Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way

(Note: This article continues our study of the individual volumes that make up Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. “The Guermantes Way” is quite lengthy, consisting of two very large chapters, so we will cover each chapter in a separate piece.)

When he was a child in Combray, the protagonist of Remembrance and his family would take long walks. They would follow one of two “ways”. The first was the way toward the town of Meseglise-la-Vineuse. This was known as the Meseglise way, or “Swann’s way” because it led past Tansonville, the Combray villa of Charles Swann. The second way was the “Guermantes way”, so named because it passed by Guermantes, the mythic estate of the aristocratic Guermantes family. We followed “Swann’s way” in the first volume. In volume three we take up the “Guermantes way”.

Young M. had long been obsessed with the Guermantes family, aristocrats who dated their origins to the early middle ages. But they remained elusive to him, an image in his imagination: “I pictured them either in tapestry, like the Comtesse de Guermantes in the ‘Coronation of Esther’ which hung in our church, or else in iridescent colors, like Gilbert the Bad in the stained glass window …” (Swann’s Way). As the first chapter of the third volume opens, M. and his family have moved into an apartment in a wing of the hotel particulier — city mansion — of the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. The Guermantes no longer represent the feudal past of Combray for our hero, but rather the Faubourg Saint-Germain. This is the quarter in Paris that is home to the aristocracy and high society. The Duchesse de Guermantes “has the highest position in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

M. becomes obsessed with the Duchesse: “it became all the more essential that I should be able to explore [ … ] the ‘salon’ of Mme de Guermantes”; and he begins, literally, to stalk her. (M. relates many of his strange actions, such as spying on Vinteuil’s daughter and her lesbian lover in Swann’s Way, or obsessively following Mme de Guermantes, in a matter-of-fact, unabashed way. He is, after all, aspiring to be a writer, so the search for knowledge and experience transcends the need for privacy on the part of his subjects. We will encounter more of his undetected observations later in the next volumes.)

At any rate, M. is in love with Mme de Guermantes from afar, and he pursues her in earnest: “Now, every morning, long before the hour at which she left her house, I went by a devious route to post myself at the corner of the street along which she generally came, and when the moment of her arrival seemed imminent, I strolled back with an air of being absorbed in something else, looking the other way, and raised my eyes to her face as I drew level with her, but as though I had not expected to see her.”

All of M.’s skulking about trying to catch glimpses of the Duchesse earns him nothing but irritation on the part of Mme de Guermantes, along with rebukes for his behavior from his family servant, Francoise. Ever resourceful when in love, however, M. hits upon the idea of visiting his friend Robert Saint-Loup at his barracks in the town of Doncieres. Ostensibly, the trip is to allow them to spend some time together, as Saint-Loup has had difficulties getting to Paris on a regular basis. But the ulterior motive is that Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes, is Saint-Loup’s aunt. M. thinks that he might get an introduction to Oriane, the object of his adoration, through the good graces of her nephew.

M. spends a wonderful time at Doncieres with Robert. He stays at an old hotel, full of charm and character, recommended by his friend, and he dines almost every night with Robert and his fellow soldiers, who get on quiet well with our young protagonist. He observes them performing military exercises, and becomes interested in the military arts. He also secures a promise from Saint-Loup that Robert will arrange a visit for him to the Duchesse of Guermantes, on the pretext of viewing some of her paintings by the artist Elstir, who is a friend of both young men. This military setting also gives Proust the opportunity to introduce the real-life Dreyfus Affair, which began with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, for allegedly passing secret documents to Germany during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The Affair blew up into a huge scandal when it became apparent to many that Dreyfus was innocent. France was divided for years over the Affair, which had distinctly anti-Semitic overtones. The Dreyfus Affair, and whether characters in the novel are Dreyfusard (for Dreyfus), or anti-Dreyfusard (against Dreyfus) is a thread that will weave itself through the next several volumes.

After his sojourn at Doncieres, M. returns to Paris, where his grandmother has become quite ill. Saint-Loup also returns to Paris, for a brief time. He forestalls setting up a meeting with his aunt for M. to view her Elstirs. Instead, the two friends go to meet Saint-Loup’s mistress, the woman who has been making his life miserable with deception and infidelity. They travel outside of Paris by train to a suburban village, where his mistress, Rachel, has been living. The village has lost its old luster, comprised now of modest homes, but it has been transformed into a place of beauty by the flowering of the pear and cherry trees. “On our way to her house we passed a row of little gardens, and I was obliged to stop, for they were all dazzlingly aflower with pear and cherry blossoms …” Saint-Loup leaves M. to admire the gardens, and fetches Rachel, whom our protagonist instantly recognizes as “Rachel when from the Lord”, the prostitute whom he could have had in a brothel for twenty francs. She is now an actress, and the three of them go on to lunch and then to the theatre, during which time Robert and Rachel quarrel and make up, only to quarrel again. The image of the low class village made attractive by the flowering fruit trees nicely parallels the character of Rachel, a low class ex-prostitute now made attractive by her wiles as an actress.

