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#1920Club – “Each of us sees in brighter colours what he sees at a distance, what he sees in other people.” #Proust2020

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The Guermantes Way Part 1 by Marcel Proust

When I first started looking into books published in 1920 for our reading club, it did strike me that it was very much a year of extremes. Although the first year of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ saw any number of lighter works from authors like Agatha Christie, E.F. Benson and Beverley Nichols, there were also a couple of heavyweights published, in the form of James Joyce’s” Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “The Guermantes Way Part 1”. I’m not making any kind of value judgement here, as I’ve read any number of so-called light works, and I started off the week with the Christie! Nevertheless, both the Joyce and the Proust are books I’ve wanted to read for a long time; I was pretty sure (and I was right!) that I wouldn’t get to “Ulysses”; however, Proust was a different matter… I’ve read the first two books in his great sequence, “Swann’s Way” and “Within a Budding Grove” (back in 2014!!); and so “Guermantes…” was the next in line. The temptation was immense and in the end I didn’t resist – 2020 is the year I’ve climbed back on the Proust wagon!

proust in search of lost time volume 2 the guermantes way

At the end of “Within a Budding Grove” Marcel and his beloved grandmother were coming to the end of their time spent by the seaside. “Guermantes…” opens with the family having moved into a new apartment, connected to that of the Guermantes. It’s a shock to their systems, with Marcel lamenting his lost country home, but he does manage to find consolation. The book is informed by three main themes: Marcel’s obsession with Mme de Guermantes; his friendship with Saint-Loup and latter’s relationship with his mistress, Rachel; and the effect on French society of the Dreyfus affair. This latter runs as a thread through the story and it’s clear it was extremely divisive .

Marcel is very much a man driven by his emotions, which in this book are exercised by his unrealistic vision of Mme de Guermantes. His previous passions for the actress Berma, Gilberte and Albertine have fallen by the wayside and his obsession with Mme de Guermantes is, of course, all-consuming (as are all of his passions). He sees her from a distance at the theatre, while watching Berma with indifference; at one point, the latter was his be-all and end-all! He stalks his neighbour in the street simply to get the pleasure of an acknowledgement as they pass. And he visits his old friend Saint-Loup, her nephew, at his barracks in an attempt to effect an introduction. To the reader, it’s perhaps something of a mystery as to why Marcel is so taken with her; it may be part of his mother-complex coming through again, or simply the glamour attached to her name; but in any event, he’s obsessed. And I have to say that, as someone with slightly obsessive tendencies, I’ve not read anyone who writes quite so well about this!

A fair amount of the book is taken up with Marcel’s visit to Saint-Loup, and interestingly enough our narrator seems to get on quite well once away from his normal setting. Instead of the invalidish young man, he seems to take a fair amount of exercise and mixes regularly with Saint-Loup’s fellow officers. However, Saint-Loup’s concern for his friend is a constant reminder that Marcel is not always in good health, and I was drawn back again to the knowledge we now have of him wrestling with illness in his cork-lined room.

It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.

There is much discussion of military tactics, as well as Dreyfus, but he does eventually manage to persuade Saint-Loup to try to arrange a meeting with his aunt. Alas, this doesn’t happen, but then Saint-Loup visits on leave and we are introduced to the strand of the plot dealing with his love-life. It’s a turbulent one, with Saint-Loup’s mistress Rachel calling the shots, although Marcel stands cynically back, recognising her as he does from a previous encounter at a brothel. There are scenes and rows, with Marcel (and everyone else!) seeming to think Saint-Loup would be better off without Rachel. How much of this is due to her Jewish heritage is another question…

The final long section of the book takes place in the salon of Mme Villeparisis, where the narrator encounters many familiar characters from the first two books. His old school friend Bloch is as awkward and obtuse as ever; Odette Swann puts in an appearance; Saint-Loup comes and goes; and Marcel attains his dream of meeting Mme de Guermantes (although it’s an oddly understated encounter). But much of the focus is again on the Dreyfus affair, the opposing views and the effects on society. Both Bloch and Rachel are Jewish and this colours the attitudes of many of the aristocratic attendees towards them. Towards the end of the book, the rather slimy de Charlus reappears and offers to take charge of Marcel – a rather alarming prospect, really… Part One of Guermantes ends with a family drama and I have to admit I was tempted to keep right on reading!

