Sorel's Way

She died in her apartment just five doors down from the 9th precinct— murdered. A loner and, perhaps, one of the last Bohemians

"Two years ago the residents of the building put a petition together to get her out of the building, mostly because she played music loudly late at night. She had a wall-pounding battle with the guy next door and the guy below."

Another old friend, Albert Mobilio, also mentioned the petition, saying "She'd be playing Poulenc at 3 a.m. because she was up. You wouldn't have to be that much of a prig to not like her living next to you. She could easily have been the kind of person that you would have a silent, passive-aggressive war with in the hallway.

"She had her Nellie Melba records and her opera and those were the things that were important to her. She regarded most people warily. Like Wallace Stevens said: 'Only mental things are real.' She was one of those people for whom that was true. And there is a way in which you have to be a bit crazy for that to be the case. She was a bit extreme, to put it mildly."

Detail from Marcella S. Nelson's cover illustration for Sorel in Love, a self-published memoir
Portrait of Sorel by Marcella S. Nelson, oil on canvas, 1984
Detail from Marcella S. Nelson's cover illustration for Sorel in Love, a self-published memoir

By way of explaining her lack of ability to compromise or interact peaceably with those around her, all of Sorel's friends, most of whom had broken off relations with her and hadn't seen her for years, told the story of her self- published work, a novel entitled Sorel in Love. Modeled after her favorite writer Marcel Proust's "Swann in Love," Sorel in Love is a deeply introspective work about an obsessive lesbian love affair.

In the late '80s, Sorel managed to capture the interest of a prominent literary agent, Charlotte Sheedy. Today Sheedy remembers the novel as "brilliant and Proustian— a memoir that was a novel in the way that In Search of Lost Time was a novel." Sheedy says she couldn't sell the work as it was, and recalls asking Sorel to make modest revisions to the manuscript. Sorel refused, and that ended their professional relationship. "She was difficult," said Sheedy.

"The thing that bummed her out the most was being marketed as a lesbian novelist," said Mobilio about the incident. "She didn't want to be known as such. She didn't want to be categorized that way. She blew the deal with the agent over it. She felt that people didn't refer to Violet le Duc and Proust as gay novelists, after all, so why refer to her that way?"

"She wanted to be a good writer and a famous writer," said a female friend who did not wish to be identified. "I think she saw herself as a kind of Genet type."

In light of what we know about the crime scene, however, what is most striking about Sorel in Love is not its dense, probing lyricism, but rather its chillingly accurate foretelling of the circumstances surrounding Sorel's death. In the following passage Sorel is describing the transformative power of her feelings of sexual desire, but she may as well be narrating what it was like to be in her apartment in the last two weeks.

She takes hold of one tiny leg and spins me around on my back, I spin around on the bed like a top, until I black out. I faint away in a delirium of fear and embarrassment and when I awake . . . I have become a starfish, a creature no longer human, a loathsome disgusting thing. I appear mysteriously metamorphosized, somehow, on a beach just out of reach of the water. . . . The sun beats down unmercifully, drying me out, my once viscous arms, now brittle and painfully dry . . . I seem to have risen up out of the sand, created by the heat of some obscene passion. . . . I am the unwanted byproduct of some vile, unconsummated lust.

There is pain, I feel pain, there is a foul odor, horrified, I realize it emanates from my own repulsive form. There is great noise and confusion, a crowd has gathered to gawk and point. I sense their presence around me. . . . I feel the crowd drawing close. . . . I feel the heat of their breath . . . I feel suffocated, trapped, hemmed in. There are sounds of people laughing, children playing, boys shouting, dogs, babies crying, but all of this comes to me through a dense fog of static, like the sound of a cheap transistor radio stuck between stations. . . . People begin to poke at me with sticks, someone lifts me up with the tip of a shoe, not wanting to actually touch the thing, he turns me over on my back. I feel shame, I am ashamed of the helplessness, I am ashamed of the repulsiveness of my physical form.

Sorel's lifelong sense of alienation from mainstream America— which this passage captures in such Kafkaesque detail— took root early, and only got worse as time went on. Though born in New York City, she was raised a "red diaper baby" in Carle Place, Long Island.

"We grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood," said her brother Edward. "It was real white-bread America. We were born of communist parents and it was during the McCarthy era that we were coming up. She was also lesbian, Jewish, short, and dark. She had artistic interests. All these things didn't really help her fit in."

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