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