In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah (Modern Library Series)by Marcel Proust, C. K. Moncrieff, Richard Howard
Sodom and Gomorrah opens a new phase of In Search of Lost Time. While watching the pollination of the Duchess de Guer-mantes’s orchid, the narrator secretly observes a sexual encounter between two men. “Flower and plant have no conscious will,” Samuel Beckett wrote of Proust’s representation of sexuality. “They are/i>/i>
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Sodom and Gomorrah opens a new phase of In Search of Lost Time. While watching the pollination of the Duchess de Guer-mantes’s orchid, the narrator secretly observes a sexual encounter between two men. “Flower and plant have no conscious will,” Samuel Beckett wrote of Proust’s representation of sexuality. “They are shameless, exposing their genitals. And so in a sense are Proust’s men and women . . . shameless. There is no question of right and wrong.”
For this authoritative English-language edition, D. J. Enright has revised the late Terence Kilmartin’s acclaimed reworking of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation to take into account the new definitive French editions of Á la recherché du temps perdu (the final volume of these new editions was published by the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade in 1989).
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The reader will remember that, well before going that day (the day on which the Princesse de Guermantes's reception was to be held) to pay the Duke and Duchess the visit I have just described, I had kept watch for their return and in the course of my vigil had made a discovery which concerned M. de Charlus in particular but was in itself so important that I have until now, until the moment when I could give it the prominence and treat it with the fullness that it demanded, postponed giving an account of it. I had, as I have said, left the marvellous point of vantage, so snugly contrived at the top of the house, commanding the hilly slopes which led up to the Hotel de Brequigny, and which were gaily decorated in the Italian manner by the rose-pink campanile of the Marquis de Frecourt's coach-house. I had thought it more practical, when I suspected that the Duke and Duchess were on the point of returning, to post myself on the staircase. I rather missed my Alpine eyrie. But at that time of day, namely the hour immediately after lunch, I had less cause for regret, for I should not then have seen, as in the morning, the footmen of the Brequigny household, converted by distance into minute figures in a picture, make their leisurely ascent of the steep hillside, feather-brush in hand, behind the large, transparent flakes of mica which stood out so pleasingly upon its ruddy bastions. Failing the geologist's field of contemplation, I had at least that of the botanist, and was peering through the shutters of the staircase window at the Duchess's little shrub and at the precious plant, exposed in the courtyard with that assertiveness with which mothers 'bring out' their marriageable offspring,and asking myself whether the unlikely insect would come, by a providential hazard, to visit the offered and neglected pistil. My curiosity emboldening me by degrees, I went down to the ground-floor window, which also stood open with its shutters ajar. I could distinctly hear Jupien getting ready to go out, but he could not detect me behind my blind, where I stood perfectly still until the moment when I drew quickly aside in order not to be seen by M. de Charlus, who, on his way to call upon Mme de Villeparisis, was slowly crossing the courtyard, corpulent, greying, aged by the strong light. Nothing short of an indisposition from which Mme de Villeparisis might be suffering (consequent on the illness of the Marquis de Fierbois, with whom he personally was at daggers drawn) could have made M. de Charlus pay a call, perhaps for the first time in his life, at that hour of the day. For with that eccentricity of the Guermantes, who, instead of conforming to the ways of society, tended to modify them to suit their own personal habits (habits not, they thought, social, and deserving in consequence the abasement before them of that worthless thing, society life&mdashthus it was that Mme de Marsantes had no regular 'day,' but was at home to her friends every morning between ten o'clock and noon), the Baron, reserving those hours for reading, hunting for old curios and so forth, paid calls only between four and six in the evening. At six o'clock he went to the Jockey Club, or took a stroll in the Bois. A moment later, I again recoiled, in order not to be seen by Jupien. It was nearly time for him to set out for the office, from which he would return only for dinner, and not always even then during the last week since his niece and her apprentices had gone to the country to finish a dress for a customer. Then, realising that no one could see me, I decided not to let myself be disturbed again for fear of missing, should the miracle be fated to occur, the arrival, almost beyond the possibility of hope (across so many obstacles of distance, of adverse risks, of dangers), of the insect sent from so far away as ambassador to the virgin who had been waiting for so long. I knew that this expectancy was no more passive than in the male flower, whose stamens had spontaneously curved so that the insect might more easily receive their offering; similarly the female flower that stood here would coquettishly arch her 