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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.

Mme de Guermantes, from dream to reality

January 28, 2011 16 comments

Le côté de Guermantes. Tome 1. A la recherche du temps perdu, volume 3 by Marcel Proust. I will use the translation by CK Scott Moncrieff.

Le côté de Guermantes is the third volume of In Search of Lost Time. It is split into two books, and this post is about the first one.

In my previous post about Le côté de Guermantes, I said I would dedicate a whole post to Mme. de Guermantes, who is the central figure of this volume. The narrator now lives in an apartment dependant from the hôtel de Guermantes and thus sees her everyday around. He can observe her way of life from her in-and-outs and through the ballet of her servants. As Françoise gets acquainted with the servants from their landlord, she regales her masters with anecdotes about Mme de Guermantes. Françoise seems as aware as the narrator of who can visit whom in the high society.

The narrator has an idealized vision of Mme de Guermantes coming from his stays at Combray, where this noble family has owned an estate for decades. He has already described in Swann’s Way the impression left on him by Madame de Guermantes in the Combray church and his reveries about the Guermantes portrait on the stained-glass windows of the church.

He now lives near her and fantasizes about her. Due to all the memories and reveries associated with her name, he is from the start in the perfect mental state to become infatuated with her. But he is not as deeply in love with her as he was with Gilberte. His heart is available, he wants to think himself in love and her proximity makes of her the object of his fantasies.

J’avais, hélas, dans la réalité, choisi précisément pour l’aimer la femme qui réunissait peut-être le plus d’avantages différents et aux yeux de qui, à cause de cela, je ne pouvais espérer avoir aucun prestige ; car elle était aussi riche que le plus riche qui n’eût pas été noble ; sans compter ce charme personnel qui la mettait à la mode, en faisait entre toutes une sorte de reine. I had, alas, in reality, chosen to love the very woman who, in her own person, combined perhaps the greatest possible number of different advantages; in whose eyes, accordingly, I could not hope, myself, ever to cut any figure; for she was as rich as the richest commoner—and noble also; without reckoning that personal charm which set her at the pinnacle of fashion, made her among the rest a sort of queen.

The word « chosen » proves this is more a crush built by his imagination than a genuine sentiment. We usually fall in love and the verb “fall” implies it is an accident, not a choice. She is just living memories of sweet afternoons in Combray and she is intimately linked to his quest of perfection.  

Et même dans mes désirs les plus charnels toujours orientés d’un certain côté, concentrés autour d’un même rêve, j’aurais pu reconnaître comme premier moteur une idée, une idée à laquelle j’aurais sacrifié ma vie, et au point le plus central de laquelle, comme dans mes rêveries pendant les après-midi de lecture au jardin à Combray, était l’idée de perfection. And even in my most carnal desires, magnetised always in a certain direction, concentrated about a single dream, I might have recognised as their primary motive an idea, an idea for which I would have laid down my life, at the innermost core of which, as in my day dreams while I sat reading all afternoon in the garden at Combray, lay the thought of perfection.

She is a sort of ethereal woman. The woman he is infatuated with only exists in his imagination but he wants to take advantage of their living in the same place to know her. He starts strolling in the neighbourhood to “accidentally” meet her on the streets. He can’t help it, even if he is perfectly aware that she is irritated by these provoked encounters.  

Hélas! Si pour moi rencontrer toute autre personne était indifférent, je sentais que, pour elle, rencontrer n’importe qui excepté moi eût été supportable. Alas, if to me meeting any person other than herself would not have mattered, I felt that to her meeting anyone in the world except myself would have been endurable.

 As she is Robert’s aunt, he finally manages to meet her at Mme de Villeparisis, another Guermantes relative. He has been acquainted with the old lady since his stay in Balbec. The tale of his visit in her salon occupies a great part of this volume. We learn more about Mme de Villeparisis and discover her position in the high society is not as glorious as the narrator had supposed it in Balbec. The explanation of how a woman can become an outcast in her social class and be only tolerated by her relatives is very interesting. But back to Mme de Guermantes. Here she is, in the salon:  

Mme de Guermantes s’est assise. Son nom, comme il était accompagné de son titre, ajoutait à sa personne physique son duché qui se projetait autour d’elle et faisait régner la fraîcheur ombreuse et dorée des bois de Guermantes au milieu du salon, à l’entour du pouf où elle était. Mme. de Guermantes had sat down. Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her corporeal dimensions the duchy which projected itself round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room, to surround the tuffet on which she was sitting.

