Earlier this year, there was a short piece in The Atlantic where an author talked about parties in literature and how difficult they are to make interesting. While I don’t necessarily agree with that (Great Gatsby, anyone?), it did make me think how awesome Proust’s parties are.
Obviously, I don’t mean the parties that Proust threw, but the gatherings, salons, and soirees of Remembrance of Things Past. In that respect, Cities of the Plain is the best yet. The narrator and author stand-in is well ensconced as a member of high society and much sought after for his apparent charm and delightful conversation (though, because the book is so interior, focusing on the narrator’s external thoughts, and at the same time so exterior, minutely describing others and the milieu, that we rarely see much of what so appeals to society, though we can clearly see his perspicacious intelligence), so much of the novel takes place in the finest gatherings of old money. It’s all the more interesting, because I would probably be bored to tears at an actual such gathering.
The French title for this novel is actually Sodome et Gomorrhe. The first city is used as a metaphor/codeword for male homosexuality and the later for female homosexuality. Along with parties, these are the other topics that absorb the narrator. He secretly observes the grotesque, pathetic, aristocratic, mercurial, and proud Baron de Charlus (a fairly major character) initiate an encounter with tradesman. Later, he observes the pains that Charlus suffers for his younger, lower class lover (also a talented violinist). The narrator himself is filled with suffering at the thought that his mistress, Albertine, could be secretly ‘gomorrhic,’ which is to say, lesbian or bisexual. The book even ends with his decision to marry her for almost the sole purpose to make sure she doesn’t sleep with a woman (the next book is called The Captive or La Prisonnière, so you can guess what lengths of surveillance were required to reassure himself that she wasn’t sneaking off to hook up with a young lady). In these days of lesbian porn, it is almost amusing the thought of being made so miserable and dejected at the though that she might once have been with woman (she is clearly also interested in men and enjoys relations with them). Of course, underneath all this is whatever conflicts and shames Proust might have felt around his own homosexuality, which is also what makes these passages so tragic and sad.