Sunday Morning! The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust
It seems appropriate, as we begin the third volume of In Search of Lost Time – a book in which there is a lot of socializing- to share this ultra rare film footage of what appears to be Marcel Proust, at a society wedding he attended in 1904, some four years before he largely withdrew from society and set about writing his masterpiece:
It occurred to me that there is a slight irony about Proust (and a lot of great writers, to be fair) in that he is a wonderfully astute anatomist of social life; yet, if you’re going to become a great writer, having a rich social life is perhaps the worst thing you can do. Writing is solitary and difficult and, perhaps more any other artform you can think of, uniquely painful for its most skilled practitioners. Orwell compared writing a novel to having a long debilitating disease. Hemingway said of writing “it rips the guts out of you.” Thomas Mann said a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. So, it’s understandable that a writer would try to lose themselves in socializing, drink, or drugs- and a great many have. But, it’s not writing; that’s something you do alone.
Now, Proust knew this very well; it’s one of the points he makes repeatedly in his epic, which he famously wrote in fairly extreme isolation over about fourteen years. For some reason, though, his narrator never seems to get the point that being out in society, trying to make his way through the constellation of salons in order to reach the brightest star, is not going to make him a writer, which is after all, what he really wants to do. In a sense, In Search of Lost Time, is a novel about how not to waste your life away populated by characters who do just that and a narrator who nearly does as well.
I feel this sense particularly strongly in the third volume, a book I am apparently not alone in finding to be a bit more of a slog to get through than the other numbers. There’s a tension here (and I suspect it’s intentional) between Proust’s always bright and funny prose and his pantheon of society snobs, in which the brightest star in the firmament, the unforgettable Oriane de Guermantes, is occasionally clever, and not much deeper than a papercut.
Yet, our narrator worships Madame de Guermantes from afar, making a general pest of himself by popping up along the route her carriage takes each morning. As this volume begins, his family has moved to the dependent Hôtel de Guermantes, so it’s not as if they can avoid the Duke and Duchess, but there’s no indication that she wants anything to do with our young hero either. His crush on her is a little weird. Granted, she’s of the old nobility and he imagines that, “when she spoke, her conversation, profound, mysterious, would have the strangeness of a medieval tapestry or a Gothic window.” As a child, we recall he saw her in the Combray church, where he was also stunned by the Guermantes figure in the stained-glass windows; one imagines he sees Madame in much the same way: distant, glowing, hovering ethereally in the upper regions of the sky.
So, there’s something delusional about our hero’s crush. Yes, Madame is a rich, beautiful aristocrat, who is moreover considered the most charming of the highest echelon of the Faubourg Saint-Germain; but, aside from that, what does he see in her? More importantly, what could he possibly have in common with her? Emma of “Book Around the Corner,” emphasizes Proust’s use of the verb “choisir“. “We usually fall in love and the verb “fall” implies it is an accident, not a choice.” Instead, our hero has chosen to fall in love with Oriane de Guermantes because it seems like a good idea; she fits an image of perfection in his mind. We’ve seen his worshipful veneration of his mother, Gilberte Swann, and Albertine thus far; here, the object of devotion seems something supernatural. But, his worshipping of flesh and blood women is always a bit extravagant and unreasonable.
Perhaps, this volume is a quest narrative; in order to get closer to his divinity, the narrator must first pass through the circles of the theatre, the military, and a lesser salon. At the theatre, he sees the old nobility floating in their boxes, which Proust describes like aquatic monstrosities in an aquarium. Here, our narrator finally understands why the actress Berma is great; previously, she left him cold because he was too closely analyzing her art; now, expecting little, her naturalism comes through. He has passed from unreasonable worship to aesthetic appreciation.
He travels to a military base where his friend Robert de Saint-Loup is stationed, in order to convince Saint-Loup to introduce him to his aunt, Madame de Guermantes. It’s somewhat surprising to recall that Proust himself served in the military for a year, and the scene illuminates the difference between worship and service. There’s something quite admirable about how Saint-Loup goes out of his way to serve his friend and talk him up to his fellow servicemen, and conversely something decent about their respect and admiration for Saint-Loup. Proust seems to be saying that it is natural for us to look to and admire others, even in “democratic” societies we might shun elites.
Unfortunately, Saint-Loup is busy worshipping his own fantasy, an actress he keeps as a mistress, but who our hero recognizes from a brothel he visited earlier with his schoolboy friend Bloch. He calls her “Rachel when from the Lord” after a character in Halévy’s opera La Juive, and she is a Jew, something becoming another strike against her in this society; but we also sense that Rachel really is a great actress herself. Our hero feels discomfort and embarrassment for his friend. Nevertheless, maybe he shouldn’t.
The military episode also allows Proust to bring in the controversy that will soon rip ugly holes in French society: l’affaire Dreyfus. In 1894, a French artillery officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason for passing military secrets to the German embassy and sent to Devil’s Island. The problem was Dreyfus was innocent; it was soon found that an officer Charles Esterhazy was the real spy, although he was not, like Dreyfus, a Jew. Instead of righting the wrong, high officials in the military suppressed the new evidence, acquitted Esterhazy, and laid additional charges against Dreyfus based on forged documents.
As the lie started to crumble, French society divided into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, and antisemitism that had seemed to be waning in the Belle Époque roared back to cultural life. As our hero makes his entry into the salon of Madame de Villeparisis, he hears the debate carried out again, this time between the diplomat Norpois (who earlier insulted his writing) and his schoolboy friend Bloch. His friend doesn’t realize it, but his social position is sliding, silently, out beneath him. When the bore Mme de Villeparisis snubs him, implying Bloch is no longer welcome, he doesn’t pick up on it.
The salon is a bit of a hunting ground; the salonnières are the alphas among these pack animals and it’s survival of the wittiest. More are left bleeding. Bloch is snubbed; Madame Swann shows up and is snubbed as a one-time courtesan and wife of a Jew- and we recall that her husband was simply a better person than any of these snobs; the Baron de Charlus arrives and charms the women, but our hero is advised not to go home with him. Within this hothouse environment, something as subtle as the twitching of Madame’s nostrils indicates assent or condemnation, and so Proust’s prose is as piquant and witty as ever, but it’s still a bit stuffy. The one-time social climber recognizes how ridiculous these people are, like members of a vanished tribe who don’t know their own time has nearly reached its end.
But, well, we’re listening in on snobs for over a hundred pages and one rather wishes our hero would come to his senses more quickly.
So, what are YOU reading, watching, playing, pondering, worshipping or serving this weekend?