The narrator has his still idealized vision and when she starts talking, he discovers who she is: a terrible gossip without a solid education. Vapid would be the word if she hadn’t that French nasty sense of humour and tendency to hurt other people just for the pleasure of uttering a witty remark; what we call in French un bon mot.  

Mais voyons Basin, vous savez bien de qui ma tante veut parler, s’écria la duchesse avec indignation, c’est le frère de cet énorme herbivore que vous avez eu l’étrange idée d’envoyer venir me voir l’autre jour. Elle est restée une heure, j’ai pensé que je deviendrais folle. Mais j’ai commencé par croire que c’était elle qui l’était en voyant entrer chez moi une personne que je ne connaissais pas et qui avait l’air d’une vache. “Why, Basin, you know quite well who my aunt means,” cried the Duchess indignantly. “He’s the brother of that great graminivorous creature you had the weird idea of sending to call on me the other day. She stayed a solid hour; I thought I should go mad. But I began by thinking it was she who was mad when I saw a person I didn’t know come browsing into the room looking exactly like a cow.”

A nice creature, indeed. Her irony can hit anybody. That the person she mocks is her nephew’s lover is of no importance:  

La demoiselle de Robert, je vous assure qu’elle est à mourir de rire. Je sais bien qu’on m’objectera cette vienne rengaine d’Augier : « Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse! » Eh bien, Robert a peut-être l’ivresse, mais il n’a vraiment pas fait preuve de goût dans le choix du flacon! If you saw Robert’s girl, I assure you, you’d simply die of laughter. Oh, I know somebody’s going to quote Augier at me: ‘What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk?’ Well, Robert may have got drunk, all right, but he certainly hasn’t shewn much taste in his choice of a bottle!

Isn’t she a lowbrow gossip? Proust’s genius explodes in that passage. In one cue, the reader understands that Mme de Guermantes is nasty and uneducated. Her tone is of contempt and mockery. And as Alfred de Musset, and not Augier, wrote “What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk”, her lack of literary knowledge cannot escape neither the reader nor the narrator’s notice. What a dreadful moment it must have been for him! The goddess is down from her pedestal. The truth forces itself into the narrator’s mind… 

“Quelle buse!” pensais-je, irrité de l’accueil glacial qu’elle m’avait fait. Je trouvais une sorte d’âpre satisfaction à constater sa complète incompréhension de Maeterlinck. “C’est pour une pareille femme que tous les matins je fais tant de kilomètres, vraiment, j’ai de la bonté. Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle.” “What a goose !” I thought to myself. Irritated by the coldness of her greeting, I found a sort of bitter satisfaction in this proof of her complete inability to understand Maerterlinck. “To thinks that’s the woman I walked miles every morning to see. Really, I’m too kind. Well it’s my turn now not to want to see her.” (1)

…but he is not ready to accept it yet.  

Tels étaient les mots que je me disais ; ils étaient le contraire de ma pensée ; c’étaient de purs mots de conversation, comme nous nous en disons dans ces moments où, trop agités pour rester seuls avec nous-mêmes, nous éprouvons le besoin, à défaut d’autre interlocuteur, de causer avec nous, sans sincérité, comme avec un étranger. Thus I reasoned with myself; but my words ran counter to my thoughts; they were purely conversational words such as we say to ourselves at those moments when, too much excited to remain quietly alone, we feel the need, for want of another listener, to talk to ourselves, without meaning what we say, as we talk to a stranger.

There is nothing such as being insincere with ourselves when we need to acknowledge a fact we would rather not or try to force ourselves to be indifferent when that thing/person we would like to forget does matter anyway and we perfectly know it. 

The narrator also explains how Mme de Guermantes invites artists because they are fashionable and attract other fine people but never discuss their art with them. Is she even interested? I hope we’ll hear more of her in the second book of this volume.  

I know there are many quotes in this post but how can I paraphrase Proust in my cheap English? Honestly, I lack the words to tell how witty, intelligent, insightful this is. We are thrown in a world totally different from ours but that sounds strangely familiar. We all know a Mme de Guermantes. Gossips come from all social classes and whatever their supposedly good education, their meanness overcomes good manners and seeps through their chat.

The narrator is progressively losing his illusions and experiences that all that glitters is not gold. Well, he’s becoming an adult. 

(1) A word on the translation « Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle » literally means “I wouldn’t want her now” and not “it’s my turn not to want to see her”. If I’m correct, the sexual connotation is thus erased of the English text.

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