I’m caffeinated up to the eyeballs and on holiday in the backwoods of Finland, and have spent the last two days alternating between staring out of a cabin’s window at the empty wilderness of a Scandinavian lake and staring into, living within, the pages of the third volume of Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), published in the current Penguin edition as The Guermantes Way and translated by Mark Treharne. A bit more about the text.
Le Côté de Guermantes was published in two parts in 1920 and 1921, in French. I don’t know when Scott Moncrieff got around to first translating it into English, but (like all of those currently available as Penguin Modern Classics), it was redone from scratch recently, this one in 2003. Whilst the translation I read of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (also part of the Christopher Prendergast-overseen one-translator-one-volume contemporary translation) felt markedly fresher and more modern than the ‘70s/’80s version I read Swann’s Way in, this one seemed to go back the other way. I don’t know if this is Proust himself affecting a more youthful style in his book about lust and sex and discovering the pleasures of the flesh, or if it is merely the variance of translators – because throughout The Guermantes Way the language (though mainly the action) creates a far less engaging text than the previous two volumes had led me to expect.
I read this in four or five sittings, getting through 200 pages a day over today and the last two days. I’m not certain this is the best way to consume the text, but I struggle to think of a more appropriate way to read Proust than sitting down, settling the mind and committing to doing nothing other than making and drinking coffee until one has finished the book. (Other than the breaks for shitting, of course, which accompany any session of excess coffee consumption.)
I gave myself the task of reading The Guermantes Way, and it is hard, because the subject matter of this volume isn’t just frottage and sex affairs. Volume 3 is a far more politicised and dense portrait of a very particular set of a very particular type of society compared to the other two volumes. This is no longer the story of the unnamed narrator or the story of Swann (oh, sainted Swann: you lift every page you appear on), but is instead the story of the French aristocracy on the eve of the 19th century. The Guermantes Way is dense, detailed pages about personal, social, political manoeuvres on a macro scale; The Guermantes Way is heavy investigation into the Dreyfus Affair and its repercussions throughout French society; The Guermantes Way is the growing and changing diplomatic relations that would lead to the First World War (Proust, as inferred above, writing parts of this during – and the rest after – the conflict occurred); The Guermantes Way is social history, far more than personal. Every event is a microcosm, every conversation has ripples, meanings – every reference to a politician, writer, musician, painter, any real life person, holds import. This is weighty, and to experience the full extent of Proust’s work this would need to be read with far more detailed notes than the ones provided here by Treharne. The notes in this edition explain things necessary to help allusion, they describe and explain the Dreyfus Affair, but they stop short of analysing the text, and this is a text that begs analysis.
Or does it? A few hours ago, before I reached the final thirty pages of the book and my opinions about Proust returned to what they’d been when I started it (i.e. what they were throughout the second half of Swann’s Way and during all of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), I was pretty bored. Proust goes SO in-depth into his exploration of aristocratic society, of its foibles and its intricacies, that he forgets – a la fucking Joyceybaby – that this isn’t necessary interesting to readers 20 years on, let alone 100 years later. There are a few major scenes, major dinner party scenes, that punctuate the book, only rather than punctuating, they puncture. (They let it down.) The final dinner party scene runs from* p. 414 to p. 546. This is a dinner. This is conversation: aristocratic, politicised conversation. It’s about people renowned for their wit being exposed as not that witty, about working out who is on one’s side in efforts at social climbing, who can be trusted, who it is acceptable to be friends with, what thoughts and behaviours are allowed and how – ultimately – to rise higher.
These dinner parties show the ascent of the narrator. He is “better” than Swann’s scandalous wife at the start of the book, and by the end he is associating with minor foreign royalty and on his way to a party to meet with major international figures. He has friends in high places and accrues more, loses a few due to various interpersonal allegiances, many of which come down to varying opinions regarding the Dreyfus Affair which, to put it simply, was this:
Dreyfus, a major figure in French military intelligence in the 1890s, was accused of being a German Spy, found guilty and sent to jail. It turned out that another officer had framed him, but the military tried to hide this fact (not revealing it until a few years later), acquitted the framer and reconvicted Dreyfus after a retrial, despite far more evidence pointing to his innocence. It was all to do with parliamentary cliqueism, and the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish which, as I have discussed in other posts about Proust, wasn’t a popular thing to be in France at that time.
