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


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

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


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!

Reading Proust: Swann’s Way


The reading of Marcel Proust’s epically long work, known variously as “Remembrance of Things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time”, depending which translation you read, has the reputation of being one of the most difficult things to do amongst bookish folks! And it’s true that I’ve been carrying around my three Penguin volumes for over three decades, thinking that one day I would read Proust. In fact, reading Proust is often spoken of with the same kind of trepidation as the reading of Joyce’s “Ulysses” although with the Frenchman it’s the length of the volumes (and the sentences!) which seems to be the most off-putting.


Whatever – as I said here, I was moved to embark on Proust properly (after a couple of abortive attempts in the past) thanks to a fellow LibraryThinger, Laura, and I’m going to tackle it a novel at a time, with gaps in between. So the first one is in my volume entitled Swann’s Way, and that’s where I have begun.

First, a word on Proust himself, from Wikipedia: “Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ (‘In Search of Lost Time’; earlier translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’). It was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.”

Interestingly, he died before the work was fully completed and there have been different versions of the later books pieced together over the years. The first English translation was by C. K. S. Moncrieff, from what is now regarded as a non-definitive version, and he was actually working on it while Proust was still alive. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and was the standard for years, until a new French version was put together and so Moncrieff’s translation was updated to reflect this by Terence Kilmartin, and it’s this version I have; an omnibus in three volumes from Penguin in the 1980s.

More recently, there have been new English versions by a group of different translators. I confess I’m a little wary of the idea of the various volumes not being rendered in the same ‘translated voice’ so I’ve stuck with my older version and so we’ll see how I get on!

Book 1 is “Swann’s Way”, and it’s divided into four sections: Overture; Combray; Swann in Love and Place-Names: The Name. It’s 462 pages long, which is half the page length of some Russian chunksters I’ve read recently – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a quick read….

“Overture” introduces us to our unnamed narrator (I believe he later is given the name Marcel), a boy much occupied by love of his mother, and the need for her to come and tuck him in with a goodnight kiss; if family friend Charles Swann is visiting for dinner, then he doesn’t get his night-time visit. Here we first come across the character who will dominate much of the first book. Marcel is obviously a highly strung, perhaps sickly, boy; subject to dreams and night terrors, unreasonably anxious about things. This section ends with Proust’s most famous piece of writing, that of the ‘peitit madeleine’, the taste of which triggers memory.


“Combray” tells of Marcel’s life when his family are visiting the country and staying with great-aunt Leonie, an invalid, and of the countryside around them and the ambience, sights, smells, sounds and people of the area. There are two country walks the family take, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, which are described in much detail; and Swann has become someone they cannot visit because his wife is staying locally and it transpires he has made an unfortunate marriage. Marcel catches a glimpse of Gilberte, the Swanns’ daughter, and is instantly smitten.

“Swann in Love” gets to the heart of the story, going back in years to tell the tale of Charles Swann’s great love: his passion for Odette, basically a high-class courtesan, and the effect on his life and his psyche. This section charts the course of their affair in detail: the ups and downs; the high emotions; the jealousy and betrayal; and the reversing of roles. Much of this takes place via the house of the Verdurins, proto-Bohemians, holding soirees and deploring ‘bores’. It’s a very intense tale, and a remarkable portrait of love in all its beauties and horrors.

The final part of the book, “Place-Names: The Name”, jumps forward again and takes us to Paris, where Marcel and his family have returned home from Combray. Marcel re-encounters Gilberte, and they become playmates in the Bois du Boulogne. The passion of Swann for Odette is replicated in a slightly watered-down, younger way by Marcel and his obsession with Gilberte. The book ends with the older Marcel revisiting the Bois and regretting the passing of time and the loss of an age of elegance.

That’s a really short summary to give some idea of what the book is about, but to be honest, events as such are not what Proust is about. For a start, there’s his prose and sentence structure – incredibly long and labyrinthine, they’re actually sometimes hard to follow, but his writing is really quite gorgeous and atmospheric. We’re reading about emotions and images and the landscape and the stars and what’s inside a human and what it sees outside of itself.

“It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.”

To be a little more specific, the book is dominated by Swann and his passion; and as a portrait of hopeless, doomed love, it’s unparalleled. Charles Swann is a stockbroker of Jewish extraction; well-known, well-connected, friends with many royals and a serial seducer. He seems to do little but chase women, collect art and occasionally scribble at an article on Vermeer. When he meets Odette de Crecy, he is initially unimpressed, as she is very much not his type. Odette, however, is making a play for Swann, and initially the seduction attempts are all from her. Odette attends the somewhat strange gatherings at the Verdurins’, and here Proust has a wonderful time mocking them and their pretensions. He’s very crushing, poking fun at them all, and you wonder initially why a woman like Odette would want to mix with them (unless it’s just to meet potential male protectors!) However, as the friendship between Swann and Odette continues, the balance shifts; finding her unattractive, he strives to make her appeal to him and eventually does by turning her into an illusion, a replica of a work of art loves. By turning his perception of her into the image of something he can love he unwittingly becomes the creator of his own doom.