After leaving Robert, M. goes to call on Mme de Villeparisis, the old friend of his grandmother with whom they had spent much time with at Balbec. She is giving an afternoon party, and although her salon is not nearly of the same caliber as that of the Duchesse of Guermantes, it is our protagonist’s first entry into a Parisian social gathering, and a chance for Proust to do what he does best: skewer the society types and their hanger’s-on, expose their snobbery and lack of education, and show us a vast and amusing swath of Parisian life in the confines of a dinner party or soiree.

Mme de Villeparisis’ salon is attended by M. de Norpois, the diplomat and friend of M’s father, who is also Mme de Villeparisis’ long time lover. The salon is also populated by some minor members of the nobility who are required to attend because they are relatives of Mme de Villeparisis, and because they are not received at more the fashionable salons. Also in attendance are an eccentric cast of characters who include M. Pierre, a historian of the Fronde (a civil war in 17th century France), Bloch, M.’s old school friend who was now a rising dramatist, and M.’s old neighbor Legrandin, who reveals himself to be an insufferable snob, trying to pretend that he doesn’t know M., while taking every chance to flatter Mme de Villeparisis. The Marquise herself (Mme de Villeparisis is a titled Marquise) is sitting at a drawing table in a black bonnet, surrounded by watercolors and paintbrushes, where she has been painting still-life floral pieces, using flowers in various vases as models. The Duke and Duchess of Guermantes arrive, obliged to attend because Mme de Villeparisis is Oriane’s aunt. She sits briefly next to M. and remarks on seeing him walking, but in a pleasant way. In the meantime, Bloch (Dreyfusard) has been trying to badger M. de Norpois (anti-Dreyfusard) into revealing his feelings on the Dreyfus case, to no avail. Bloch then, being still rough around the edges, ill at ease in society, and rather obnoxious to boot, commits a horrendous faux-pas. He means to compliment Mme de Villeparisis by making a gesture toward her painting, but he only succeeds in toppling over a glass container containing apple blossoms, spilling all the water on the carpet. At the same moment, the historian of the Fronde, with his back to Bloch, complements the Marquise by saying “You really have a fairy’s touch.” Bloch, thinking this a jibe at him, responds insolently: “It’s not of the slightest importance; I’m not wet.” The party continues with more bad behavior on the part of the social upstarts, continued snobbery on the part of the aristocrats, and a general expression of anti-Semitism by the society types, centered on the Dreyfus affair.

M. leaves the party in the company of M. Charlus. Charlus offers to take M. in hand, to guide him through the maze of society and life, and offer M. some of the vast wisdom and learning that he has acquired over his life. Charlus then launches into an insane tirade against Bloch and his family, suggesting that the Blochs, being Jewish, should re-enact the David and Goliath story at a salon, with Bloch pere being Goliath, and in which Bloch fils as David would smite him, for the amusement of all, and then top it off by giving his mother a good thrashing. After this startling conversation, Charlus reiterates his offer to guide young M through the world. He then hops into a carriage and is off, vanishing into the night.
The chapter finishes in melancholy. M.’s grandmother’s illness has continued for some time now. Her doctor orders her to take some exercise, thinking that this will speed a cure. M. thus accompanies her on an outing to the Champs-Elysee. The weather is fine, but his grandmother is not. She has a slight stroke, and M. takes her to see nearby Professor E, who at first has little time to examine her, having a previous appointment to dine with the Minister of Commerce, and is irritated by the thought of interrupting his social affairs to occupy himself with a patient, even an old family friend. But the Professor does have a look at her in his examining room, and the prognosis is not good. “Your grandmother is doomed,” he tells M. “It was a stroke brought on by uremia.” M. takes her home, and his mother at once realizes that the grandmother will die. And thus, the women who accompanied him to Balbec, the woman who encouraged his reading, his beloved grandmother, becomes rapidly more ill and finally dies. M.s mother is plunged into a deep grief from which she never quite recovers.

(Once again, thanks to David Richardson for the Proustian portraits).

4 Responses

  1. sorry to nitpick but that
    sorry to nitpick but that French civil war is the Fronde, not Frond.

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