My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Guermantes Way (In Search of Lost Time, Volume III, Books I & II ~ 1920 & 1921) by Marcel Proust continues the French Narrator’s journey in life as he comes to age as a young man and navigates the aristocracy, which includes the nobility and royalty.
The Guermantes Way touches on “names” and “pedigrees” (relating to heredity) since the Narrator joins the social life in Paris (see the concept and theme of “social personality” in Swann’s Way, Vol. I) when the Narrator becomes obsessed with Mme de Guermantes and is finally accepted into her graces when she invites him to parties and they begin to form a close friendship.
The Guermantes family, however, is first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I when the Narrator was a small boy in Combray and there were two paths (or “ways”) which led from his home in two different directions; the first path passed by the estate of the Swann family (the path is known by the young Narrator as “Méséglise way” or also known as “Swann’s way”), and the second path passed by estate of the Guermantes family (the path is known by the young Narrator as “Guermantes way”).
The title of the book The Guermantes Way has a sentimental meaning connected to the actual path the young Narrator took in awe when he would pass the home of the Guermantes family, but the title also refers to the way the Guermantes live their lives in high society and the etiquette involved in such a lifestyle involving nobility and royalty.
From the beginning in Swann’s Way, Vol. I, Mme de Guermantes is a character that holds the status of a goddess and who captures the young Narrator’s attention once upon a time in the chapel of Gilbert the Bad:
“But this Mme de Guermantes of whom I had so often dreamed, now that I could see that she had a real existence independent of myself, acquired an even greater power over my imagination, which, paralysed for a moment by contact with a reality so different from what it had expected, began to react and to say to me: ‘Great and glorious before the days of Charlemagne, the Guermantes has the right of life and death over their vassals; the Duchesse de Guermantes descends from Geneviève de Brabant. She does not know, nor would she consent to know, any of the people who are here today’… And my eyes resting upon her fair hair, her blue eyes, the lines of her neck, and overlooking the features which might have reminded me of the faces of other women, I cried out with myself as I admired this deliberately unfinished sketch: ‘How lovely she is! What true nobility! It is indeed a proud Guermantes, the descendant of Geneviève de Brabant, that I have before me!’ And the attention which I focused on her face succeeded in isolating it so completely that today, when I call that marriage ceremony to mind, I find it impossible to visualise any single person who was present except her, and the verger who answered me in the affirmative when I inquired whether the lady was indeed Mme de Guermantes… I fancied that I had found favor in her eyes, that she would continue to think of me after she had left the church, and would perhaps feel sad that evening, at Guermantes, because of me. And at once I fell in love with her, for if it is sometimes enough to make us love a woman that she should look on us with contempt, as I supposed Mlle Swann to have done, and that she can never be ours, sometimes, too, it is enough that she should look on us kindly, as Mme de Guermantes was doing, and that we should think of her as almost ours already… How often, after that day, in the course of my walks along the Guermantes way, and with what an intensified melancholy, did I reflect on my lack of qualification for a literary career, and abandon all hope of ever becoming a famous author… With a mass of disparate images… beneath which the reality I once sensed, but never had the will-power to discover and bring to light, has long since perished” (Swann’s Way, Vol. I, pgs 246-253).
Proust (likely the unnamed Narrator of The Guermantes Way) wanted nothing more than to be a novelist and he eventually went on to achieve world fame and immortal success with In Search of Lost Time (previously translated as Remembrance of Things Past from the French title À la recherche du temps perdu).
In the “Introduction” of In Search of Lost Time, Richard Howard explains of Proust and his un-named protagonist:
“What is narrated is not the Narrator’s life, but his desire to write. Time thwarts this desire, tends it toward a conventional chronology (which must be continually subverted, for what is merely successive is surely lost: only the circle can be retrouvé, a word that means not only regained but rediscovered, recognized, repossessed)—and how many challenges, discouragements, and rivalries must be endured before the desire to write achieves an ultimate triumph” (Vol. I, p xiv).
