns around Balbec are like an officer in my regiment. But this is supposed to be Marcel speaking, and he (unlike Proust) has never been in the army.

(Page numbers for the Viking edition.)