Chez Proust: The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust

With the end of the war, publication of In Search of Lost Time continued apace. Volume three initially appeared in two parts. By then it had been roughly eight years since the appearance of the original title, Swann’s Way, and interest in Proust’s work had grown considerably, both at home and abroad. Here, the narrator, now in his 20’s, has moved with his family to the fashionable Hôtel de Guermantes, where he comes across the beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes almost daily—to his joy and her chagrin. He nurtures his friendship with her nephew, Robert de Saint Loup, hoping it will lead to an introduction to his aunt, with whom he has become obsessed.

Saint-Loup is now in the army, where two things command his attention: debate over the contentious Dreyfus affair, and his relations with a young actress and prostitute, whom the narrator has previously encountered in her latter standing. Unlike most of his military cohorts, Saint-Loup aligns himself with the Dreyfusards, arousing enmity in the army but endearing himself to the narrator. Like its closest 20th century equivalent, Watergate, the scandal has torn the country apart. As important as the issue may have been, however, Proust goes on far too long to sustain interest for most contemporary readers, using the issue to paint his characters as moral or immoral because of its anti-Semitic undertones. The death of the narrator’s grandmother provides a suitably solemn reprieve at the end of part one.

In part two, the narrator is well on his way to becoming a notable society figure. He has graduated from the lesser salons of Mme Verdurin, and others of a similar rank, to the most admired salons of the Faubourg-St. Germain. To his surprise, he now finds himself sought after by Madame de Guermantes, who is both snobbish and cruel. Here, he attains the nadir of French social life, only to discover its habitués to be petty and shallow. Their constant infighting over whose salon is greater, whose portrait an original and whose a copy, and who introduced Liszt to whom, is pursued with all the vitriol of feuding drag queens. In its way, it offers a far more amusing account of Parisian social life than in Swann’s Way. In the long recounting of a dinner party, Proust’s wit is as scathing as it gets, with his depiction of the small-minded salons of the Faubourg-St. Germain.

Almost as a sideline, Proust re-introduces M. de Charlus, the series’ overall central character. Here, the imperious and Machiavellian baron attempts to take on the narrator as a sort of protégé, although with ulterior movies, before denouncing him in a ridiculously tempestuous scene worthy of Grand Guignol. It’s a good introduction for what will follow.

The Guermantes Way can mark the dividing line between the serious Proust reader and the dilettante. Despite its fey humour, for me, it’s the least interesting of the first three volumes. You would be forgiven for giving up here, but hang on if you can.


 

 
 

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