Monday, December 08, 2014

Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way (1920-21)

I was treating this book as sort of the make-or-break point. I had previously read the first two for a class as a college senior (without retaining much, naturally), so I knew on some level that I could do it. But could I handle a THIRD one?!? Also, because this one is the longest and the fifth and sixth are the shortest, we are now more or less exactly halfway through the whole. Whoa: we're halfway there. Whoa, whoa: living on a prayer. OKAY. Anyway, ain't no stopping me now.

I never thought I'd get so emotionally involved in these books, but there's no denying it: more or less in the middle of The Guermantes Way, there's a section about the senescence and death of the narrator's beloved grandmother, and the fact is, I may have sorta kinda teared up a little. YES, this may have been in large part because it reminded me so vividly of times when I've had to deal with such things with beloved pets, but while I know that makes it sound a li'l backhanded-compliment-y, it is by no means meant that way. Proust absolutely nails it.

BUT, that's a relatively short segment, by Proustian standards. What else we got? Well, the Guermantes are a noble family whom everyone is jealous of and/or wants to get as close to as possible. The narrator has another of his ridiculous crushes-from-afar on the Duchesse de Guermantes, in spite of never having spoken a word to her. Those are kind of his thing, don't you see, and yes, he seems ever-more like a monstrous narcissist.

Be that as it may, once his passion abates (nothing having come of it), he actually gets to know the Duke and Duchess, and gets to go to their salons. There's a lot of talk about this and that, notably the Dreyfus Affair, which everyone has a strong opinion on, usually at least as much because of the social maneuvering it allows them than the actual facts of the case, or (as you'd expect) anti-Semitism or lack thereof.

In the back half, particularly, the book gets rather mesmerizing in places. The Duke and Duchess are a magnetically poisonous couple: he doesn't (we are repeatedly told) love her or even much like, her, he's habitually, serially unfaithful with very little pretense of secrecy, and he's cruel to her in private—in spite of which, he's perversely proud of her famed wit and cleverness, and an expert at manipulating social situations so as to bring it to the forefront. They feed on each other.

There are a few telling parts I want to mention. First, near the beginning of the aforementioned “grandmother” section, a decidedly unhelpful doctor assures her that her illness is all in her mind, and she just needs to act like she's healthy. Accordingly, she goes for a walk with the narrator on the Champs-Elysées. But it is not all in her mind, and in short order, she starts having some sort of crisis, and has to stop in a public toilet where you pay a few sous to get in. While she's in there, the attendant gossips mean-spiritedly about others of her clientele and contemptuously turns away a woman whom she thinks is too low-class. When the grandmother gets out—having had a minor stroke—she exclaims:

I heard the whole of the 'Marquise's' [the attendant's sarcastic title for the woman she turned away] conversation with the keeper. . . . Could anything have been more typical of the Guermantes, or the Verdurins and their little clan?

There you go, ladies and gents: all this glittering social opulence is exactly equivalent to condemning people for shitting the wrong way. Seems about right to me.

Another devastating bit occurs right at the end: the Duchesse de Guermante has invited Swann to go on vacation to Italy with them, which he refuses. Why not? she asks him.

But, my dear lady, it's because I shall then have been dead for several months. According to the doctors I've consulted, by the end of the year the thing I've got—which may, for that matter, carry me off at any moment—won't in any case leave me more than three or four months to live, and even that is a generous estimate.

And the Duchess' response:

“What's that you say?” cried the Duchess, stopping for a moment on her way to the carriage and raising her beautiful, melancholy blue eyes, now clouded by uncertainty. Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner or showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow; not knowing which to choose, she felt obliged to pretend not to believe that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, in order to comply with the first, which at the moment demanded less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict was to deny that any existed.

That'll draw blood. Naturally, the Duke and Duchess go on discussing trivialities. At the end of each book there are these little synopses which reiterate the main themes and actions in a terse, clipped manner. I'm not sure if these are Proust's own or if they're Moncrieff's addition, but the end of the one for The Guermantes' Way is absolutely perfect in summing up the attitudes here: “Swann's illness. The Duchess's red shoes.”

Yes, there's no question that I liked this one better than its predecessors. Let's see what the back half brings.

Oh, another thing I liked: at one point he refers to leeches as “reptiles.” I thought that was a lot of fun.


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