It is illness that makes us recognize that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Were we to meet a brigand on the road, we might manage to make him conscious of his own personal interest if not our plight. But to ask pity of our body is like talking to an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the sea, and with which we should be terrified to find ourselves condemned to live.
In Volume One of Remembrance of Things Past, Proust describes ‘the Guermantes Way as a geographical phenomenon, a particular path along a river, but in Proust’s third volume the phrase ‘The Guermantes Way’ takes on new meaning. Proust’s narrator is now a young man in society. His health is still fragile, but in spite of this, he maintains his friendship with Saint-Loup, leads an active social life, suffers a major loss, and finally meets his goddess: the elegant Duchesse de Guermantes, but as is often the case, reality does not meet expectations.
Our narrator is maturing, and a number of incidents contribute to his process of understanding the world and human deficiencies. He now lives close to the Guermantes family, and these days we would probably call him a stalker. He has admired the Duchesse de Guermantes from afar for years and considers her to be a fascinating woman. He discovers the routines of the Duchesse and manages to ‘accidentally’ bump into this ultra elegant woman daily but this doesn’t spark an acquaintance, and if anything, the Duchesse seems annoyed by the constant sight of narrator. He goes to visit the Duchesse’s nephew, Robert Saint-Loup, and tries to rope Saint-Loup into an endeavor to meet the Duchesse, the leader of “the Faubourg Saint-Germain” set.
I was genuinely in love with Mme. de Guermantes. The greatest happiness that I could have asked of God would have been that He should overwhelm her under every imaginable calamity, and that ruined, despised, stripped of all the privileges that divided her from me, having no longer any home of her own or people who would condescend to speak to her, she should come to me for refuge. I imagined her doing so.
The narrator’s beloved grandmother dies in a very painful sequence of the novel, and the narrator, ever the observer, details his grandmother’s final illness, her valiant attempts to recover after a stroke in the park, and the behaviour of some of their circle in the face of the grandmother’s death. He notes the hypocrisy of the Duc de Guermantes who comes to pay his respects to the family. The Duke is so enamoured with his own generosity in visiting the narrator’s home, that he is oblivious to his mother’s distress and forever afterwards labels her as a sort of looney.
So much happens in this wonderful book–it was slow to start but once underway, I was hooked. Proust’s descriptions of evenings spent in society are delightfully detailed, and it’s easy to imagine that we are right there in the room with him. Proust manages to convey the boredom, the stuffiness, and the tedium of spending hours in this, the highest, Parisian society, and paradoxically while nauseating boredom infuses these scenes, Proust’s detailed descriptions of this rarefied life are fascinating. The Guermantes, husband and wife, are central here. Large portions of the novel relate details of the Duchesse’s salons in which she rules the roost and showers the company with bitchy comments about various people in society. It’s a circle jerk of admiration with visitors cooing at the Duchesse’s expertise on everything and tittering at the Duchesse’s nastiness (hoping the nastiness doesn’t come their way). She is the Queen of Society. There are rumours of a divorce between this golden couple and we get a good look at the toxic marriage. The Duc admires his wife as a sort of valuable trophy, acknowledging her premier place in society, but he has a constant flow of mistresses, and the married pair delights in verbally ripping apart the old mistresses as they fade behind newer acquisitions.
One subplot concerns Rachel, the mistress of Robert Saint-Loup. Saint-Loup has praised Rachel to the narrator, so when he finally meets her, he is shocked to recognize her as a coarse prostitute he once passed over:
I saw that what had appeared to be not worth twenty francs when it was offered to me in a brothel
He could have had sex with Rachel for 20 francs but Saint-Loup is spending over 100,000 francs a year to maintain her. One could argue that the 100k francs a year is for exclusivity but there are no such promises here. Rachel, however, is beyond price to Saint-Loup and he’s well on his way to bankrupting himself on Rachel as have other men in the past. To patch up a row, Saint-Loup buys her a 30,000 franc necklace. The relationship between Saint-Loup and Rachel is awful. He’s tortured with suspicion and jealousy, and Rachel stokes the flames by flirting shamelessly with other men in Saint-Loup’s presence. The narrator goes out to dinner with Saint-Loup and Rachel, and he gets a front row seat witnessing how Rachel manipulates and tortures Saint-Loup.
Snobbery pervades every aspect of life in this world especially in the salons of the ‘cream’ of Parisian society. The fierce boundaries of society, the totem poles of social hierarchy, are savagely protected by the highest members with those slightly lower begging and dreaming of invitations to the ‘important’ homes. It’s pathetically funny how one set of visitors must not be allowed to bump into another set–almost as if there’s some fear of class contamination. The backdrop to these salon evenings is the Dreyfus trial which is the dominant topic of conversation.
While the narrator is a keen, peerless observer, finds he is horribly disappointed in the shallow reality of the Duchesse de Guermantes, he also has many other maturing experiences which he, true to his nature, analyses scrupulously. Proust’s philosophical observations permeate the plot: most of them are nuggets of amazing wisdom, and a few show Proust’s own snobbery and attitudes. For example at one point the narrator talks about Rachel’s hands and how she eats clumsily but “recovered her dexterity only when making love with that touching prescience in women who love the male body so intensely,” and thus Proust’s male vanity surfaces.
In one section, Albertine visits the narrator and they have sex in his bedroom. He is aware that he no longer loves Albertine; he’s matured and moved on, and a few pages later he has the nerve to ask Albertine to select the course for a dinner for another woman. The other woman, incidentally is Saint-Loup’s new mistress. The eccentric (mad as a march hare) Baron de Charlus, the brother of the Duc de Guermantes makes a few appearances. He is homosexual and seeks out the narrator’s company, offering to mentor him in society. A few people throw out hints warning about Charlus, but the narrator is too naïve to understand. He misguidedly (and unsuspectingly) accepts an invitation to visit Charlus at home and sits in the ‘wrong’ chair. Subsequently Charlus spews venom and accusations at the astonished and confused young visitor who is humiliated in front of the servants.
Towards the end of the book, the narrator, leaving the Duc and the Duchesse de Guermantes, runs into a sickly-looking Swann. In the first volume, Swann, an iconic romantic figure, was a vigorous man who scandalized his family by marrying his mistress, but now Swann is dying. Swann tells the Duc and the Duchesse that he has just a few months to live and the Duc in his usual crass way diminishes Swann’s statement with a discussion of the Duchesse’s shoes and her petty ailments. It was clear before this poignant scene that the Faubourg Saint-German society is superficial but with this casual cruelty, the superficiality sinks to a new low.
It is the wicked deception of love that it begins by making us dwell not upon a woman in the outside world but upon a doll inside our head, the only woman who is always available in fact, the only one we shall ever possess, whom the arbitrary nature of memory, almost as absolute as that of the imagination, may have made as different from the real woman as the real Balbec had been from the Balbec I imagined- a dummy creation that little by little, to our own detriment, we shall force the real woman to resemble.
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