I woke this morning and instinctively reached for the volume of “Cities of the Plain” that lay next to my bed. I’d had a restless, dreamless sleep and was in need of the comfort which Proust has come to provide.
The narrator has returned to Balbec and in his room at the Grand Hotel bends down to untie his boots and is struck suddenly by the reality of his grandmother’s death. More properly he is revisited by his true grandmother, or can now fully recollect her being, as opposed to the imaginary thing she has become since returning to the earth; the dead are alive in the living once again; the living are left bereft, sorrowful, perplexed at how this can be.
And just then, at the very moment I read this passage, something returned for me: I had in fact dreamt, and the visions of it came swelling back up in my conscious mind, and Proust had been in my dream:
I’m in Germany and am attending a lecture on Proust. What is being said is academic and unenlightening and I am more interested in the numerous pretty women that make up the audience, each one as bright and distinctive as the next. I can make out their individual features so clearly; they seem more than real to me and I feel a profound desire for them all. Meanwhile, my anger at the lecturer’s lack of insight into Proust is increasing. I want to shout out “it’s all about gay sex”. Eventually, I do shout this out, but the words are not heeded and the lecture room dissolves and falls away. All of a sudden I am with my father; the usual antipathy between us when we meet in dreams is present. We are driving along Kastanienallee; we stop somewhere to eat, but I pay him scant attention, I want him to go away, for I am thinking only about the pretty women who have somehow followed me into the streets and cafes of Berlin.
There were supposedly five “cities of the plain”, including Sodom and Gomorrah, synonymous with impenitent sin and destroyed by God. The opening of this volume (in French “Sodome et Gomorrhe”) sees the narrator witness a liaison between the Baron de Charlus and the tailor Jupien, which gives us an insight into the former’s sexuality, but also reveals something telling about the genius of Proust’s method: for the Baron has been previoulsy known to us only through the rumours, half-truths and misinformation perpetuated by other characters and through occasional first-hand glimpses; Proust builds a portrait of Charlus as an inveterate womaniser, only to confound us at this point, which makes the impact of the revelation that much more intriguing, but also tells us that in our interactions with others perspectivism reigns, our knowledge is based upon myriad overlapping narratives, and that the truth of human character remains elusive.
The invocation of Sodomite lineage may sit uneasily with the modern reader, but one of Proust’s intentions is to mark the all-too-real pariah status accorded to homosexuality during the period. The transposition of his own attraction to men into the narrator’s attraction to women should not always be taken literally, and Proust’s own relationship to his homosexuality was never entirely straightforward, but the Recherche remains one of the seminal books about gay love, desire and sex.
Edmund White is one of the best of Proust’s biographers on the nature of his sexuality and points to the combination of the sacred with the profane, which we see writ large in the novel. The suggestion that the episode where Vinteuil’s photo is desecrated during the foreplay of his daughter with her girlfriend might be drawn from Proust’s own predilections provides an insight into the complex world of Proustian psychosexuality.
It’s the classic dual strands of sex and death that grease the wheels of the Recherche; the narrator’s epiphany about his grandmother comes in the same volume as his growing closeness to Albertine, as the ubiquity of “inverted” sexuality is described, and as the revelations about Charlus unfold.
Sex as a physical, material act in which the loss of self can be temporarily realised approaches the metaphysical mysteries dreams hint at and death conceals; both the dead and the objects of our desire meet us regularly in our dreams. Proust’s aim is to uncover the numinous in material reality and part of his methodology is to test the power of profanity against the power of what is held sacred.
If dreams might be said to represent involuntary attempts to uncover psychic truths, then in them this same contest is held night after night; how often do we find that conventional wisdom and the strictures of patriarchy come to nothing when tested against the attractions to be found in the shadow of budding groves? In the same breath we might say the unconscious mind acts as a haven for the dead – a place where desire and death clash, call it what you will: Sodom, Gomorrah, Paris… Berlin.