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Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)

by Marcel Proust

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: In Search of Lost Time (4)

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2,220355,171 (4.34)88
Since the original, prewar translation there has been no completely new rendering of the French original into English. This translation brings to the fore a more sharply engaged, comic and lucid Proust. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME is one of the greatest, most enjoyable reading experiences in any language. As the great story unfolds from its magical opening scenes to its devastating end, it is the Penguin Proust that makes Proust accessible to a new generation. Each book is translated by a different, superb translator working under the general editorship of Professor Christopher Prendergast.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
  chrisvia | Apr 29, 2021 |
I finished Volume 4 of Proust a few days ago (Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation, Modern Library edition), and thought I’d put a few thoughts down in a review. This is my first review of any Proust volume. It feels somewhat awkward to be reviewing one volume, since it’s really just one chunk of a bigger novel. This will be more a set of observations and complaints that apply to the full work (so far).

Sodom is volume 4 out of 7 of ISOLT. That is, it is the center of the set. As such there is a certain psychological satisfaction that comes from completing it: “I’ve read more that half of Proust!”, along with the confidence that I will complete the whole work.

The book of course is great - five stars. But after four long volumes, I mainly want to write down my complaints. And my main complaint is about the narrator.

The narrator (we can also call him Marcel) is a severely underdeveloped character. Despite living inside his head for a couple of thousand pages (so far), he remains a cipher. What is his personality? If you met him at one of these dinner parties he loves to describe, how would he strike you? Is he extroverted, a joke-teller or raconteur? Or a serious conversationalist, getting into long detailed discussions on esoteric or artistic topics? Or a quiet introvert, mainly sitting quietly, listening to others? He must be a likeable person, judging by the way so many hosts and hostesses try to invite him. But why? We don’t know, although there are occasional circumstantial clues in the form of comments from the people around him.

Yes, he sometimes describes, in loving detail, the fine shading around certain emotional experiences, such as his mourning loss of his grandmother. But his thoughts, his internal monologues, are left out. How does he think about his life, his goals, his problems, and his plans?

Let’s take one glaring example. During Sodom, we learn that Albertine is being considered as a marriage candidate for him, at least in the eyes of others. Is he considering marrying her? Is he spending a lot of time thinking about whether to marry her? How does he approach the possibility? Does he mentally weigh up the pros and cons? Is he trying to visualize married life with her, to picture her as his wife, possibly even as the mother of his children? Does he compare her against other single women he knows, or against the wives of friends and relatives? He must be going through such thoughts and mental exercises while at Balbec during the course of the book, but all this is left out of the book.

Proust doesn’t share these key internal moments, to the reader’s great frustration,, and as a result it becomes hard to identify with the narrator, or to like him very much. So when Marcel behaves poorly to others - especially to Albertine - we end up rather disliking him, while she, Albertine, gets our sympathy.

And this lack of characterization of the narrator - who is the main character after all - is all the more ironic given the novel’s reputation as an introspective, interior-oriented novel. It’s not at all. It does share, at great length, Marcel’s acute perceptions of the world around him, and especially his delving into the thoughts and motivations of the people he encounters. But it doesn’t share the stream of thoughts of the narrator, as do other modernists such as Joyce and Woolf, or even the great nineteenth century novelists. This creates distance between the reader and the main character, instead of the identification that would lead us, the reader, to root for him, or even sympathize with him very much.

Now more than halfway through ISOLT, I’m not sure I can even identify what the protagonist’s main problem is - what is he trying to solve, or to achieve? What is he searching or struggling for? Where is the main tension or dilemma of the novel? I don’t see it yet, and that concerns me.

For the record, I still love the book, from the texture of the prose to the long unexpected digressions. I just wish I could know Marcel better. Let’s see if this issue gets resolved - or exasperated - in the upcoming volumes. ( )
  viscount | Jan 4, 2021 |
הרביעי הלך בקלות ( )
  amoskovacs | Dec 25, 2020 |
Women shall have Gomorrah and men shall have Sodom - Alfred de Vigny, epigram

"[The Sodomites] form in every land an oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has charming qualities and intolerable defects."

For his next trick, Marcel Proust contrives to up-end much of what has come before, as his narrator goes ever further in search of lost time. (My reviews of the first three volumes can be found: here, here, and - what do you know? - here.) I'd have to say that volume four, Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah, more poetically, but less accurately translated in the past as Cities of the Plain), is the most challenging volume of Proust, and yet as I reached its end, I realised just how vital and thematically intertwined this is. As the narrator matures in his 20s, he is at a tipping-point between his youth and naivete, and his growing understanding of the world. There are essentially four sections to the novel:

"People never cease to change place in relation to ourselves."