“Among all the modes by which love is brought into being, among all the agents which disseminate that blessed bane, there are few so efficacious as this gust of feverish agitation that sweeps over us from time to time. For then the die is cast, the person whose company we enjoy at that moment is the person we shall henceforward love. It is not even necessary for that person to attracted us, up till then, more than or even as much as others. All that was needed was that our predilection should become exclusive. And that condition is fulfilled when – in this moment of deprivation – the quest for the pleasures we enjoyed in his or her company is suddenly replaced by an anxious, torturing need, whose object is the person alone, an absurd, irrational need which the laws of this world make it impossible to satisfy and difficult to assuage – the insensate, agonising need to possess exclusively.”

As Swann falls deeply in love, Odette moves away from him. I found myself, the more I read, coming to the conclusion that he was just a bit dim! He wilfully ignores the reality of Odette’s lifestyle and past, never questioning what kind of woman she really is, until it is far too late and he is utterly obsessed. Proust (and narrator Marcel, who interjects a little disconcertingly towards the end of this section) dissects Swann’s emotions and feeling, charting the course of an all-encompassing passion. As Swann’s love and jealously become more intense, he discovers more of Odette’s lifestyle and hinted-at perversions – none of which assuage his feelings or cool his ardour.

“I do feel it’s absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn’t even interesting, for they tell me she’s an absolute idiot!” she added, with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus” Princess des Laumes,

And I did find myself wondering where my sympathies lay. I felt that Proust wanted us to take Swann’s side, empathising with his pain and the indignities he goes through in his pursuit of Odette. But as a 21st century woman, I found myself understanding something of Odette’s need to survive in what is a rigid, restricted, caste-bound society world; Swann has money and privilege, which he takes for granted, but Odette only has herself to use to obtain money and security. I questioned just a little bit, too, whether Swann would actually have fallen in love with Odette, as when we see him in high society, he is obviously so much at home, so much of that milieu that it’s hard to imagine him taking such a step outside it. However, there are no absolutes in human behaviour!


Reflecting on this book, I realise that it covers so many types of love: that of Marcel for his mother; Swann for Odette; Marcel for Gilberte; but also the other friends and family, and the landscape and natural world. Proust, through his narrator Marcel, captures beautifully and poetically the confusion of youth, full of vague, unspecified but intense longings. As he wanders through Swann’s Way or the Guermantes Way, the imagery of nature, sky and land is stunning. Finishing the book I was left with a series of most vivid and beautiful images – embracing the hawthorns; a particular musical phrase played at gathering; ghastly soirees at Verdurins; and of course the evocative taste of the madeleines.

But if this book is about anything, it is about time – the consistent theme throughout. There are in effect two Marcels – the older version who is looking back to the child; and even the young narrator is bound up in the effects of time upon his life. Time is the thing humans have the hardest job coming to terms with – how it passes, how to speed up or slow down that passing, the effect time has on us, the loss and regret at what has passed. For all of us, our past continues to resonate throughout our lives (more than we might like to admit), particularly our childhood; and Proust captures this so brilliantly in his sensuous, dreamlike prose.

“Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.”

I’ve been asked if Proust is difficult to read, and the answer is actually no, not really. Logically enough, for a book so focussed on time, that’s the one thing you have to be prepared to give it. There is absolutely no way you can read “ROTP” quickly; I’m a fast reader, but I slowed right down here and I found the best way to enjoy the experience was to let the gorgeous prose just wash over me. Yes, sometimes you get a little lost and have to go back over a sentence or two; yes, sometimes the lush, lyrical description and the complex sentence structure *can* appear off-putting; but the effort is most definitely worth it. I thought I would be clever and read some Proust every day alongside another book, but I found it impossible – I was so engrossed in the stories of Swann and Marcel that I was drawn back in, having the experience of almost being absorbed into the book to the exclusion of everything else (which is not good when you’re supposed to be working, but you’re wanting to read your book!). The writing was so vivid and involving that it many ways the book became a kind of alternative reality that I was living through.


This book (only the first of the sequence!) will continue to reverberate with me for a long time to come; my head is full of images of the country round Combray; of Marcel embracing the beautiful hawthorn blossom; of the Bois du Boulogne in autumn; of young Marcel’s nightlight; of the profile of Odette and her beautiful, elegant clothes. What I can put into a blog post is inevitably going to be limited – after all, people have written books and books analysing Proust and I’ve only scratched the surface here. But I will continue to give my impressions, my response to the wonderful prose of Proust. This will definitely be the year that I read “Remembrance of Things Past”!

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