Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Guermantes Way

I have not been following the “Year of Reading Proust” closely, the group read project to get through the entirety of Remembrance of Things Past aka In Search of Lost Time in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first volume’s publication. However, I was more than ready to dig into the third volume this summer after a few years since reading the second, and I started about the time it looks like the group read was wrapping up.

Starting off Mark Treharne’s translation of The Guermantes Way was very easy, like reencountering an old friend, which is more or less what Proust’s style is once you have gotten so far. When reading In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, I spent some time thinking about the way the length of the text could substitute for multiple rereadings, with each encounter evolving our perception in the way Marcel’s perception of a sonata changes in time—and Proust begins the third volume with a meditation on a similar issue of how perceptions of people change. The people in question are the Guermantes clan, particularly the Duchesse de Guermantes, and the book focuses on taking its time to reveal a series of encounters (or at first non-encounters) with the Duchesse that gradually change Marcel’s perception as a young man from complete idolatry and infatuation to more realism and even a certain jaded skepticism of the Duc, Duchesse, and their restricted social circle.

Early on, when Marcel goes to the theatre and snatches a glimpse of the Duchesse during his days of infatuation, we get a glimpse of where that infatuation will head. The performer that night is La Berma, an opera singer who in the second volume Marcel had idolized from afar but then found extremely disappointing when attending his first performance. Now, hearing her again, he suddenly appreciates her as an artist, but only because he can look at her with more detachment. Likewise, unrealistic expectations will lead first to extreme disappointment with the Duchesse, but then a deeper appreciation of her life and what it means that can realistically see humor in its flaws.

Like the previous volumes, this one is a joy to read, although in this case I would make an exception and say that the short Chapter 1 of Part II, which recounts the death of Marcel’s grandmother, does not work as well as the rest of the book. It is even a little dry, and basically reads as if it is going through the motions before he can get back to the real action. Certainly death can interrupt our ongoing lives in this way, but I’m not sure Proust manages to turn that into an aesthetic opportunity. Beyond that section, because focused so much on social circles this volume is the most conversation-heavy so far. Proust is a master of depicting people wittily through their dialogue, but I must admit I prefer the long passages of reflection to the long conversations.

The novel also brings back Albertine, now suddenly interested in rendezvous with Marcel, and gives the first inkling of what promises to be a very strange relation to M. de Charlus. Given the sadomasochistic qualities of Charlus, I suspect the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, takes its title in part from evolving this relationship further.