Monday, November 15, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Four: Cities of the Plain, by Marcel Proust

I was expecting, since the more recent Modern Library version of this volume is entitled Sodom & Gomorrah rather than the innocuous Cities of the Plain, that this would be the book in which Marcel comes out. It's not. It is, however, the volume in which Marcel's eyes open to the existence of homosexuality, chiefly as expressed by the behavior of Baron de Charlus, my favorite Proustian character to date. Wide-eyed Marcel, in a lengthy passage about bees pollinating flowers that I would argue rivals the famed madeleine pages, witnesses through a key-hole of sorts, the Baron flirting and then copulating (I think—Proust is very subtle) with Marcel's lower-class neighbor Jupien. The remainder of the volume, following the Baron in his wooing of the working-class, devil-may-care violinist Charles Morel, elucidates Charlus' strange treatment of Marcel in the previous volume: his possessiveness, his tenderness, his raging midnight invective; for before desiring Morel, the Baron desired Marcel.

But our young Proust is busy with Albertine, chasing the vivacious brunette but pretending not to care, loving her so long as she appears out of his reach, tiring of hers when he has her full attention. The middle section of the book drags a bit, as the author returns to his tedious habits of the previous volume, cataloging conversations at parties, most of these now at the Verdurin's "Wednesdays," dinner salons with many of the same "faithful" that witnessed Swann wooing Odette so many volumes ago. Charlus, by way of Morel, somehow becomes one of the faithful, despite his disdain for this set, whose members aren't aware of his pedigree and fraternal relationship to the Gueremantes.

The "excitement" in the volume comes toward the very end: the juxtaposition between the final sentence of the third chapter—"The idea of marrying Albertine appeared to me to be madness." and the final sentence of the fourth, and of the volume: "I absolutely must—and let's settle the matter at once, because I'm quite clear about it now, because I won't change my mind again, because I couldn't live without it—I absolutely must marry Albertine." This sudden change of heart is inspired by Marcel's "discovery" that his earlier suspicions about Albertine's lesbianic tendencies are valid, this "fact" confirmed by Albertine's mentioning that one of her dearest friends, who was like a sister, like a mother to the orphan, is the very same girl that was the fragrant lesbian lover of the composer Vinteuil's daughter. Marcel, that masochist, tells us, "I who until then had never awakened without a smile at the humblest things, the bowl of coffee, the sound of the rain, the roar of the wind, felt that the day which in a moment was about to dawn, and all the days to come, would no longer bring me the hope of an unknown happiness, but only the prolongation of my agony. I still clung to life; but I knew that I had nothing now but bitterness to expect from it" (1155). Oh, Marcel—you do it to yourself.

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