Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 1, 2010

Sodom and Gomorrah

S&Gby Marcel Proust
translated by John Sturrock

When I first started reading In Search of Lost Time, a friend of mine told me about a reading plan he had concocted which made it possible to read the entire thing in 10 weeks. It broke down to around 300 pages a week I believe, which at the time I thought was quite doable. I can easily read 300 pages of an average book in a couple of days if not hours, depending on the circumstance. However, after spending increasingly longer periods of time working through the first three volumes last year (four MONTHS on the third), I became convinced that it was utterly impossible to read 300 pages of Marcel Proust’s dense, detailed prose in the space of a week.

When I last posted an update about my expansive April reading plans, I claimed (I hoped!) that I had only 200 pages of S&G left to read in the remaining three days of the month. As you can perhaps guess by now, I had exactly 300. This was on Wednesday.

This morning, Saturday the 1st of May, I can report that I was wrong. It IS possible to read 300 pages of Proust in a week! I have been focused in the last few days as I have rarely been before, and this morning when I closed the book, having finished the last 50 pages, it was with a feeling of intense pleasure mixed of course with a great deal of contented relief.

And so, since mental fatigue is clawing at the corners of my mind (and I really want to get in on the discussion about Life a User’s Manuel that is fascinating my blogging circle!), only a brief bit about the book:

This fourth volume was initially my least favorite of the batch. I had trouble getting into it, and found the sudden expansive discussion of “invertedness” and the fixation on the sexual orientations and activities of the main characters somewhat jarring. And yet amusing. Overall, this was one of the more entertaining episodes, and I found myself laughing out loud often, even while feeling mildly miffed over Proust’s…careful, I guess…way of talking about homosexuality, as well as the racial and social prejudices of the time. “Of the time” is the essential thing to remember for me when approaching this piece of work, which features a time and place that is so hard for me to comprehend. Having already laid out the more obvious examples of how the social scramble worked in The Guermantes Way, in this volume Proust examines some of the more intimate and sensitive aspects of how these social standards apply to family members and friends whose politics or lifestyles go against the norm. Interesting stuff.

Marcel, in this book, continues to frustrate and amuse me. His love life has always been of mild interest to me comparatively, especially since I find his pettiness and jealousies tiresome, and his manipulation of the women around him down right beastly sometimes. I don’t know what people see in him! But his insights into the people that surround him, and Proust’s commentary through him on how we (still!) interact with each other, especially in social settings, continue to fascinate me. Some of the passages about the lovely Balbec countryside reminded me of parts that I LOVED in the first book – I wish he had spoken a little more about that, instead of going off into lengthy explanations of the roots of the place-names in the area…!

So overall quite enjoyable and the last few days, which have been overwhelmed by Proust, have been quite rewarding. I don’t intend to make a habit of reading Proust in 100 pages a day chunks, but it is worth learning that spending a little more focused time with him, and getting REALLY caught up in his language, can be very pleasant.

On a final finicky note, is anyone else as annoyed as I that the last two volumes in the new Penguin translations project aren’t available in the states? I have the first four in their pretty Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, but I’m going to have to get the rest in the British edition – which are lovely! But they don’t match…. 😦 Really, really silly. But I know a lot of you will understand!

For much more insightful and interesting thoughts about this book, please check out Frances, Richard, and Claire’s wonderful posts. 🙂


  1. So far Marcel amuses me more than he frustrates me, Sarah, I think because I see him inflicting wounds on himself more than on others (even with Albertine, whom I’m not sure I trust any more than Marcel anyway). By this I mean that even when he is rude to his friends, he often seems to do just as much harm to himself in the process. Which is not an excuse for poor behavior, of course! Didn’t hear about the incomplete Penguin run until recently, but yes, that’s super annoying! Heard something about permission squabbles, if I remember correctly. Ugg.

    • Yeah, I think it’s a copyright issue – the last three volumes don’t enter the public domain for a few more years, or some nonsense. Anyway, I think you’re view of Marcel is correct and I definitely see it that way too. My frustration level is balanced by the amusement, which is why I keep reading I suppose…!

  2. I should do what you just did, Sarah! I haven’t picked it up since leaving off to read Perec. As for Marcel, I really don’t mind his pettiness and jealousies.. I love him for it, in fact!

    And the incomplete set.. oh no! I have been reading the UK Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright so my set is matching, but I feel for you so, girl.

    • Haha, I knew you would understand my matching set issues! And I recommend the experience of reading Proust in a massive chunk, if you can muster up the energy. It’s fun!

  3. “His love life has always been of mild interest to me comparatively, especially since I find his pettiness and jealousies tiresome, and his manipulation of the women around him down right beastly sometimes.”

    Whu-oh, you are in for a long haul with the remaining books, if that’s the case! His tortured & jealous love-life is definitely the focus in Books 5-7. Personally, while I definitely understand your frustration, I guess he doesn’t bother me as much because I get the feeling that Proust the author understands what a tool Marcel the character is being, but it just fascinated with the mental processes that make humans act that way to one another…which interests me, too! 🙂

    • Whu-oh indeed! While I don’t retract my statement, I do definitely find Marcel’s whole process fascinating, and I am fond of him in spite of how maddening he is. Perhaps he annoys me so much because I care so much about him? I can’t say that I am looking forward to more from his tortured soul, but I signed up for it and I certainly won’t give up on him now! 🙂

  4. Love Emily calling Marcel a “tool” here. One of my favorite words of insult. Use it as frequently as “rat bastard.” But that’s not the point, is it?

    Have to say that I love Marcel too. The way Proust has written him – so perceptive when it comes to others and yet so often engaged in self-deception – leaves me laughing more than shaking my head. It is that knowing wink from Proust that allows me to tolerate his occasionally intolerable behavior. If that makes any sense.

    In terms of sexual orientation in this one, the small first section and it’s outline of the precarious social and legal position of inverts, conveyed so passionately in the author’s voice, put the rest of the novels antics/machinations in a different light for me than if they had existed alone without that first piece.

    Loved this one but have been told that Volume 5 (end of August for us) is a low point. Hope that is not the case. Thanks for the mad dash to catch up. You rock!

    • That first section initially put me off, because I wasn’t sure how to take it. But I came around to your point of view pretty quick, and found the whole book quite fascinating in that regard. And everyone’s comments here have caused me to rethink exactly what I think about Marcel. I’ve now established that I care about him as I would an annoying younger brother. I’d like to knock some sense into his head, but ultimately I love him for who he is…

  5. The Captive as the low point? To me, it’s all up up up after The Guermantes Way.

    By the way, I know for a fact that it is possible to read the whole thing in four weeks. I don’t recommend it, though.

    • Holy. Freaking. Crap. 4 weeks? That’s astounding – that’s, what…750 pages a week? I read right around 100 pages a day for the last chunk of S&G, so you must have done that for…gulp…28 days in a row…??!! *bows before the insane awesomeness*

      The Guermantes Way definitely dragged the most for me. I’m optimistic about the remaining volumes.

      • I read Proust in the month between undergraduate and graduate school. Nothing else was going on. Some days, I just read, read, read, 200 or 300 pages of Proust.

        Like I said, I do not recommend it. It checked Proust off the list, but who knos what I remembered or understood. I remembered Marcel and the hawthorn!

        My current pace is a little more leisurely – a volume every couple of years. The Fugitive is up next.

  6. […] I finished Sodom and Gomorrah in May, I proclaimed that Marcel and his love life annoyed me. I was informed that if this was the case, I was in for a […]

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