Saturday, August 30, 2014

"The Guermantes Way" By Marcel Proust

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust. Translated by Mark Treharne. 619 pp. Penguin Classics. $20.00 (paperback)

The Guermantes Way is the third part of "In Search of Lost Time," Marcel Proust's seven-volume novel (readers can also refer to my comments on the first and second volumes). In this volume, the unnamed narrator is now a young man who emerges into the fashionable salons of Paris and moves from adulation of the aristocracy to disillusionment.

The central focus is the narrator's relationship to Madame Oriane de Guermantes. At first, the narrator associates the name "Guermantes" with a glamorous, inaccessible realm. He becomes infatuated with Madame de Guermantes and arranges his morning walks so that he runs into her. He watches her grand, fashionably late entrance into her cousin's theater box. There are, in fact, a number of scenes associated with the theater, a realm that is analogous to the theatrical, ritualized salon of Madame de Guermantes and her adulterous husband Basin.

Madame de Guermantes prides herself on her wit and her supposed independence from convention. Yet her wit is often cruel and her judgments harsh, and none of her salon regulars would dare contradict her. Further, her independence is a cover for relentless social climbing and concern for appearance. The final, devastating scene depicts the Guermantes' relative indifference toward their friend Charles Swann, an important character in the first volume, who is quite ill and doesn't have long to live. The couple are too busy rushing off in their carriage to their next social engagement to give Swann much sympathy.

In The Guermantes Way, Proust  continues his bildungsroman, the education of a youth, with a scathing portrait of the aristocracy as seen through the eyes of his formerly star-struck narrator.

Written in memory of my mother, Dorothy Tone (1923-2006), who first spoke to me about Proust. 

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