Proust, himself, would agree with this “other self” who narrates his epic:
“A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we mean to try to understand this self it is only in our inmost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved” (Vol. II, p vi).
The Great French Novel (a single novel originally published as separate books), In Search of Lost Time (Volumes I-VI re-published with an updated translation by The Modern Library in 1992) is a major work (and piece of art) in World Literature and without question one of the longest books (excluding Addenda, Notes, Synopsis, etc.) at a total page count of 4,347 pages:
Volume I ~ Swann’s Way (1913) = 606 pages
Volume II ~ Within a Budding Grove (1919) = 730 pages
Volume III ~ The Guermantes Way, Books I & II (1920 & 1921) = 819 pages
Volume IV ~ Sodom and Gomorrah, Books I & II (1921 & 1922) = 724 pages
Volume V* ~ The Captive (1923) & The Fugitive (1925) = 936 pages
Volume VI* ~ Time Regained (1927) = 532 pages
*Note* ~ Proust died on November 22, 1922 before the last two volumes (or the last three books) were originally published
Major Characters in The Guermantes Way
Narrator ~ officially un-named but interpreted as the author Marcel Proust
Mme de Guermantes (also known as Oriane and the Duchesse de Guermantes; first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Duc de Guermantes (also known as Basin, the “Duke”)
Princesse de Guermantes (first introduced in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II)
Françoise ~ servant to the Narrator’s family (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray (also known as Robert de Saint-Loup, who befriended Narrator in Balbec in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II)
Albertine Simonet, a young girl from Balbec who becomes a love interest to the Narrator in Paris (first introduced in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II)
Baron de Charlus (also Baron Palamède de Charlus), who is the nephew of Mme de Villeparisis and Robert Saint-Loup’s uncle known as Uncle Palamède and who is a member of the Guermantes family (first introduced as Charles Swann’s confidant in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Odette de Crécy (Mme Swann), wife of Charles Swann (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Charles Swann, aristocrat, often taking on myth-like status to the Narrator (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I)
Plot Outline in The Guermantes Way
Part One (pgs 1-424)
- Moving to “a flat forming part of the Hôtel de Guermantes” in Paris (p 3)
- Berma in Phèdre (p 50)
- Berma’s genius (p 56)
- Narrator in love with Mme de Guermantes (p 76)
- Narrator visits his friend Robert Saint-Loup in Doncières (p 86)
- On Sound (p 92)
- On Sleep (p 105)
- “a phenomenon of memory” (p 111)
- “the worthy Oriane” (p 127)
- “the Dreyfus case” (p 134)
- The Art of War (p 140)
- The Telephone Call (p 173)
- Narrator returns to Paris (p 183)
- Narrator & Robert visit the suburbs of Paris to meet Robert’s mistress Zézette (p 204)
- Narrator meets Robert’s mistress “Zézette” and the Narrator recognizes her as a prostitute (see Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II, p 207) who the Narrator once called “Rachel when from the Lord” (p 208)
- Robert gets into a fist fight on the street (p 242)
- Narrator contemplates Mme de Villeparisis (p 244)
- Narrator visits Mme de Villeparisis where he meets his old friend Bloch, who was first introduced in in Swann’s Way, Vol. I (p 251)
- Narrator is finally formally introduced to Mme de Guermantes (p 267)
- Mme de Guermantes speaks to the Narrator (p 344)
- Mme Swann (first introduced in Swann’s Way, Vol. I) joins the party at Mme de Villeparisis (p 356)
- Uncle Adolphe’s photographs and the photo of “Miss Sacripant,” who is actually Odette before she was married to Charles Swann (pgs 358-360)
- Narrator speaks with Mme Swann at the party (p 367)
- Narrator gets an offer from M de Charlus and the truth about Mme de Villeparisis (p 386)
- Mme Thirion (p 399)
- Dr du Boulbon and his diagnosis (p 407)
Part Two (pgs 425-819)
Part Two: Chapter One (pgs 425-471)
- Narrator’s Grandmother becomes gravely ill (p 437)
Part Two: Chapter Two (pgs 472-819)