One. In a brief section, Marcel (let's just agree to call him that, shall we?) decides to spy on a bee fertilising a flower, and instead gets to watch an altogether different kind of pollination, that of his old nemesis, Baron de Charlus, and Francoise's beloved tailor, Jupien. The sequence is cheeky, and heavily coded (to the point where I could imagine an older French reader of the 1920s barely even grasping what has happened) yet virtually obscene. A fascinating reminder of how utterly different the act of reading and writing was 100 years ago. It reminds me of Noel Coward apparently writing many of his straight couples with the intention of them being homosexual couples - if only he had born a generation or two later. This section sets off one of the major analyses of the novel, that of the homosexual and his (her?) relationship to polite society. Proust - himself both gay and part-Jewish - creates distinctly unflattering portraits of both groups, but one senses that some of the writing is tongue-in-cheek. There's no denying that the author is working through some serious issues over his sexuality, but at the same time, his deeply personal comparison of the homosexual to the dispersed Jews suggests that he was ultimately sympathetic. And many of the passages about the so-called "freemasonry" of gays, in which they begin to tell one another out amongst the crowd, still ring true in much of today's society - I can certainly pick examples from my own life that resonate! The anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter not being anywhere near as virulent) expressed by many of the characters is not expressed by Marcel the narrator, suggesting that this social obsession with difference is not something of which Proust approves. And indeed, as we go on, we begin to realise how closely young Marcel identifies with both Charles Swann (the Jew) and Palamède de Charlus (the homosexual) even though he is neither, suggesting a human connection underneath.

(Proust's meditations on the idea of the homosexual as an "invert", as a "woman", are perhaps more problematic in light of the 94 years that have since passed, but to complain about such is fruitless. If nothing else, the book sheds an interesting light on the many ways gay culture - and views of gay culture - have evolved in a century ... and a few ways in which they have remained steadfastly the same.)

"When you rely on other people, you should try not to be such an idiot." - Madame Verdurin

Two. The return of Madame Verdurin! My favourite Proustian character by a country mile, Madame Verdurin drags her entire "set" kicking and screaming back into the novel, as we begin to see the older generation of characters filtered through Marcel's slightly-less-rose-coloured glasses, as they all spend the summer in and around Balbec. Swann and Robert Saint-Loup are developing and changing, their own personalities deepening and widening, their connection to Marcel strengthening and then fading, as happens to us all. As Proust was writing this novel (which was published in two parts), his health was fading rapidly, and indeed he would die only weeks after the second part was released. In light of this, it's impressive just how dense and funny much of this bulky centrepiece is. Madame Verdurin and all of her guests, interlopers, and rivals are portrayed in microscopic detail, and much of it is hilarious - particularly the deep, and finally seemingly complete, Cambremer vs. Verdurin rivalry, which escalates over essentially nothing! Much is discussed here, and Proust makes very little effort to even pretend like this section is being told from Marcel's point of view, but at the same time ... he does rather go on, doesn't he? Given that The Guermantes Way was almost sickeningly absorbed with salons and dinner parties, I was expecting a more personal experience for Marcel, and instead the narrator all but disappears from vast swathes of the novel. Everything ties back in thematically, and sometimes in surprising ways, such as the long-winded M. Brichot, who holds up the novel for sometimes four full pages discussing the etymology of place names (Mme Verdurin bemans how he likes to "hurl chunks of dictionary at our heads during dinner"), but - just when this is inducing a coma - we realise that Brichot's words are the final nail in the coffin of the narrator's earlier romanticism about such names and, by extension, the places themselves. On the other hand, the self-absorption and rung-climbing of society has been well and truly displaeyd, and one wonders whether we are achieving much more by examining it in yet further detail. It's not that the character drawings are dull or that the situation is lacking in humour and insight; it's just a continuation of what has gone before, with little reason to repeat. (One of my favourite of the many social debates is the different ways of seeing a Princess' social habits. Some think that she is received only alone by a certain guest because that guest is particular special. Others argue that she is only received alone by that guest because she doesn't really want to be seen with them!

But what this section of the novel does, importantly, is thrust Albertine back into the spotlight in a big way.

"It was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination."

Three. Things pick up considerably once Marcel and Albertine are contrasted with - of all people - Baron de Charlus and that dashing, debonair devil, Charles Morel the violinist soldier (I mean, honestly, what a combination). Proust is always at his strongest when analysing the "intermittencies of the heart" (a chapter title here but also apparently a rejected title for the overall novel), and this is no exception. On returning to Balbec, Marcel stands on a cliff top and finds his soul splitting and rejoining - Marcel past, Marcel present, Marcel future - a line of Scrooge's ghosts. Involuntary memory, like that of his grandmother's death, competes with voluntary memories: memories of girls he wants to forget, girls he has forgotten, girls he can never let go of. Marcel desires Albertine, even needs her, although he's still not able to interpret and convey love in the right ways. Is he truly in love with this girl? Is he even really trying to get to know her? I'm not entirely convinced. There are overt shades of the Swann/Odette relationship from Swann's Way, not least when Marcel becomes convinced - apropos of nothing - that Albertine is having, or has had, the old Sapphic scissoring with some of her Balbec girlfriends. But just as the Verdurin set are different in the leafy confines of La Raspeliere (the passage detailing Marcel and Albertine's painfully long journey there one night by carriage is a particular delight), so too are the young couple different in this strange netherworld both in and out of society, pretending they are cousins for the sake of the Verdurins and their ilk.

While we're given a bit of foreshadowing for Volume Five, in that Albertine is clearly becoming Marcel's psychological prisoner, at least in his own mind, the better part of this section is given over to the love affair of Morel and Charlus, completing the triptych of relationships that began with Odette and Swann. It's very intriguing in the way that Charlus' love basically strips him of any self-awareness and practicality, and the way Proust indicates that Morel clearly is not that into it. The comedy is really amped up here, from Charlus at dinners, not realising he is being mocked, to plotting a duel that he never intends to carry out. By this point, of course, we're reading not "for the story", but nevertheless while I find Charlus repugnant, his fierce personality manages to keep the reader intrigued through the sometimes overgrown plains of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"His nature was really like a sheet of paper that has been folded so often in every direction that it is impossible to straighten out."

The above quote is possibly my favourite of the entire work, incidentally.

Four. The final, brief section of this novel continues the trend of previous books, in acting more as a preface to the next volume. Marcel's jealousy of Albertine has now gone into overdrive, to the point where it inadvertently destroys his friendship with Bloch (forever? I hope not!). In these last pages, Proust reaches his most lyrical, in passages of beauty that we haven't really experienced - at least of such a height - since the days that Odette was a main character. Some of my favourite images include a restaurant waiter portrayed as a series of "successive statues of a young god running", the conceit of Charlus as a fish in an aquarium, swimming delicately but not realising visitors are laughing behind the glass only metres away, and an absolutely fantastic analogy featuring a centaur. The ending is not particularly a surprise, given the narrator's penchant for ironical twists, but it certainly creates a great narrative hook, while also making us - or at least me - worried about his mental state. This young man is just refusing to grow up. No wonder, really, given he is surrounded by complete and utter children - maybe that's the point of all these dinner parties?

"Oh, if I could write like that!" - Virginia Woolf on reading Proust, 1922

In closing, then, I'm excited to learn that a change in tone is coming in The Prisoner. As much as I've enjoyed this book, the focus away from Marcel's psychology, which made the first two volumes such captivating and perfect reads, has been frustrating. Even Proust's delightful page-long sentences occasionally became enervating this time around. Nevertheless, Sodom and Gomorrah remained a deeply human work, full of sneaky character portrayals and staggering moments of beauty. As previously mentioned, if you're reading the Vintage editions, be sure to get a hold of Volume 6: it contains the Reader's Guide which apparently replaces any attempt at serious footnotes, with its dense thematic and character indices. They're great, they really are, but I'm beginning to suspect that an Annotated Proust will become more and more necessary. There were sections of social dialogue that were essentially indecipherable to me, beyond what I could gleam from context. As a music lover, I was deeply amused by the constant musical reference, particularly in the older Mme de Cambremer and whether Debussy will eventually become "as passe as Massenet", but it's not enough to expect readers to look up the two musicians. Without an understanding of their place in the repertoire, provided by an annotation, the point - both comic and serious - is lost, and this is but one of hundreds of examples I have come across thus far. The decision, for instance, to render all house mottoes in the original French or Latin also creates problems for audiences of a generation who don't habitually learn these things in school. If this is a Reader's Edition, I would like it to be as readable as possible. All of which is to say, this is a wonderful translation - and in a few years, once I've regained my strength - I'll be sure to check in on one of the 21st century traditions beginning to make their presence known - but I think we need to slightly adjust our approach if the great novelists are to regain their appeal in this new iWorld.

So, people are ageing, dying, getting engaged, getting married, getting more and more bitter. I'm excited for whatever comes next for Marcel, Albertine, and those crazy kids as the 20th century begins.

"I must marry Albertine." ( )
  therebelprince | Nov 15, 2020 |
Con la sua consueta, elegante prosa, Proust ci conduce per mano a contemplar le mille sfaccettature dell'amore nelle sue molteplici espressioni. L'amore eterosessuale e quello omosessuale vengono quasi a intrecciarsi nel proprio esternarsi in un romanzo che vede l'eros al centro del proprio narrato. ( )
  Carlomascellani73 | Oct 30, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (44 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Proust, Marcelprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Berges, ConsueloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cornips, ThérèseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Enright, D. J.Translation revisionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kilmartin, TerenceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raboni, GiovanniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scott Moncrieff, C. K.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sturrock, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tuomikoski, InkeriTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Since the original, prewar translation there has been no completely new rendering of the French original into English. This translation brings to the fore a more sharply engaged, comic and lucid Proust. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME is one of the greatest, most enjoyable reading experiences in any language. As the great story unfolds from its magical opening scenes to its devastating end, it is the Penguin Proust that makes Proust accessible to a new generation. Each book is translated by a different, superb translator working under the general editorship of Professor Christopher Prendergast.

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