Friday, 16 March 2012

The Guermantes Way (First Post)

The Guermantes Way

I am now half way through Proust's masterpiece, and, I feel, gathering some impetus. In The Guermantes Way, Proust focuses even more strongly on society as Marcel makes his first forays into the Fauborg Saint Germain - the aristocratic center of Parisian society. The Guermantes whose family gave their name to one of the paths Marcel and his family used to walk on in the halcyon childhood days at Combray are at the centre of the wittiest Parisien drawing rooms. The Guermantes wit is famous, at least in the mind of our aspiring social climber cum narrator. We are told that this impression has been altered by time, however. All the time we are being told that we are moving towards the maturity of Marcel, a time when he is less credulous, less fatuous in his obsessions, when he becomes the author of this work.

The book explores many social issues as well as the evolution of the artist. As we move through society our viewpoint is often turned towards instances of anti-semitism, homophobia, the life of servants and  the emptiness at the heart of 'society'.

Early on we are given a view of the 'young master' from the family's servant Francoise. This gives us a different angle on the narrator than he paints himself, and ties in with further thoughts on the position of servants amoung his circle. "Ah, Combray, when shall I look on thee again, poor land! When shall I pass the blessed day among thy hawthorns, under our own poor lily oaks, hearing the grasshopper sing, and the Vivonne making a little noise like someone whispering, instead of the wretched bell from the young master, who can never stay still for half an hour on end without having me run the length of that wicked corridor. And even then he makes out I don't come quick enough; you'd need to hear the bell ring before he has pulled it, and if you're a minute late, away he flies into the most towering rage." The fact that Francoise starts out reminiscing about Combray and the hawthorns that Marcel values so highly serves to emphasize both their similarities and differences. The thwarted desires of one of the Guermantes' footmen to see his betrothed is revisited many times in the book, with his wishes often being raised and dashed on a malicious whim.

The narrator realizes the awful situation of servants and tells us that it is only our tendency to see what is as normal and acceptable that allows us to accept this. This ties it to the recurring theme that the world we see is never the world before us but one altered and edited by our preconceptions. "The life led by our servants is probably of an even more monstrous abnormality, which only its familiarity can prevent us from seeing."

But Marcel, at the time, was dazzled by the Guermantes name, and felt that they and their circle must be somehow superhuman. As his love for Gilberte earlier, so his feelings for the Guermantes can never survive reality as they are wildly unrealistic. "The life which I supposed them to lead there flowed from a source so different from anything in my experience, and must, I felt, be so indissolubly associated with that particular house that I could not have imagined the presence, at the Duchess's parties, of people in whose company I myself had already been, of people who really existed. For not being able suddenly to change their nature, they would have carried on conversations there of the sort that I knew; their partners would perhaps have stooped to reply to them in the same human speech; and, in the course of an evening spent in the leading house in the Fauborg Saint-Germain, there would have been moments identical with moments I had already lived. Which was impossible. It was thus that my mind was embarrassed by certain difficulties, and the Presence of Our Lord's Body in the Host seemed to me no more obscure a mystery than this leading house in the Fauborg, situated here, on the right bank of the river, and so near that from my bed, in the morning, I could hear its carpets being beaten."

Sarah Bernhardt was one of Proust's models for Berma.
Here she is playing Hamlet.
We are also reminded of his visit to the theatre to see the great actress Berma in an earlier volume. Then, he was in love with the idea of plays and actresses but now they are only secondary to the aristocracy who he can see in their boxes. Also he has changed his views on art and is now besotten with painting and tapestries - "..since my visits to Elistir, it was on certain tapestries, certain modern paintings that I had brought to bear the inner faith I once had in this acting, in this tragic art of Berma.."

The irony is that this time he is able to appreciate Berma whereas the previous time he was too full of expectation to actually appreciate her skills "-the talent of Berma, which had evaded me when I sought so greedily to seize its essential quality, now, after these years of oblivion, in this hour of indifference, imposed itself, with all the force of a thing directly seen, on my admiration."

He explains the difference between the two theatrical experiences. "My own impression, to tell the truth, though more pleasant than on the earlier occasion, was not really different. Only, I no longer put it to the test of a pre-existent, abstract and false idea of dramatic genius, and I understood now that dramatic genius was precisely this. It had just occurred  to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first hearing of Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte in the Champs-Elysées, I had come to her with too strong a desire."

The whole theatre scene is long and vivid, one of the centerpieces of the book. Once again Proust calls on the metaphoric assosciation between the social lives of the aristocracy and the lives of fish in a tank. "The Marquis de Palancy, his face bent downwards at the end of his long neck, his round bulging eye glued to the glass of his monocle, was moving with a leisurely displacement through the transparent shade and appeared no more to see the public in the stalls than a fish that drifts past, unconscious of the press of the curious gazers, behind the glass wall of an aquarium."

Later in the novel Marcel will get into the fish tank and get to see these queer fish up close. Unlike Alice the world at the other side of the glass will prove similar to the one in which he has spent his life so far. Only imagination makes it different.

For a novel with so many words (approx 1,500,000 apparently, I haven't counted) we are presented with arguments outlining that words don't quite do what they say: "We feel in one world, we think, we give names to things in another; between the two we can establish a certain correspondence, but not bridge the interval." - "..at that time I still supposed that it was by means of words that one communicated the truth to others."

Proust, of course, withdrew from society and wrote in a cork lined room, so silence was the companion to the writing of these words. Indeed a world without the spoken word might in fact be an improvement - "And for this totally deaf man, since the loss of a sense adds as much beauty to the world as it's acquisition, it is with ecstasy that he walks now on an earth grown almost an Eden, in which sound has not yet been created." Like the temporal distance which allowed Proust to look back on his earlier life and infatuations with ironical disregard, we need to be aware that our view of the world will change as our relationship to it changes. We need to find some distance in order to appreciate the world more clearly.

This series is a challenging read, and just as challenging to blog about. The sheer size of The Guermantes Way alone (800 plus pages) makes it difficult enough to write about but the fact that it is referring back and also referring forward makes it more so. However, the size and complexity of the novel seems to be getting some of the ideas inserted deeply into my consciousness. I hope to post again on The Guermantes Way in the next few days and to be back in a few weeks with posts on Cities of the Plain.


  1. It isn't easy to blog about Proust. There are so many ideas.
    The Guermants Way is very Republican in a way (a big issue in France at the time) : it shows the aristocrats as as ridiculous, stupid, spoiled, vapid, witty, educated as other human beings. It brings them down from their pedestal.
    (The Duc de Guermantes is particularly awful)

    1. I think class tension has always been important and always will be. This of course was particularly alive in France where the memory of the guillotine was fresh in the minds of many.
      At times it is almost as if Proust metaphorically guillotines some of the aristocracy, presenting them to us in little head size pieces.