- Enter Albertine, who was first introduced in Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II (p 479)
- “A lesson in relativity in the appreciation of a woman’s body” (pgs 495-496)
- A conversation with Mme de Guermantes (p 512)
- Robert Saint-Loup arrives in Paris (p 540)
- Dinner with Mme de Guermantes, “the Duchesse” (p 570)
- “the painter’s eye” (p 576)
- Princesse de Parme (p 581)
- Two families: the Guermantes vs the Courvoisiers (p 604)
- The Duke’s mistresses (p 656)
- On Pedigrees (p 727)
- On Names (p 737)
- A conversation with M de Charlus (p 759)
- The Templars (p 787)
- Narrator meets Charles Swann at the Guermantes home in Paris (p 793)
Thoughts on Themes Found in The Guermantes Way
The name Guermantes resonates for the Narrator since Combray a feeling of godhood and immortality, and only when he comes to age and enters into high society does he begin to see his memories involving the Guermantes family are more illusion than reality, more his creation than historical, but deeper still, as the Narrator learns more of the “human” side of the Guermantes family he struggles further to align the two conflicting “realities” he has created within his memory: 1) the legend of the Guermantes family he created as a young boy; 2) the normalcy of the Guermantes family as everyday people who happen to have status as nobility and how they function between social worlds (or in some cases: how they remain absent to lower classes). In short, the Narrator faces disillusionments regarding the Guermantes family (the “created legend” versus the “everyday actual”).
The Narrator is torn between the legends he created as a child in his bed and on long walks compared to the actual human beings he sees them for when he begins to attend parties with the Guermantes family as a young man. Looking back to Swann’s Way, Vol. I and Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II and how the end sections of those two novels are structured and named, the reader can get a sense of one theme (out of many themes) running through In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I-VI. The structure and the title of the last section of Swann’s Way, Vol. I is labeled as “Part Three: Place-Names – The Name” (pgs 545-606). The structure and the title of the last section of Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II is labeled as “Part Two: Place-Names – The Name” (pgs 299-730). What is further interesting to note is that in The Guermantes Way is that Proust (or the editors and translators in this edition) have departed from the “Place-Names – The Name” format which ended the previous two volumes and gone with a blank format ending The Guermantes Way, Vol. III (as well as in Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. IV) with blank chapter headings (which can be interpreted as foreshadowing the growth and maturing process of the Narrator by the volume’s end). In The Guermantes Way the ending chapters are simply titled as “Part Two: Chapter One” (pgs 425-471) and “Part Two: Chapter Two” (pgs 472-819). However, as we shall see, heredity (relating to “names” and “pedigrees”) play a huge role in the Narrator’s internal discussion and the external discussion involving the guests at the party held by Mme de Guermantes, the Duchess.
“I saw again a vision of dark sandstone steps,” the Narrator explains to himself and the reader, “while a modulation of sound brought to my ears that name, Guermantes, in the forgotten tone in which I used to hear it long ago, so different from that in which it simply meant the genial hosts with whom I was dining this evening. If the name, Duchesse de Guermantes, was for me a collective name, it was not so merely in history, by the accumulation of all the women who had successively borne it, but also in the course of my own short life, which had already seen, in this single Duchesse de Guermantes, so many different women superimpose themselves, each one vanishing as soon as the next had acquired sufficient consistency. Words do not change their meaning as much in centuries as names do for us in the space of a few years. Our memories and our hearts are not large enough to be able to remain faithful. We have not room enough, in our present mental field, to keep the dead there as well as the living” (pgs 728-729).
