#3: THE GUERMANTES WAY, by Marcel Proust
For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be dreamily recalling #3, the third volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, English title: The Guermantes Way.
For the past three summers, I’ve committed to reading a volume of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (English translations call it either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This past summer, I read number 3: The Guermantes Way. I find that a year is the ideal amount of time to take a breather from Proust. By the time the summer rolled around, I was very eager to embark on this 900-page volume of lavish detail, seemingly inane social niceties, and a lush bouquet of memories.
By volume three, our nameless narrator–whom most critics call “Marcel,” because of the intended similarities to an autobiographical monster–has become a young man. He has continued his delicate, self-conscious obsession with Albertine, a girl he met at the beach in the second volume. But Marcel is growing up. And he is beginning to realize that finding his place in upper-class French society may be more important than anything right now.
This volume is perhaps a more complete “coming of age” book than the previous two. Here we find the narrator finally breaking into the tightly guarded upper ring of society and we share his victory. But we also come to share his disillusionment as he realizes that the Duchesse de Guermantes, Madame de Villeparisis, Monsieur Charlus, and the other exalted characters of this long-desired, elite universe are simply, well, human.
For me, a great deal of the brilliance of The Guermantes Way was wrapped up in a narrative phenomenon that I am going to call simultaneous acquisition. Instead of gaining insight before the narrator, we gain vision along with him. We make realizations at the same moment and, therefore, the power of those realizations is far more powerful to us than if we had been omniscient readers. But the narrator’s vision is not perfect, and this is something Proust will not let us forget. Even a recently lucid young man still moves in society with a film over his eyes:
At any rate I realized the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Francoise loved or hated me. And thus it was she who first gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information—a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and love.
Despite 900 pages of fabulous detail and elegantly constructed conversations, Proust wants us to remember that we can never truly have “direct knowledge” about other people. It is a necessary realization for our dreamy narrator and yet we worry about him. When you reach the final page and exhale deeply, you cannot help but maintain a sense of fear for what circumstances will befall the young protagonist. For once your dreams have crumbled, to whom do you turn? I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out this summer, when I take on the ominously titled volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah.
I have to be honest. I recall this vague plot outline with great difficulty (and a little Googling for the character names). After 900 pages of Proust’s gloriously elaborate and exhausting prose, one’s brain is awash in sensation but incapable of maintaining any concrete detail or action. At least, that seems to be consistently true for me when I read Proust. So, why do I keep coming back, year after year?
I don’t have a simple answer for you. All I can say is that, every summer, Proust gives me a new pair of eyes.