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The Guermantes Way, book II

February 28, 2011 15 comments

Le Côté de Guermantes (Book 2) by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. (Translated as The Guermantes Way, Third volume of In Search of Lost Time)

As a foreword, I would like to mention that The Guermantes Way is a very good title for this volume. It has a fuller meaning than the French one (Le Côté de Guermantes) but it is really well chosen as “way” covers the sense of “côté” or “chemin” (path) and of “mores”, which is a central part of the book.

 How is the narrator doing in this book?

 He has to face pain as his grand-mother is ill and shall not recover. He relates her illness, her suffering and the reactions of family and acquaintances to their grief. Two scenes are particularly horrible. The first one is when his grand-mother cannot take the pain any longer and tries to throw herself through the window. The second one is the Duc de Guermantes intruding to their house the night the narrator’s grand-mother is dying.

The narrator’s health seems to decline, he talks more often about lying in bed. He welcomes Albertine in his room, as he is in bed, which will prove most convenient for making out. Robert de Saint Loup crosses a whole restaurant in a rather special way, leaping from chair to chair to reach the narrator in the crowded room and put a coat on his shoulders so that he would not catch a cold.

On a happier tone, the narrator learns the benefits of indifference: Albertine comes to visit him and willingly lets him kiss her. The Duchesse de Guermantes invites him to diner.  

An important section of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s diner at the Guermantes. After describing the Guermantes spirit, during a long – too long? – moment, Proust is back with his acute and ironic look on people and events. The narrator assesses the situation with more hindsight than before. He is more mature. For example, he is now able to refuse to attend a high society evening at the Guermantes to spend time with his mother coming home from the country. He is utterly disappointed by his first diner at the Guermantes. He imagined these people much more intellectual. Their conversation is boring. The narrator gets bored. As Proust is a great writer, the reader is as bored as the poor Narrator.

Était-ce vraiment à cause de dîners tels que celui-ci que toutes ces personnes faisaient toilette et refusaient de laisser pénétrer des bourgeoises dans leurs salons si fermés, pour des dîners tels que celui-ci? pareils si j’avais été absent? J’en eus un instant le soupçon, mais il était trop absurde. Was it really for the sake of dinners such as this that all these people dressed themselves up and refused to allow the penetration of middleclass women into their so exclusive drawing-rooms—for dinners such as this? The same, had I been absent? The suspicion flashed across my mind for a moment, but it was too absurd.

The relationship between the Duc de Guermantes and his wife is analysed. It is more a business partnership than a marriage in the way we understand it nowadays. There is no love between them and there has never been any love. The narrator even implies that the Duc is a violent man. He has many mistresses and the Duchesse knows it and is obliged to invite them to her tea parties and dinners. Nothing is said about her affairs. Does she have the same liberty as him in her love life? Although love is absent, the Duc de Guermantes is always utterly polite with her in public and always puts her forward in society. They play their parts skilfully. He is proud to show her around in the richest clothes and relates her “bons mots” with delight, as if she were a trained monkey. They have a sort of unspoken but nonetheless real partnership in running the most fashionable salon of Paris.

All in all, their life is shallow. Oriane de Guermantes may be the most fashionable woman in Paris, her life is empty. She does not seem to have children. She does not spend any time studying or improving her mind. She does no good deeds. She spends her time visiting family or acquaintances and gossiping. Her husband despises her and considers her no more as a witty and beautiful object. If she weren’t so conceited, the reader would pity her.

Whatever his attraction to the aristocracy, the narrator shows benevolence for small people and progressive ideas. He disapproves that Mme de Guermantes asks her valet to go and fetch the pheasants one of her guests had killed during his latest hunting party because it was the valet’s day off and she perfectly knew he had a rendezvous with his girl-friend, who is also a servant and had her only day-off on the morrow. Talking about politics and discussion at the Chambre (Parliament), the narrator declares normal that the rich should pay more taxes than the poor.

Even after he had stopped stalking Mme de Guermantes in their neighbourhood, he keeps on taking his morning walks to meet the working people, the shopkeepers. The reader can feel a certain fondness for these people in the way he describes the atmosphere in the area, which is very Parisian. As always, Proust links what he sees with art, with painting, like here:

D’ailleurs l’extrême proximité des maisons aux fenêtres opposées sur une même cour y fait de chaque croisée le cadre où une cuisinière rêvasse en regardant à terre, où plus loin une jeune fille se laisse peigner les cheveux par une vieille à figure, à peine distincte dans l’ombre, de sorcière; ainsi chaque cour fait pour le voisin de la maison, en supprimant le bruit par son intervalle, en laissant voir les gestes silencieux dans un rectangle placé sous verre par la clôture des fenêtres, une exposition de cent tableaux hollandais juxtaposés. And then also, the extreme proximity of the houses, with their windows looking opposite one another on to a common courtyard, makes of each casement the frame in which a cook sits dreamily gazing down at the ground below, in which farther off a girl is having her hair combed by an old woman with the face, barely distinguishable in the shadow, of a witch: thus each courtyard provides for the adjoining house, by suppressing all sound in its interval, by leaving visible a series of silent gestures in a series of rectangular frames, glazed by the closing of the windows, an exhibition of a hundred Dutch paintings hung in rows.

We can really picture the scenery.

I would like talk about the first names of the aristocracy in Proust. If Oriane is not very frequent, it is not rare. However, Palamède, Basin, Hannibal, Walpurge or Amanien are first names as strange as the ones in Molière. All those first-names sound snobbish and that makes their short-names (Mémé, Babal, Mama) even more ridiculous. They are typically French though and still exist. At work, many people around me have such silly nicknames and I’m glad that my first-name has a natural short-name which prevented them from inventing one for me. I don’t think I could stand it.

But back to Proust. The Baron de Charlus takes the narrator as his protégée. It was an offer the narrator was made at the end of the first book and a crazy meeting with him closes the second book and sort of introduces Sodom and Gomorrah, as Charlus is the central character of this volume.

I will probably write a post dedicated to the Duc de Guermantes and I’m trying to write something about how Proust’s description of society comforts Edith Wharton’s views of French ways. And of course, what I write here isn’t even one tenth of all the things, ideas, feelings Proust shows us.

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