Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust were near contemporaries. Wilde was about a half generation older than Proust, but the precocious young Proust entered high society and the literary salons as a teen. Their social worlds overlapped and they had friends in common. Both Wilde and Proust made their first literary marks as exponents of John Ruskin. And, by the time Proust began writing In Search of Lost Time, Proust had seen Wilde, at the peak of his dizzying successes in British society, denounced, imprisoned, ruined, exiled and dead—a martyr to vehement homophobia. No wonder when Andre Gide challenged Proust on the circuitous way Proust was depicting homosexuality in his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Proust replied, “One can write anything as long one does not write I.”
Proust associates Sodom with male homosexuality and Gomorrah with lesbian affairs. Baron Charlus, a wealthy, socially eminent aristocrat courts Morel, a beautiful, ambitious young musician, much as his heterosexual peers court pretty young actresses, with gifts and promises of future fame. Over time, as the Baron ages, his pursuit becomes grotesque. This affair is mirrored in the young Narrator’s/Marcel’s obsessive pursuit of the even younger Albertine, one of the gang of young girls we met in In Search of Lost Time: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. The Narrator suspects that the object of his love is conducting secret lesbian trysts even as he tries to be more and more in control of her life and emotions.
Proust was subject to debilitating asthma, but suffered less in the fresh air of the coast. The action of Sodom and Gomorrah takes place on the coast of Normandy, mirroring a happy interlude in Proust’s life when he was young, exploring the coast of Brittany with the beautiful musician Reynaldo Hahn. In Sodom and Gomorrah the Narrator and Albertine explore the coast of Normandy sitting in the back of a motorcar he has hired, a novelty at the time. They attend the literary salons of Parisians summering in manor houses along the Normandy coast, the wealthy bourgeois and the aristocrats blending but understanding one another not at all.
It is said that the character of Albertine is based on Proust’s close relationship with his driver. Even as the reader unwinds Proust’s brilliant, lengthy sentences, one re-interprets the male-female relationship of the Narrator/Marcel with Albertine as male-male, Albertine/Albert, as it were, yet another layer of complexity.
One thing is quite clear, though. Proust regarded the life of the aging gay man with dread. As with the heterosexual demi-monde Proust depicts in many ways, the old and wealthy pursue the young and beautiful to their own ruin.