I finished The Guermantes Way a few days ago, after roughly ten weeks of reading. In Search of Lost Time is divided into seven parts, but because Parts 5 and 6 are fairly short, they are bound together. So in reaching the end of Volume 3, I think of myself as half way through. It is appropriate, therefore, that I take a moment and reflect on the book so far.
The Guermantes Way focused on a series of social encounters over the course of two years or so. The narrator has left behind his childish crush on Gilberte, and his adolescent obsession with Albertine, and now finds himself mesmerized by the Duchesse de Guermantes. He stalks her for many months, and in a double attempt to forget her and ingratiate himself with her family in the hope of being invited into her salon, he visits for several weeks one of his very good friends, Robert Saint-Loup, who is a nephew of the Duchesse.
His ardor for the Duchesse finally cools over the course of the next half year, and only then does he finally get invited to one of her parties. He is approached by the eccentric M. de Charlus, another Guermantes. He is an aloof, pompous, and, frankly, creepy old man. The narrator does not keep an appointment with Charlus because he learns that his grandmother has had a stroke. She dies early in the second part, or about halfway through the volume, but we do not hear much about it. Instead, we see how others react, or don’t react. The Duc de Guermantes stops by during the grandmother’s final hours and is left waiting in the hall because the rest of the family is rushing about, calling for servants to bring boiling water, or fresh towels, or more medications. The Duc, oblivious of the crisis, and perplexed that there could possibly be anything more important than a visit from a Guermantes, is extremely offended and goes away with the impression that the narrator’s mother is a distant and antisocial woman who does not know how to run a good house.
In all, the portraits of high society are deeply unflattering; vain and childish fools hide behind grandiose titles. The Proustian habit, established in the first two volumes, of delving into long, discursive reflections and descriptions of peoples' innermost motivations is often abandoned in Guermantes, in favor of straightforward narrative. It is less introspective and more purely driven by narrative than the previous volumes. Many characters' personalities are laid bare through simple descriptions of their actions and words.
So it was a shock yesterday and today to find that Volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, returns to the simultaneously microscopic and macrocosmic reflections on human nature. This volume marks the beginning of what Proust called the “great inversion.” Our perception of many characters, beginning with M. de Charlus, are altered utterly through a series of revelations regarding their hidden motives and relationships.
If the principal themes of Swann’s Way were that of childhood and memory (and the introduction of later themes, such as senseless obsessive love), and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was that of adolescent puppy love, and The Guermantes Way was the glittering and worthless surfaces of high society, then Sodom and Gomorrah is that of homosexual love. It also begins the reprise of unthinking obsession, first stated relatively mildly in the backstory of Swann, the social-climbing Jew who is passing for a gentile, and Odette, the erstwhile prostitute and courtesan who is clawing her way into society. This time, it is the narrator who finds himself increasingly obsessed and jealous of Albertine, and not Albertine as she is, but Albertine as he imagines her to be, just as Swann has little notion of Odette’s past, and no inclination to find out.
The overall experience of reading Proust is a wrenching one. He is unsparing in his critiques and insights into human behavior; his portrayal of teen love was, for example, pitch-perfect and embarrassingly accurate. I find myself recasting my own life upon reflection. I also find myself recalling events in my own life that had otherwise fallen into oblivion. He describes the sensation of lying awake at night as a child, watching the faint lights seep in through the windows, or around the edges of the door, and I remember my own insomniac anxiety: the gold and glass chandelier over the stairs, the tan carpet, the distant adult voices downstairs.
Reading Guermantes has been, like the previous volumes, a great comfort, but unlike them, a mild torture. Proust’s acuity in portraying the quotidian nature of hypocrisy is devastating. Every relationship in this volume is in one way or another unhealthy, doomed, loveless, mercenary. The Duc, for example, is an incorrigible philanderer, cycling rapidly through gold-digging courtesans, who, when inevitably they are cast off, become confidantes and “ladies-in-waiting” to the spurned Duchesse. The Duc is kind to the Duchesse only when he has discarded a mistress or when he’s beginning to woo a new one. But they are a formidable social team, bound together by deep habit and ancient obligation, and so they entertain together. He serves as the Duchesse’s impresario; her wit is bitter and funny, and he sets up the marks for her to strike down with her sharp tongue.
Another theme relates to the utter divorce between loyalty and reason. The events in the book take place during the height of the Dreyfus Affair. Whether you thought Dreyfus innocent or guilty had almost nothing to do with the facts of the case, which were few and largely indisputable, and had almost everything to do with your social standing, your political sympathies, and, of course, whether you were Jewish or not, and Anti-semitic or not. Just as Swann finds himself blindly obsessed with Odette, despite knowing full well that the tart is a sly, self-serving, faithless whore, and not even remotely his type, so did royalists and conservatives unthinkingly condemn Dreyfus against all reason, and supporters of Dreyfus instinctively dismiss anti-Dreyfusards as worthless and mindless wastes of skin, regardless of their other virtues. It was to French society what the debate over abortion has been for the US in the last several decades.
This is what is so wrenching about Proust: the silly, the callow, the perverted, the vain, the noble, the naïve… they all are me, they all are us.