'styles' if the insect came, and, to be more effectively penetrated by him, would imperceptibly advance, like a hypocritical but ardent damsel, to meet him half-way. The laws of the vegetable kingdom are themselves governed by increasingly higher laws. If the visit of an insect, that is to say the transportation of the seed from another flower, is generally necessary for the fertilisation of a flower, that is because self-fertilisation, the insemination of a flower by itself, would lead, like a succession of intermarriages in the same family, to degeneracy and sterility, whereas the crossing effected by insects gives to the subsequent generations of the same species a vigour unknown to their forebears. This invigoration may, however, prove excessive, and the species develop out of all proportion; then, as an antitoxin protects us against disease, as the thyroid gland regulates our adiposity, as defeat comes to punish pride, as fatigue follows indulgence, and as sleep in turn brings rest from fatigue, so an exceptional act of self-fertilisation comes at the crucial moment to apply its turn of the screw, its pull on the curb, brings back within the norm the flower that has exaggeratedly overstepped it. My reflexions had followed a trend which I shall describe in due course, and I had already drawn from the visible stratagems of flowers a conclusion that bore upon a whole unconscious element of literary production, when I saw M. de Charlus coming away from the Marquise's door. Only a few minutes had passed since his entry. Perhaps he had learned from his elderly relative herself, or merely from a servant, of a great improvement in her condition, or rather her complete recovery from what had been nothing more than a slight indisposition. At this moment, when he did not suspect that anyone was watching him, his eyelids lowered as a screen against the sun, M. de Charlus had relaxed that artificial tension, softened that artificial vigour in his face which were ordinarily sustained by the animation of his talk and the force of his will. Pale as a marble statue, his fine features with the prominent nose no longer received from an expression deliberately assumed a different meaning which altered the beauty of their contours; no more now than a Guermantes, he seemed already carved in stone, he, Palamede XV, in the chapel at Combray. These general features of a whole family took on, however, in the face of M. de Charlus a more spiritualised, above all a softer refinement. I regretted for his sake that he should habitually adulterate with so many violent outbursts, offensive eccentricities, calumnies, with such harshness, touchiness and arrogance, that he should conceal beneath a spurious brutality the amenity, the kindness which, as he emerged from Mme de Villeparisis's, I saw so innocently displayed upon his face. Blinking his eyes in the sunlight, he seemed almost to be smiling, and I found in his face seen thus in repose and as it were in its natural state something so affectionate, so defenceless, that I could not help thinking how angry M. de Charlus would have been could he have known that he was being watched; for what was suggested to me by the sight of this man who was so enamoured of, who so prided himself upon, his virility, to whom all other men seemed odiously effeminate, what he suddenly suggested to me, to such an extent had he momentarily assumed the features, the expression, the smile thereof, was a woman.
I was about to change my position again, so that he should not catch sight of me; I had neither the time nor the need to do so. For what did I see! Face to face, in that courtyard where they had certainly never met before (M. de Charlus coming to the Hotel de Guermantes only in the afternoon, during the time when Jupien was at his office), the Baron, having suddenly opened wide his half-shut eyes, was gazing with extraordinary attentiveness at the ex-tailor poised on the threshold of his shop, while the latter, rooted suddenly to the spot in front of M. de Charlus, implanted there like a tree, contemplated with a look of wonderment the plump form of the ageing Baron. But, more astounding still, M. de Charlus's pose having altered, Jupien's, as though in obedience to the laws of an occult art, at once brought itself into harmony with it. The Baron, who now sought to disguise the impression that had been made on him, and yet, in spite of his affectation of indifference, seemed unable to move away without regret, came and went, looked vaguely into the distance in the way which he felt would most enhance the beauty of his eyes, assumed a smug, nonchalant, fatuous air. Meanwhile Jupien, shedding at once the humble, kindly expression which I had always associated with him, had--in perfect symmetry with the Baron--thrown back his head, given a becoming tilt to his body, placed his hand with grotesque effrontery on his hip, stuck out his behind, struck poses with the coquetry that the orchid might have adopted on the providential arrival of the bee. I had not supposed that he could look so unappealing. But I was equally unaware that he was capable of improvising his part in this sort of dumb show which (although he found himself for the first time in the presence of M. de Charlus) seemed to have been long and carefully rehearsed; one does not arrive spontaneously at that pitch of perfection except when one meets abroad a compatriot with whom an understanding then develops of itself, the means of communication being the same, even without having seen each other before.
