In an early scene in Sodom and Gomorrah, the narrator is in a casino while on holiday in Balbec watching his on-again and off-again love Albertine dancing with one of her girlfriends. As he is watching the pair move around on the dance floor, an old acquaintance of his, Dr. Cottard, a distinguished physician and medical scholar, remarks to him about these women, “‘There now, look,’ he went on, pointing to Albertine and Andree who were waltzing slowly, tightly clasped together, ‘I’ve left my glasses behind and I can’t see very well, but they are certainly keenly aroused. It’s not sufficiently know that women derive most excitement through their breasts. And theirs, as you see, are touching completely.'”
It never fails to astonish me how relevant Proust’s writing still is in the 21st century. Issues of women’s health and sexuality are still misunderstood and considered taboo to discuss openly. Cottard’s remarks, which I found rather humorous, would just as likely be uttered and believed by someone today! And not only does the narrator himself accept Cottard’s remarks as true, but he is crazy with jealously in thinking that his beloved is having a sexual relationship with her friend.
As the title of Volume VI suggests, the sexual preferences of several characters are expounded upon at length, especially the escapades and conquests of the Baron de Charlus. Whole careers and volumes of books and articles have been dedicated to this topic. But, it seems to me at least, Proust’s exploration of gender is not mentioned in the secondary literature quite as much. One of the passages I found most astonishing for its relevance to current conversations about gender is that which describes the Baron when he entering a drawing room and greeting the mistress whose party he is attending:
…normally held in reserve, it was with a fluttering, mincing gait and the same sweep with which a skirt would have enlarged and impeded his waddling motion that he advanced upon Mme Verdurin with so flattered and honoured an air that one would have said that to be presented to her was for him a supreme favour. His face, bent slightly forward, on which satisfaction vied with decorum, was creased with tiny wrinkles of affability. One might have thought that it was Mme de Marsantes who was entering the room, so salient at that moment was the woman whom a mistake on the part of Nature had enshrined in the body of M. de Charlus. Of course the Baron had made every effort to conceal this mistake and to assume a masculine appearance. But no sooner had he succeeded than, having meanwhile retained the same tastes, he acquired from this habit of feeling like a woman a new feminine appearance, due not to heredity but to his own way of living.
And at a different party given by the Princess de Guermantes, it is the wife of an ambassador whose gender is questioned:
It was said at the Ministry, without any suggestion of malice, that in their household it was the husband who wore the petticoats and the wife the trousers. Now there was more truth in this than was supposed. Mme de Vaugoubert really was a man. Whether she had always been one, or had grown to be as I now saw her, matters little, for in either case we are face with one of the most touching miracles of nature which, in the latter alternative especially, makes the human kingdom resemble the kingdom of flowers. On the former hypothesis—if the future Mme de Vaugoubert had always been so heavily mannish—nature, by a fiendish and beneficent ruse, bestows on the girl the deceptive aspect of a man. And the youth who has no love for women and is seeking to be cured greets with joy this subterfuge of discovering a bride who reminds him of a market porter.
Until very recently gender identity has been misunderstood and rarely discussed. I found it quite astonishing to find these relevant passages in Proust.