Notice the key word “sound” because, as often as Proust does with In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I-VI (one thing the reader should always keep in mind is that although there are six volumes—seven separate novels—this is actually a single novel which happens to be extremely long—so everything is connected to everything else), Proust has an extended section discussing “Sound” previously in The Guermantes Way and sets the reader up for the section above:
“I heard the tick of Saint-Loup’s watch, which could not be far away. This tick changed place every moment, for I could not see the watch; it seemed to come from behind, from in front of me, from my right, from my left, sometimes to die away as though it were a long way off. Suddenly I caught sight of the watch on the table. Then I heard the tick in a fixed place from which it did not move again. That is to say, I thought I heard it at this place; I did not hear it there, I saw it there, for sounds have no position in space. At least we associate them with movements, and in that way they serve the purpose of warning us of those movements, appearing to make them necessary and natural. True, it sometimes happens that a sick man whose ears have been stopped with cotton-wool ceases to hear the noise of a fire such as was crackling at that moment in Saint-Loup’s fireplace, laboring at the formation of brands and cinders, which it then dropped into the fender, nor would he hear the passage of the tram-cars whose music rose at regular intervals over the main square of Doncières… The withdrawal of sound, its dilution, rob it of all its aggressive power; alarmed a moment ago by hammer-blows which seemed to be shattering the ceiling above our head, we take pleasure now in receiving them, light, caressing, distant, like the murmur of leaves playing by the roadside with the passing breeze… And in this connexion we may wonder whether, in the case of love (to which we may even add the love of life and the love of fame, since there are, it appears, persons who are acquainted with these latter sentiments), we shouldn’t act like those who, when a noise disturbs them, instead of praying that it may cease, stop their ears; and, in emulation of them, bring our attention, our defences, to bear on ourselves, give them as an object to subdue not the external being whom we love, but our capacity for suffering through that being” (pgs 92-93). [for more on the theme “Space & Time” read “Thoughts on Themes Found in Swann’s Way” here: Swann’s Way, Vol. I]
Proust, having considered “pedigrees,” returns to the subject of family and heritage when he discusses “names” at the beginning and by the volume’s end (which connects to themes and endings found in the previous two volumes: Swann’s Way, Vol. I & Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II):
“At the age when Names, offering us an image of the knowable which we have poured into their mould, while at the same moment connoting for us also a real place, force us accordingly to identify one with the other to such a point that we set out to seek in a city for a soul which it cannot enshrine but which we have no longer the power to expel from its name, it is not only to towns and rivers that they give an individuality, as do allegorical paintings, it is not only the physical universe which they speckle with differences, people with marvels, it is the social universe also; and so every historic house, in town or country, has its lady or its fairy, as every forest has its genie, every stream its deity” (p 3).
And by the volume’s end:
“Thus does the aristocracy, in its heavy structure, pierced with rare windows, admitting a scanty daylight, showing the same incapacity to soar but also the same massive and blind force as Romanesque architecture, embody all our history, immuring it, beetling over it.
“Thus the empty spaces of my memory were covered by degrees with names which in arranging, composing themselves in relation to one another, in linking themselves to one another by increasingly numerous connexions, resembled those finished works of art in which there is not one touch that is isolated, in which every part in turn receives from the rest a justification which it confers on them in turn…
“However, my historical curiosity was faint in comparison with my aesthetic pleasure. The names cited had the effect of disembodying the Duchess’s guests—for all that they were called Prince d’Agrigente or of Cystria—whose masks of flesh and unintelligence or vulgar intelligence had transformed them into ordinary mortals, so much so that I had made my landing on the ducal doormat not as upon the threshold (as I had supposed) but as at the terminus of the enchanted world of names” (pgs 736-737, 743).
The Narrator’s enchantment from the beginning has vanished. The disillusioned has become enlightened. The Narrator, now a man, recognizes that the very myths and god-like statuses he placed on individuals are but sentimental and mawkish fabrications of his own perceptions drowned in distorted memories of a child.
Now the reader has to ask: How much of the novel The Guermantes Way is real? Imagined? Legend?
And one more thing: Does reality unfold and take shape in memory alone?
Now on to Proust’s Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah, Books I & II (1921 & 1922).
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers