Proust's Way: Cities of the Plain (Parts 1&2) by Marcel Proust

Titled Sodome et Gomorrhe in French, this is the last volume of his work that Proust edited. (The remaining three were edited by his brother, Robert, after Proust's death in November 1922.) Proust was worried how the book's controversial subject would be received. In fact, it aroused precious little protest at the time. Rather, its straightforward depiction of homosexuality was all but ignored. The book opens with a short chapter originally appended to the end of The Guermantes Way. This brief introduction contains some of Proust's driest humour. He suggests at one point that God erred in appointing angels to sort out the homosexuals from the heterosexuals before killing all the deviants in the Cities of the Plain, because the angels would have been swayed by a man's protest that he was a father or had a mistress, whereas a Sodomite would know immediately whether he was lying or not. There follows a pseudo-scientific disquisition on the nature of homosexuality, with fanciful comparisons to the fertilization of flowers, and later a comparison of the outcast state of homosexuality with that of Judaism, though Proust never once gives away that his interests in either are personal. For a time, he seems to be flagging in inspiration as he parodies the same old social scene, and perhaps may have despaired of ever reaching the end of his story. In truth, he seems less intrigued by his subjects, less amused by their histrionics, while letting an ennui take over in place of social criticism. A return trip to Balbec recaptures some of the “ecstasy” of the place, as well as a return to his earlier writing. Here he finds the Faubourg Saint-Germain social life reconstituted in miniature, with the Verdurins hosting their inevitable salons attended by “the little clan” of followers and sycophants. The narrative sparks fully back to life only when the Baron de Charlus takes centre stage in his pursuit of the young violinist Charlie Morel. What Proust feared might outrage the critics of his day is seen as merely another instance of a “difficult” love match, mirroring that of Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy, Robert de Saint-Loup and Rachel, and the narrator and his various infatuations, the latest being that of Albertine Simonet. Part Two: Chapter Three concludes with a magical passage evoking the return journey by train of the little clan to their various places of residence. The writing here is reminiscent of the luminous endings of books one and two, and it caps the novel beautifully. Oddly, Proust appended a short but entirely unnecessary Chapter Four that seems to recant the previous passage. The writing is at times over the top, while the passage serves only to subvert the narrator's amusing but self-deluded declaration in the previous section that he will not marry Albertine.

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