… Memories and griefs are fleeting things. There are days when they recede so far that we are barely conscious of them, we think that they have gone forever. Then we pay attention to other things.

Well, that’s a short summary of a long work! And with Proust, of course, the big problem is always that so much has been written about him already. However, I’ll pull out some themes and things which struck me most strongly. First off, the portrait of the complexities of French society at the time is masterly; it’s a rigidly structured edifice with a fixed heirarchy; woe and betide anyone who doesn’t conform or fit in! The salon sequence is often funny, filled with wonderful character sketches, and to be honest shows most of them up as rampant snobs. Marcel obviously relishes being amongst these people, however, and he is a wonderful observer of their foibles – of one attendee, for example, he says:

Having suffered for some weeks from a nervous insomnia which resisted every attempt at treatment, he had given up going to bed, and, half-dead with exhaustion, went out only whenever his work made it imperative.

As for the sequence in the barracks, I admit this was where the book dragged very slightly for me; I can only take so much discussion of military tactics… However, I found myself wondering about Saint-Loup; although often solicitous and kind towards Marcel, there are times where he’s almost detached and ignores his friend. Despite lauding Marcel’s intelligence to his colleagues, I found myself wondering whether Saint-Loup was actually make fun a little of Marcel. The difficulty, as I’ve mentioned before, is that we see everything through the prism of Marcel’s eyes, and he’s not always the most reliable narrator!

Marcel Proust in 1895 – Otto Wegener (1849-1924) – détail / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The rigid social heirarchy also affects women very strongly, perhaps more so than men. Certainly, “Guermantes…” reveals very differing lives for women of differing classes; the contrast between attitudes towards Mme de Guermantes and Rachel is marked, with Marcel very dismissive of women of her type. In many ways the relationship between Saint-Loup and Rachel echoes that of Swann and Odette and reflects the remarkably convuluted system of moral judgements which existed at the time.

It has been said that silence is strength; in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved. It increases the anxiety of the one who waits. Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart; and what barrier is so insurmountable as silence? It has been said also that silence is torture, capable of goading to madness the man who is condemned to it in a prison cell. But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silence is to have to endure the silence of the person one loves!

I mentioned the Dreyfus Affair, a running theme in the story, and one which actually engeders some quite painful discussions. I won’t relate it in detail here, because there’s a substantial Wikipedia entry on it, but basically Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery officer falsley convicted for espionage. The case was a scandal, with Zola famously defending Dreyfus and having to go into exile because of this. French society was divided and the affair revealed a shocking amount of anti-semitism. That’s what I mean by painful; the views expressed by some of the characters are vile, and make difficult reading, although I suppose this reflected the attitudes of the time. Not nice, though; and it made me very saddened that we still seem to be plagued by such intolerance.

Anyway, to get back to the book, “Guermantes…” was a completely engrossing read, and I surprised myself a little by getting so involved in it. Proust writes, of course, beautifully; long, sinuous, complex sentences; incredible detail; and he captures emotions so perfectly. The sequence where Marcel returns unexpectedly from his visit to Saint-Loup and sees his beloved grandmother almost with the eyes of a stranger is quite outstanding, for example; and as I said above, no-one writes obsession quite so well as Proust.

proust hardbacks and paperbacks in search of lost time

Hardback version vs paperback version….

As I mentioned in my short summary, “Guermantes Pt 1” ends with a somewhat understated family drama; the book was of course published in 1920, and part 2 came out a year later, which must have been a bit of a wait for those following the story. However, a rather odd fact came to light when I was checking out the use of a particular term right at the end of the book. I started my journey with Proust by reading the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation which was published in the 1980s, an edition which came in three chunky volumes. I’d been struggling a little physically with it, so when I had some birthday money at the end of last year, I invested in a four volume Everyman edition in hardback which is definitely easier to handle. This is the 1980s version revised again by D.J. Enright, and it was the use of the term ‘rent boy’ which threw me a little, as it seemed a little modern. However, when I went to check with my older version (the term there is ‘renter’, so I suppose the modern phrase is a little clearer), I discovered that the 1980s edition had combined the two separate “Guermantes…” volumes into one story and it just ran on continuously without a break – not even an indication that this had been originally published as two separate volumes and there was a year between publication. I confess to being vaguely miffed about this as I like to read as closely to the original as is ever possible in a translation; and the combining of the two separate books just seemed wrong to me. So I’m kind of glad I switched to the Everyman edition, particularly as that divide allows you to come to terms with the family event which happens at the end of the first book.