This scene was not, however, positively comic; it was stamped with a strangeness, or if you like a naturalness, the beauty of which steadily increased. Try as M. de Charlus might to assume a detached air, to let his eyelids nonchalantly droop, every now and then he raised them, and at such moments turned on Jupien an attentive gaze. But (doubtless because he felt that such a scene could not be prolonged indefinitely in this place, whether for reasons which we shall understand later on, or possibly from that feeling of the brevity of all things which makes us determine that every blow must strike home, and renders so moving the spectacle of every kind of love), each time that M. de Charlus looked at Jupien, he took care that his glance should be accompanied by a word, which made it infinitely unlike the glances we usually direct at a person whom we scarcely know or do not know at all; he stared at Jupien with the peculiar fixity of the person who is about to say to you: 'Excuse my taking the liberty, but you have a long white thread hanging down your back,' or else: 'Surely I can't be mistaken, you come from Zurich too; I'm certain I must have seen you there often at the antique dealer's.' Thus, every other minute, the same question seemed to be put to Jupien intently in M. de Charlus's ogling, like those questioning phrases of Beethoven's, indefinitely repeated at regular intervals and intended--with an exaggerated lavishness of preparation--to introduce a new theme, a change of key, a 're-entry.' On the other hand, the beauty of the reciprocal glances of M. de Charlus and Jupien arose precisely from the fact that they did not, for the moment at least, seem to be intended to lead to anything further. It was the first time I had seen the manifestation of this beauty in the Baron and Jupien. In the eyes of both of them, it was the sky not of Zurich but of some oriental city, the name of which I had not yet divined, that I saw reflected. Whatever the point might be that held M. de Charlus and the ex-tailor thus arrested, their pact seemed concluded and these superfluous glances to be but ritual preliminaries, like the parties people give before a marriage which has been definitely arranged. Nearer still to nature--and the multiplicity of these analogies is itself all the more natural in that the same man, if we examine him for a few minutes, appears in turn a man, a man-bird, a man-insect, and so forth--one might have thought of them as a pair of birds, the male and the female, the male seeking to advance, the female--Jupien--no longer giving any sign of response to this stratagem, but regarding her new friend without surprise, with an inattentive fixity of gaze, doubtless considered more disturbing and the sole practicality now that the male had taken the first steps, and contenting herself with preening her feathers. At length Jupien's indifference seemed to suffice him no longer; from the certainty of having conquered to getting himself pursued and desired was but a step, and Jupien, deciding to go off to his work, went out through the carriage gate. It was only, however, after turning his head two or three times that he disappeared into the street, towards which the Baron, trembling lest he should lose the trail (boldly humming a tune, and not forgetting to fling a 'Good-day' to the porter, who, half-tipsy and engaged in treating a few friends in his back kitchen, did not even hear him), hurried briskly to catch up with him. At the same instant as M. de Charlus disappeared through the gate humming like a great bumble-bee, another, a real one this time, flew into the courtyard. For all I knew this might be the one so long awaited by the orchid, coming to bring it that rare pollen without which it must remain a virgin. But I was distracted from following the gyrations of the insect, for, a few minutes later, engaging my attention afresh, Jupien (perhaps to pick up a parcel which he did take away with him ultimately and which, in the emotion aroused in him by the appearance of M. de Charlus, he had forgotten, perhaps simply for a more natural reason) returned, followed by the Baron. The latter, deciding to precipitate matters, asked the tailor for a light, but at once observed: 'I ask you for a light, but I see I've left my cigars at home.' The laws of hospitality prevailed over the rules of coquetry. 'Come inside, you shall have everything you wish,' said the tailor, on whose features disdain now gave place to joy. The door of the shop closed behind them and I could hear no more. I had lost sight of the bumblebee. I did not know whether he was the insect that the orchid required, but I had no longer any doubt, in the case of a very rare insect and a captive flower, of the miraculous possibility of their conjunction when I considered that M. de Charlus (this is simply a comparison of providential chances, whatever they may be, without the slightest scientific claim to establish a relation between certain botanical laws and what is sometimes, most ineptly, termed homosexuality), who for years past had never come to the house except at hours when Jupien was not there, had, by the mere accident of Mme de Villeparisis's indisposition, encountered the tailor and with him the good fortune reserved for men of the Baron's kind by one of those fellow-creatures who may even be, as we shall see, infinitely younger than Jupien and better-looking, the man predestined to exist in order that they may have their share of sensual pleasure on this earth: the man who cares only for elderly gentlemen.
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Meet the Author
- Date of Birth:
- July 10, 1871
- Date of Death:
- November 18, 1922
- Place of Birth:
- Auteuil, near Paris, France
- Place of Death:
- Paris, France
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