I don’t usually make a big deal of milestones, but WordPress tells me that today’s post is the 1000th to be published here at Tony’s Reading List, and while that’s not a thousand reviews (there have been plenty of fluff pieces scattered among the usual posts), it still makes for an awful lot of digital scribbling. I’d like to say that today’s book was carefully selected to mark the occasion, but the truth is that it was completely random. Still, as anniversary choices go, it does mark a great way to celebrate reaching four figures 😉
Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), the third part of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) has the story continuing pretty much as it did in the first two parts. Our narrator, Marcel, is now a little older (if not much wiser) and still keen to make the acquaintance of any attractive woman who crosses his path. Much of the first part of the book is spent describing his friendship with aristocratic soldier Robert de Saint-Loup and a visit Marcel makes to his camp, mainly with the object of getting an invitation to dinner with Saint-Loup’s aunt, the Duchess of Guermantes.
While the Duchess initially rebuffs Marcel’s clumsy attempts to get to know her, a while later (after his obsession with her has faded somewhat), he does manage to make his way into her social circle, encountering her at several social events and eventually being invited to one of her evenings. What with juggling sudden visits from his former desire, Albertine, and an attempt to become intimate with other women, with these formal dinners our friend is a very busy young man – well, he would be if he actually did anything other than socialise…
Le Côté de Guermantes is a book I’ve been reading for a good while now. My electronic edition was divided into three sections (even though the original book came in two parts), and I read the first of these well over a year ago, perhaps even two. After a long absence, I finally got around to trying the second section earlier this year, before returning to finish the book off over the space of a week recently. It’s not my usual method, as regular readers will know, but this is not the sort of book you speed through, being light on plot and heavy on subordinate clauses (and tangents). Of course, reading it in French makes it even trickier 😉
Despite the passage of time, Marcel is just as annoying as ever, and his habit of hopping from one woman to the next (if only in his mind) continues unabashed. His ‘passion’ for Albertine blends into his longing for Madame de Stermaria, who is in turn replaced by Madame de Guermantes in what passes for his heart. Ironically, these passions usually fade just as the women become interested in him, allowing him to then behave rather cruelly, as shown in his treatment of Albertine – using her to prepare for a date with another woman:
A ma proposition le visage souriant et rose d’Albertine, sous un touquet plat qui descendait très bas, jusqu’aux yeux, sembla hésiter. Elle devait avoir d’autres projets; en tout cas elle me les sacrifia aisément, à ma grande satisfaction, car j’attachais beaucoup d’importance à avoir avec moi une jeune ménagère qui saurait bien mieux commander le dîner que moi.
At my suggestion, Albertine’s smiling pink face, under a flat bonnet which came down rather low, right to her eyes, seemed to hesitate. She must have had other plans: in any case, she was happy to give them up for me, to my great satisfaction, as I attached great importance to having with me a young ‘housekeeper’ who would have a better idea of how to organise the dinner than I. ***
Luckily, this all blows up in his face as, in one of the best parts of the book, he prepares for what he hopes will be a night of passion only to have his potential conquest cancel at the last minute. And then he cries.
While a lot of time is initially spent at Saint-Loup’s camp, Le Côté de Guermantes is very much a book of dinner parties, some of which can be interminable. While there were plenty of examples of sparkling wit and beautiful writing, there were also passages where I felt I was experiencing the small talk in real time (and I’m really not one for social chit-chat…). These descriptions of social events are a bit hit and miss (like many events can be in real life), and each time I slipped into my metaphorical dinner-jacket, I was never sure whether this was going to be an evening with fascinating, genius Proust or tedious, dullard Proust…
However, away from the dining rooms of the rich and famous, there is a lot to enjoy about the third installment of the book. Proust excels in description, and I especially enjoyed the passages on the misty, autumn weather of the French capital when Marcel is preparing for his rendezvous. Before this, at the centre of the story, we witness the illness and rapid decline of Marcel’s grandmother, one of the rare moments where Marcel is able to see beyond himself. He begins to realise that life really is fleeting, and that all this will pass. Don’t worry – his selfishness soon returns…
As the title might suggest, the book is really all about the narrator’s obsession with the Guermantes. Initially, this is focused on Oriane, Madame de Guermantes herself, a beauty and renowned wit who is only the more appealing for being unapproachable. Of course, once Marcel is able to get closer, he immediately (as always) becomes more critical:
Que Mme de Guermantes fût pareille aux autres femmes, ç’avait été pour moi d’abord une déception, c’était presque, par réaction, et tant de bons vins aidant, un émerveillement.
That Madame de Guermantes was just like other women, I found, initially, a disappointment, yet on reflection, and with the help of much good wine, it was almost a wonder. ***
In truth, Marcel’s obsession involves the family in general, not just Oriane. He enjoys being invited to dinner, and treated kindly, by the selfish, urbane duke, and mingling with the high society making up the numbers at their evenings. There’s also the slightly creepy interest taken in him by the duke’s brother, Monsieur de Charlus, who has become even more obsessive since their meeting in À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. Being the snob that he is, Marcel is happy to soak it all up, as much in love with the name and all the history it suggests as with any particular person.
One interesting focus in Le Côté de Guermantes is the prevalence of one topic in social conversation, the notorious Dreyfus affair. It comes up at the army base, at restaurants and even in the fashionable salons, even if the speakers aren’t always as serious about the matter as they might be:
“En tout cas, si ce Dreyfus est innocent, interrompit la duchese, il ne le prouve guère. Quelles lettres idiotes, emphatiques, il écrit de son île! Je ne sais pas si M. Esterhazy vaut mieux que lui, mais il a un autre chic dans le façon de tourner les phrases, une autre couleur.”
“In any case, if this Dreyfus is innocent, the duchess interrupted, he’s hardly proving it. What stupid, pompous letters he sends out from his island! I don’t know whether Monsieur Esterhazy is worthier than he, but he has a far better way of fashioning his phrases, a more vibrant style.” ***
The Jewish question is an important theme, dividing social groups along the lines of supporters and opponents; time will tell how much this idea will be developed over the rest of the novel…
Overall, while a struggle in places, the book was certainly worth the effort. It’s all beautifully written, seamlessly flowing from one event to the next and, after hundreds of pages of dinner-party banter, Proust even manages to spring a completely unexpected cliffhanger when an old friend makes a sudden confession. So, the question is whether I should move straight on to Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrha), the fourth part of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or leave it until the French-reading part of my brain has recovered.
I’ll have to sleep on that 😉