For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when are are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
It is easy to get lost in Proust. He writes sentences so long and lush that you have to come up for air halfway through. His narrator’s imagination is so tangled and intricate that just a page over, you can easily forget what he started talking about in the first place. Often, the conversations are rendered in such a way that you feel like you were dropped in the middle of a party, with no reference to what anyone is discussing; you’re the loner at the cool kids’ table. And the absence of any linear plot whatsoever is just another bump in the road for your tired brain.
So, why do I keep reading this monstrosity? (This is my fourth year of reading a volume of In Search of Lost Time during the summer; I read Sodom and Gomorrah while we celebrated our first anniversary at the beach, and while it didn’t exactly make for easy beach reading, its depth and thickness filled up my long, lazy days.) Quite simply, I keep returning because I haven’t found any other author who can expand my mind like Proust can. He forces you to think differently about people, to give them the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it, and to observe every wink, every movement, every quip, believing that they are small windows into the depths of the human heart.
It is fruitless to try to describe the narrative flow of this story, but on the most basic level, it is a bildungsroman, perhaps more obviously than the other volumes are. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the shades are finally drawn from our young narrator’s eyes. The book begins with a scandalously voyeuristic vignette, in which we find the narrator spying on the Baron de Charlus and his tailor, Jupien, while they make love in a courtyard. More than ever before, Proust allows his narrator to explore the period’s complex social relationship with homosexuality, which permits the upper class to both ignore and flaunt gayness to varying degrees, and to examine his own sexual identity. While the narrator continues to pout, flop around, and toy with the emotions of his girlfriend, Albertine, there is an awakening in his consciousness that we have not seen before.
Alongside these personal revelations, the narrator is also realizing that the upper class, the people he has so desperately tried to join, are not as glorious as he once thought them. He recognizes the polite film wrapped around their coded, hierarchical speech:
I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.
The affected personas and artificial bearings of the rich come clear to him; their displays of noblesse oblige no longer charm him. Around these epiphanies, the narrator’s beloved grandmother dies, he attempts to get engaged to his girlfriend, friends betray him, and the entire upper-class is seemingly engaged in the Dreyfus Affair. It may sound like a lot of action, but Proust is capable enough to draw out all these events into a dull roar, blurring time so that our narrator’s psyche may step out in front.
In Sodom and Gomorrah, we find a narrator thoroughly possessed by his Author, who pulls the strings to move him toward adult development and social aptitude. Proust uses all of his tricks here. No character can escape his all-seeing, all-knowing eye. On a practical level, I took more pleasure from this than I did from The Guermantes Way, the previous volume. Now we find the narrator more completely realized, more in possession of his own thoughts and motives. He is still petulant and spoiled, still too conscious of rank at times, but he is a few steps closer to the goal of wholeness and contentment.
As with the others, it is a beautiful, tangled, and complicated novel, but it is worth every meticulous word.