That’s by the way, really. I’m just really happy to have reconnected with Proust and his masterpiece (particularly after reading around his work recently, as well as picking up any number of Proust shorter works). It was the perfect book to round off our week of reading from 1920 and I’m so glad the Club nudged me towards this. The work really *isn’t* difficult to read; it just requires time and commitment, and as we’re all likely to have more spare hours at home going forward I may well have chosen the right moment to rejoin “In Search of Lost Time”… ;D

Fragments of correspondence from a master #proust

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Letters to the Lady Upstairs by Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis

Well. Proust. There’s a lot of Proust on the TBR, most of it very long. However, I was recently in the middle of reading several very loooooong books and as I hinted in my last post, I was suddenly hit with the urge to read something short and finish it quickly. And once I’d read “Nagasaki”, this little collection of letters by Proust perfectly hit the spot!

Between 1909 and 1919, while he was living at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Marcel Proust exchanged letters with his upstairs neighbour, a Madame Williams. This was during the period when he was working on his magnum opus, “A La Recherche de Temps Perdu”; even at the best of times he seems to have been a sensitive man, and any disturbance or noise whilst working sent him into a flap! So the letters began as eloquent requests for silence on a particular day or time; but as they went on, a friendship developed between the two neighbours and led to gifts of flowers or some of Proust’s writings. Both Mme Williams and Proust had to leave the building in 1919 on its sale; the writer died in 1922, with his neighbour taking her own life in 1931.

Only some of the letters have survived, 26 in all, and none of Mme Williams’ letters to Proust. Additional complexities arose when the letters were discovered, owing to the lack of dating; however, much study and scholarship has gone into putting them into what is thought is the correct order. And despite their brevity, they amazingly really do bring Proust to life; the little glimpses of his daily routine, the health difficulties he faced, his sadness and worries during the First World War, all seen through these sweet, formally written yet engaging little notes.

The book is enhanced with illustrations: a couple of reproductions of the letters; a photograph of Mme Williams; a plan of Proust’s apartments. And the supporting material is excellent; an index, supporting notes and a wonderful afterword by translator Lydia Davis where she not only discusses the letters themselves, but also describes the current state of the old apartment (now part of a bank’s premises). The book is less than 100 pages long yet really took me into Proust’s world.

Reading “Letters to the Lady Upstairs” was a real joy, and unexpectedly moving. The letters only came to light relatively recently and only represent a small part of his correspondence with his neighbour; I do hope more are discovered one day. And now I really ought to get on to reading some of his longer works…..

On My Book Table… 4 – decisions, decisions!

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Since I last reported on the state of my Book Table, it has been through several changes as there have been bookish comings and goings as well as raging indecision about what to read next. This of course is particularly bad at what is a busy time of year, but as I’m now off work for the festive season, it seemed a good time to tidy up a little and take stock. So here is the current state of the Table itself:

As you can probably tell, there are a number of heavyweight books on there (and I don’t mean in size necessarily, but in content). Shall we take a closer look?

This stack is mainly review books – some lovely British Library Editions, glorious Russians from Pushkin Press, an intriguing title from Michael Walmer and an author new to me from NYRB. Then there’s “Jam Today”, a book I was very excited to track down recently. All of these would be ideal next reads.

This is what I mean by heavyweight… Essays, short fiction, Montaigne, Proust, Pessoa, philosophy. I’d like to read them all at once, which is not helpful. Especially as I feel as if I could quite easily have a month of reading nothing but Fitzcarraldo books!

