Reading Proust III

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So after a hiatus of a couple of months, during which I read other novels and story collections, I finally got back to the business of reading Proust, this time tackling the third volume, The Guermantes Way. And what a happy homecoming it was to meet all those familiar faces again! How nice it was to become reacquainted with our unnamed narrator (I understand that in Volume VI his name is finally revealed to be, not surprisingly, Marcel); the family servant, Francoise, who simultaneously dispenses equal (and hilarious) measures of both compassion and cruelty; and Marcel’s (let’s just call him that) charming and aristocratic friend, Robert St-Loup. Also back are Marcel's calculating and unctuous friend, Bloch; the aristocrats we first met at Balbec in Volume II, Mme. Villeparisis and that arrogant and irritating Baron de Charlus (the kind of character you love to hate!); and of course the narrator’s grandmother, mother and father (although the latter makes little more than a cameo appearance in this volume—more on that later).

And while I was reading, I realized that the initial intimidation I felt in undertaking this big project seemed to slip away. Instead of feeling the onerous weight of all those pages still ahead of me, I started to feel like I was more in the middle of watching Season 3 than reading Volume III; for like a good serialized TV drama, I felt I could easily kick back and watch, endlessly fascinated with all these characters and their lives and obsessions. But I realized something else as I began the third volume: Proust suddenly becomes a lot easier to read. Part of that, no doubt, may be attributed to having grown accustomed to his writing style. But there are also far fewer of those obscure Proustian words I felt obliged to look up in the first two volumes, and far fewer of those long, winding, tangled sentences that I was constantly having to reread in the first two volumes, not just to make sense of them but because they were so stunningly beautiful. Here his sentences are much more manageable and straightforward. And all those tidal waves of philosophizing seen in the earlier volumes? They too have turned into little more than ripples in the water in Volume III. So what do we find instead? A heck of a lot more action and dialogue than ever before. So much so that to properly discuss this volume at the length at which it deserves would require a lot more time and space than I am willing and able to do so here.

Briefly, though, the title is a reference to Volume I and Marcel’s youth in Combray during which he and his family would go on one of two walks in the country. The shorter one, Swann’s Way, led to the Swann family estate and, as we saw in Volumes I and II, the narrator’s subsequent fascination with Swann, Mme. Swann, and their daughter Gilberte. The other, much longer walk led to the ducal home of the Guermantes family, a place of impenetrable mystery and noble prestige. And so when Volume III opens and we learn that Marcel’s family has moved into an apartment in the Hôtel de Guermantes in Paris, a complex of townhouses and enclosed courtyards where the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes also live, it comes as no surprise that the narrator’s latest obsession should focus on Mme. de Guermantes, the centre of the French social elite and around whom this book revolves.

Over the course of Volume III we watch Marcel go from practically stalking Mme. de Guermantes at the beginning of the book (he goes on walks when she does, hoping to both see her and be seen by her and somehow break into that most exclusive set) to eventually becoming a regular dinner guest at her and the duke’s home by the book’s end. At these dinner parties, as well as at an afternoon party hosted by Mme. de Villeparisis (a party that goes on for an amazing two hundred pages!), Proust deliciously pokes fun at the egregious snobbery, the lack of education, as well as the blatant hypocrisy and anti-Semitism of many in that set. This latter aspect is especially noteworthy, for another component central to this particular volume is the Dreyfus Affair. (I had to consult Wikipedia to refresh my memory of what I'd learned years ago back in university. In short, Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer of Jewish background who was falsely found guilty of espionage at the end of the 19th century and imprisoned for five years, a verdict that turned out to be a case of blatant anti-Semitism and a miscarriage of justice.) Like the polarizing effect it had on French society, so too the characters here are similarly divided. Marcel’s friend St-Loup, characteristic of the rebellious and ostensibly anti-royalist beliefs he exhibited in Volume II, openly declares himself a Dreyfusard, setting him against his own family and much of the rest of aristocracy, most of whom are adamant anti-Dreyfusards.  The scandal naturally affected Jewish members of French society, like Swann and (by extension) his wife, who find themselves increasingly isolated. And at one bizarre moment, M. de Charlus even suggests to Marcel that he’d like to see his Jewish friend Bloch re-enact a kind of David and Goliath battle in which he “smites” his father and thrashes his mother as a kind of “entertainment” to be arranged for the members of his set!

Over the course of these last three volumes, and in this volume in particular, it becomes clear that women are not just the focal point of Marcel’s attraction and fascination (think: Mme. Swann, Gilberte, Albertine, Andree, Mme. de Guermantes, plus a number of anonymous milkmaids), but they are also the possessors of power in relation to men. Take Francoise, for instance. Part of what makes her character so hilarious is that in spite of being the family servant, she’s really the one in charge, the one who does as she pleases and only answers the servants’ bell when it’s convenient for her. There’s also Rachel, St-Loup’s mistress. Although a poor and struggling actress, she too is the one who’s really in the driver’s seat in that relationship. When St-Loup introduces Marcel to her, he recognizes her as “Rachel when from the Lord,” a prostitute he first encountered in a brothel in Volume I and instantly realizes he could have “had” her for only a few francs, a tiny fraction of the money St-Loup lavishes on her in a fruitless effort to make her his. In fact, the more St-Loup spends on her, the more she brazenly gazes at other men, flirts with them, and openly discusses their attractiveness, which in turn fuels St-Loup’s jealousy and drains his bank account.

And then there's Mme. Villeparisis. As a wealthy widow, not only is she not dependent on any man, but she also does and says just as she pleases. Although this results in her being somewhat demoted socially (her salon is considered second rate in comparison to Mme. Lerois’s), it’s her intelligence and ability to write an acclaimed memoir that is her lasting legacy; for as the narrator points out, in the end no one will remember who Mme. Lerois was, and the reader of that memoir will be left with the impression that Mme. Villeparisis’s salon was the finest in all of Paris.

And of course there’s Mme. de Guermantes, the woman whose tastes and predilections the entire Faubourg St-Germain—the upper crust of French society—blindly follow. Like Villeparisis’ gift for the written word, Mme. de Guermantes’ gift is the spoken word: her wit. Like several of the other relationships we’ve seen, it’s clear that her husband also takes a back seat in that marriage—a kind of Prince Philip to the infinitely more superior Queen Elizabeth. While the two of them are entertaining, for instance, an interesting dynamic often unfolds in which the duke, in order to show off his wife and thereby relegate himself to the shadows, relays anecdotes to his listeners that oblige the duchess to recount her witty rejoinders on past occasions, words that both impress her audience and are inimitable in style (even if those witticisms aren’t all that impressive to begin with). Even in Marcel’s own family it’s the women—his grandmother and mother (and Francoise)—who are central to his life, while his father, on the other hand, receives little more than a brief mention in this particular volume, not even a speaking part. When Volume III comes to its close, Marcel has received a dinner invitation to the home of the Princesse de Guermantes, a woman who may be surprisingly below the duchesse in hierarchy, but no less socially important. Stay tuned for the next volume, Sodom and Gomorrah.