M.’s infatuation with Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust’s Guermantes Way, proves to be short lived. One day his mother tells him “You really must stop hanging about trying to meet Mme de Guermantes. You’re becoming a laughing stock.” And with that, he is cured of the malady of his obsession, much more easily than Swann was cured of his obsession with Odette, but once again Proust makes the comparison between love and disease. At this same time, Saint-Loup breaks with Rachel. He goes to Morocco to forget the affair, but sends M. a letter telling him that Mme Stermaria, a beautiful and desirable young woman recently divorced from her husband, is now available. This offers M. occasion for a new passion. He writes her a note, inviting her to dinner, and then waits in his room for an answer.
While M. waits for Mme de Stermaria’s reply, Albertine arrives unannounced. She has returned to Paris earlier than usual, and she stays in his room for hours. They eventually start kissing, and instead of a reprise of the rebuff he received from her at the Grand Hotel in Balbec, they lie down together in his bed and engage in fondling and caressing that seems to stop just short of intercourse. M. says “… her caresses had procured in me the satisfaction that which she could not fail to notice”. Albertine stays with him after this, and they continue to talk. Mme de Stermaria, however, proves to be more elusive. M. has invited her to dinner on an island in the Bois de Boulogne, where he imagines that he will “possess” her, and she has accepted his invitation. However, at the last minute she sends him a note cancelling the tryst. M. is crushed, but is consoled by the arrival of Saint-Loup. They set off in the fog to dine at a restaurant. M. reveals to Robert that he has been invited to dinner with the Guermantes, and Robert informs him that his uncle Charlus would like to see him also, and urges M. to visit the Baron at 11:00, after dinner at the Guermantes.
Dinner at the Guermantes is a pivotal moment for our young hero. Although he is no longer in love with the Duchesse, he is still fascinated by the Guermantes mystique, and he has now gained entrance to the one of the loftiest citadels of the Faubourg Saint-Germaine. Basin, the Duc de Guermantes, greets him upon arrival, and M. mentions that he would like to see his collection of paintings by Elstir that Saint-Loup has mentioned. The Duc graciously escorts him to the gallery where the Elstirs are kept, and M. completely loses himself in admiring the wonderful paintings, to the point were he forgets about the dinner and commits the faux-pas of keeping the dinner guests waiting. Finally they all sit down to dine, and Proust readies the skewer, eager to puncture the inflated egos assembled at the Guermantes’ table.
Once again, M. experiences disappointment with the Guermantes and their dinner guests. Just as with his first encounter with Berma, he has built the Guermantes family up to such a high level in his imagination that the reality is a let-down for him. Although Oriane possesses a great wit, and is known for her barbed quips, the other aristocrats are not so brilliant. The Duc de Guermantes is a blow-hard and a bad husband, who constantly cheats on his wife, and flaunts his mistresses in front of her. The rest of their habitués are snobbish, arrogant, and dull-witted. The families (such as the Guermantes) that trace their origins back to the ancien régime or before, look down upon the newly minted aristocrats created by Napoleon, whom they perceive as usurpers. Both groups look down upon the bourgeoisie, although they have no qualms about one of their sons marrying into the upper middle class if the bride comes with a vast fortune. In all, they are more concerned with birth and breeding than with the fact that they have become irrelevant in a France which is now a republic. Their taste in art and literature is appalling, and many of them can barely speak decent French.
M. finally leaves the party at eleven to meet with M. de Charlus, who keeps him waiting in his drawing room before having him ushered in to see him. The Baron is wearing a Chinese dressing gown and is lying on a settee. The Baron accuses M. of spreading vicious lies about him, and flies into a rage, insulting and taunting him, despite M.’s protests of never having said anything bad against the Baron. The Baron continues his fury until M., in a fit of anger, picks up the Baron’s new silk hat, throws it to the ground, stomps on it, and then picks it up and begins tearing it to shreds. This display of pique has a calming affect on the Baron, who stops his insults, becomes kinder, and ends up escorting M. home in his carriage, leaving M. alone to ponder the behavior of this proud, insolent, and extremely strange man.
