Secret Societies and Hidden Selves - Marcel Proust’s ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.
Marcel Proust starts his novel ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ with a shock, and end it with a miracle.
The shock is that the narrator Marcel (who is not exactly the same person as Proust the writer) discovers a secret society.
The modern sense that everyone belongs to a secret society, moves in multiple social circles which have little or not relation to one another, and everyone keeps secrets, is the great theme of the twentieth century novel. From the very public novels of Dickens and Eliott, from novels like Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoys where every shame is made public eventually, we pass into an altogether more mysterious social sphere with ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.
Or perhaps the notion of social spheres is useless now, and we pass into networks of social information, personal meaning shared or withheld. Whatever the case for the change in social relations in the early twentieth century, Proust is onto it in ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.
The shocking hidden world of the homosexual forces young Marcel to revise everything he has learnt about the world. Everybody is scrutinized and re-scrutinized, the past is revisited again and again in the light of the new data. The shock awakens Marcel to his own mixed and hidden motives towards others. Marcel considers why and how he keeps secrets, and ruthlessly notes how others fail to keep their secrets. The shock of that discovery reverberates through the novel.
The miracle of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ is that Marcel imperceptibly adapts to the new reality, and carries us with him into a radical new perspective of human relationships. (A perspective which, we will learn in ‘The Prisoner’, the next novel on, is not without its risks).
The miracle of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ is that in order to read it I must be willing to be changed. And I must be willing to accept change in and of itself, with or without meaning or purpose or even conscious awareness. I must be willing, if I am to read this book, to see the world in a radically different way from the simple, realistic narrative approach which Proust takes in ‘The Way By Swann’s’.
‘Swann’s’ is a realistic and naturalistic French novel in many respects – at least in the Swann and Odette sequence anyway – and ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ tells a story with a sophisticated perspectivism which is at once a miraculous liberation from realism, and at the same time gives a heightened sense of actual felt experience in the moment and a far greater intimacy with Marcel’s voice. I feel like Marcel is whispering in my ear; as if I share his private inner space. And that space is sacred ground.
You know, it’s funny to call Marcel Proust a wisdom writer in the same way you might a nineteenth century writer. I’m thinking of George Eliot here, who takes pains to point out the moral with the utmost seriousness. In Proust the wisdom is thoroughly assimilated into the story itself. It’s not that Proust is not aphoristic or inclined to moralize – it’s more that even the bitterest moralism is subordinate to the exquisite lightness and eccentricity of tone, which makes Marcel’s voice so hilarious throughout.
For the first time in wisdom literature, for Proust the tone of voice IS the moral of the story.