And finally, Barthes… Three physical books (there is a digital one too) and the Binet book about Barthes which has been on the Table for months. I am nearing the end of “Mythologies”, but unsure whether I should read another Barthes straight off or let the first settle a bit…

Of course, there are the birthday arrivals which came into the house recently and haven’t made it to the Book Table yet (and they’ll no doubt be joined by some Christmas arrivals at some point soon). A further complication exists in the form of the Book Token my work presented me with on my birthday which is itching to be spent. An embarrassment of riches, but I do find that the more choices I have, the harder the decision becomes! What would *you* read next??? 😀

A little help with reading the hardest books in the world? :)

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How Proust can Change your Life by Alain de Botton

So maybe that’s a slightly flippant title for a post – is Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past/In Search of Lost Time the hardest book in the world? I’m not sure – I’ve read many a ‘difficult’ book in my time, but so far I’ve only got through the first two volumes of Proust (after owning them for over 30 years). The problem for me is more with the structure of the book than anything else; they require long, uninterrupted periods of reading to do them justice, and frankly my life is so fragmented that I rarely get that. However, I *am* determined that I will one day finish the sequence.

That’s perhaps by the by; what I’m supposed to be writing about here is a book *about* Proust, and quite a famous one at that. I’ve been aware of de Botton’s book for some time (I’m sure I’ve seen reviews on blogs I follow) and so when I came across a copy in a charity shop the time seemed right to read it.

“How Proust Can Change Your Life” is structured in nine sections, each taking a different angle on the great author. So one will consider “How to Love Life Today” while another ponders on the problem of “How to Suffer Successfully” and yet another looks at “How to Express Your Emotions”. Each section is a scintillating mix of biographical snippets, philosophical musings and insights into the work of Proust, how it’s best read and what you’ll get out of the books.

One section I found particularly appealing was “How To Take Your Time”; I read fast, often too fast, and the whole point with Proust is to read slowly, appreciating the language and the detail. Plot isn’t necessarily all, it’s experiencing the moment in depth, in all its glory. In our modern, fast-paced, short attention span world that’s harder to do than it ever was, and I imagine I’ll return to de Botton’s book for guidance on this as I need to slow my reading if I can!

Interestingly, though, it’s not only to Proust that de Botton’s thoughts can be applied; they’re more like ideas for life in general, and indeed how Proust can change the way you treat the everyday. In many ways, this reads almost like a self-help book, taking advice from the great author and using this to improve ourselves; appreciating what we have and not coveting more; and being honest about our friendships and what they really are for.

The final chapter goes into territory that makes me twitch a little – “How to Put Books Down”! Are books the be-all and end-all, or should we be spending more of our time living instead of reading? I suppose there needs to be balance, but to honest I’ve always agreed with Morrissey that “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more”….!

So, a fascinating book which serves to make Proust approachable as well getting you thinking about your lot in life, and life in general. De Botton is not scared to point out flaws or make criticisms, even having a bit of a laugh at the expense of his subject at times. However, he portrays the Proust and his great work as approachable and essential which hopefully will help me to get onto the next volume!

June – and the P-word!

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Yes – that means I’m actually considering reading plans for this month; and we all know how disastrously things like that tend to go for me! For example, I honestly intended to take part in the LibraryThing Virago group’s First World War read-along – and I’ve totally failed to read even one book for that, despite having several on the shelves. I collapsed halfway through the group read of Barbara Pym last year, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that I can’t stick to reading plans and simply having to follow my reading Muse.

particular

However, despite that – there are two things I intend to try to read this month. The first is a Mary Hocking book. Mary sadly passed away earlier this year, and she’s a Virago author who is a particular favourite of HeavenAli, who’s designate June as RememberMary. So I intend to read the Hocking novel “A Particular Place” in support of this, and I do hope that lots of you can join in.

Proust.BuddingGrove.F66g.big

The second book I want to read is the second book in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” sequence: “Within a Budding Grove” (as it’s titled in my volume). I was very, *very* happy to finally make my way through the first part, and I want to keep the momentum going as much as I can without excluding other books. Spacing them out to say one a month would be manageable, which is what I hope to do. Plus I will be reading alongside another LibraryThinger, Laura, and it always helps to have someone to keep you company within an epic book!!

Apart from that, I am keeping my options open. I seem to be currently enjoying a lot of European lit, and also Moomins – but whether I will stay with them all throught the month remains to be seen. Watch this space…..

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