Proust’s The Guermantes Way ends with one of the most poignant scenes in all of the Remembrance of Things Past. M. stops by to see the Duc and Duchesse to inquire if an invitation he has received from the Princesse de Guermantes is legitimate or a prank being played on him. Swann is also there, at the invitation of Oriane, who wants to see some photographs of coins of the Order of Malta, and look over Swann’s essay on the subject. Basin is in a hurry to get to a dinner party followed by a fancy dress ball. One of his relatives is dying, and if he hears news of the death, he will have to go into mourning and miss the dinner and the masked ball, as well as an assignation with his latest mistress. So he is anxious to avoid all news that will spoil his pleasures. Swann himself is quite ill, and looks ashen. Oriane inquires if he will be accompanying them on their planned trip to Italy in the spring. Basin has already ordered the carriage for the dinner party and is literally pawing the ground in impatience to leave. Oriane says to Swann “Very well, give me in one word the reason why you can’t come to Italy.” Swann replies, “But my dear lady, it’s because I will 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.” The Duchesse is now torn between her sympathy for her oldest and dearest friend, who she now knows is dying, and fulfilling her social obligations. Basin on the other hand is telling her to hurry up. They must go. Oriane makes her way to the carriage, and just as she is about to enter, Basin notices that she is wearing black shoes with her red dress. He flies into a rage. He sends the Duchesse upstairs to retrieve her red shoes, even though they are now late for the dinner party. To Swann and M. he says “off you go before Oriane comes down again. […] If she finds you here she’ll start talking again.” And thus the Duc de Guermantes will not take a single minute to console an old friend who is dying, but will waste time sending his wife after the proper shoes for her party. Basin calls out after Swann as he is leaving “don’t let yourself be alarmed by the nonsense of those damned doctors. They’re fools. You’re as sound as a bell. You’ll bury us all.” It is quite clear, however, that Basin is just mouthing empty words.
The Guermantes Way is perhaps my favorite volume in this long saga. Proust presents us with a vivid portrait of a France that existed at the time of his story, the Belle Époque, but which has long since passed into history. We see the aristocracy, already on the way out since the Revolution, still trying to cling desperately to their social position, and in many cases unaware that they are breathing their last gasp. We see the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie as evidenced by the rising popularity of the salon of the Verdurins and also that of Mme Swann. We see characters rise in importance from humble or disreputable beginnings, such as the former courtesan Odette de Crécy who is now, as Mme Swann, is a pillar of bourgeois society, while her once elegant husband has lost considerable cachet as a result of marrying her. We see a France divided by the Dreyfus affair, which brought to the fore the country’s ugly anti-Semitism and nationalist sentiments, but we also see aristocrats who bravely accept the innocence of Dreyfus, and attempt to work for justice. And we enter a world where dinner parties, soirées, salons, and musical evenings comprise the social whirl of day, and we follow M. into these gatherings so that Proust can deflate the pompous, ridicule the ignorant, and expose the sycophants and hypocrites. The structure of the novel is such that the protagonist struggles alone with his obsessions and fears, and then periodically attends a soirée or party so that we can get the pulse of the rest of Paris, and receive some comic relief in the bargain. It is also in the context of these parties that Proust expounds his theories of art and literature, often in contrast to the commonly held (and vulgar) notions of his party guests.
We thus experience discussions and citations of great art, great music, and great literature, all set against the tapestry of France at the turn of the century, with the disastrous war of 1870 in the past, and the horrors of World War I yet to come – a time when the moneyed classes spent their summers by the sea in Balbec to rest up for the frantic Paris social season, and then perhaps took a leisurely trip to Venice in the spring to refresh their spirits. In the next book we will take a peak behind the scenes, to see what else is going on this world of wealth and privilege.