Everyone – at least according to Proust – had an opinion on the Dreyfus Affair, and it coloured every interaction they had. Those with their spouses, their lovers, their children, their friends; from servants up to the aristocrats we see too much of – there are no conversations uncoloured by opinions related to this event.
And, I suppose, it tars the piece quite dramatically for anyone who doesn’t give a fuck about the event – it may not count as Ancient History, but it happened pre-first world war so wouldn’t be classed as recent either. It was a scandal in France 100 years ago. In the same way that American (i.e. USA) fiction from the early noughties is drenched in references to 9/11 – something not culturally significant to a person who was pre-pubescent in provincial England at the time – the Dreyfus Affair and dinner parties overwhelm and threaten to drown The Guermantes Way and – if I was less of a literary snob – A Search for Lost Time in its entirety.
It doesn’t, it is saved, of course, by Proust’s unflinching grasp of poetic language, by his ability to evoke and explain and describe the mind and the world it sees in a heartbreaking and novel way. We get (smashed in between overlong and overlaboured dinner party scenes) explorations on the nature of sleep, of friendship, of sexuality, of love, of adulthood, of maturity; in the beautiful islands that separate the deeply unpleasant seas of 100+ page aristocratic dinners, we get insights of such beauty that it makes it all worthwhile. I cried, I laughed, multiple times; I was impressed by Marcel’s understanding of humanity, by his witty imagery and by his understanding of family and responsibility and the need and want for things that one knows are the worst possible things to go anywhere near.
He writes desire better than anyone, he writes frottage better than anyone, he writes of pain and death and emotional confusion and of memory better than anyone. Landscapes in Proust are gorgeous, friendships in Proust are elevated, the middle-aged are allowed to be attractive, morality is liquid and based on motives rather than results; the France of Proust is compelling and incredibly rendered, and if in order to experience it fully I have to spend a couple of evenings at dinner parties that I – unlike my friend, the narrator – find incredibly tedious, that’s a small price to pay given the pure and unflinching joy of this writer at his best.
When Proust is at his best, there is no one better, and this is affirmed by the final 20 pages of the novel, which brings Charles Swann (hero of volume one) and Oriane Guermantes (the equally eponymous focus of this one) together in a brief, and wonderfully moving, discussion about mortality, history, distraction and the way we all ignore the imminent and inevitable death of all around us in exchange for nothing of value. In 20 pages, Proust made me forgive every dull page of The Guermantes Way, because what he is doing is bigger than entertainment, is better than frivolity.
Reading Proust is like exercise – like cycling or running a long distance through varying terrain. Sometimes it is tough and you want to stop, sometimes you are passing through the most sublime** surroundings you have ever encountered, sometimes it hurts and you don’t understand why you’re putting yourself through it, other times it’s so easy that you doubt the pain even happened; but always, always, you know that what you’re doing is worthwhile.
It’s been a long time since I’ve run or cycled a long distance (though I do hike from time to time), so maybe my metaphor doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. But my point is thus: reading Proust is good for you, and even when you’re not enjoying it, you know that the pleasure will return.
There is a lot of humour, a lot of emotion, a lot of art, and a lot of detailed crap about things you don’t care about. But it’s all there, together, to convey a life, to explore memory and to – when it all gets pulled together at the end – emphasise something (I hope) truly transcendental/
This isn’t as great as either of the first two volumes, but it hasn’t put me off the work as a whole, which is (surely, surely) what I am reading.
In Search of Lost Time is a masterpiece. But every masterpiece has a corner you can pay less attention to than the rest – without it, the work wouldn’t be complete, but on its own it is nothing special.
The Guermantes Way isn’t perfect, but when an individual page is, it is.
To quote Marcel against himself, in a (probably) self-aware passage near the end:
“Oh, my dear Charles, Mme de Guermantes continued listlessly, how tiresome these dinners can be.”
* And this is very easy to check due to the Synopsis included at the end of the book.
** To use a word whose usage Proust satirises throughout.