Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Book Notes: The Guermantes Way (Marcel Proust)

As I've mentioned before, I'm currently re-reading À la recherche du temps perdu, along with all my dissertation-related books. With Volume III, we're now halfway through Proust's masterpiece and our narrator has become a young man. In a series largely driven by young men and their never-fully-requited longing for women, we get a glimpse of the narrator's future obsession with Albertine, the girl he met at the beach in Volume II, but the real object of fascination in this volume is the Duchesse de Guermantes, which draws the reader into the Guermantes set.

The narrator is somehwat obsessed with the Duchesse and her, ''smiling, disdainful, absent-minded air.'' He makes a point of encountering her on her morning walks. She is known as the ''smartest woman in Paris''. Eventually though the narrator and those of us reading recognize Mme de Guermantes as a frightful snob and her husband as vulgar and arrogant. In the last scene of this volume- thus at the halfway point of In Search of Lost Time- they foresake their old friend Swann in a way that highlights their moral bankruptcy.

And what a tremendous scene it is: really one of the best in literature. If you read it apart from the rest of the work, the passages seem banal; but in the context established by the first three volumes, it's absolutely devastating. The Duc and Duchesse simply lack the basic human decency required to do the right thing, and the forms mandated by decorum are no help at all for them. Ultimately, they just don't care about other people. What's masterful about Proust is that he gets this all across while remaining understated.

Essentially, he's detailing the waning years of an aristocracy whose legal powers were removed over a hundred years prior, but whose cultural powers continue in a vestigial form. One gets the sense in all of these salons and parties of witnessing the freezing of time. These people are no longer aristocrats in any real sense, and they struggle to be independent-minded; but they maintain aristocratic behaviors in an unthinking, instinctual way that Proust compares to being driven by a genie. It reminds one of certain holiday rituals that we all perform without having any idea what they mean. These people cannot break free of the blood-traditions that they pretend not to care about.

Perhaps the most free-thinking of them is Robert Saint-Loup, a young man who befriends the narrator and whose love affair with a girl of ill repute mirrors that of Swann in Volume I. In Proust, all love relationships seem to inevitably turn to jealousy and pain, and I think he believes that we're doomed in these relationships to want to know the beloved more completely than we'll ever be able to. Of course, Proust suffered no longing for unreachable women, but as a homosexual in the Belle Epoque, he likely knew unfulfilled longing.

Saint-Loup is also a Dreyfusard. The Dreyfus Affair figures prominently in this volume, with Proust showing how it divided French society from the bottom to the top between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. For anyone wondering about the history, Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer who was arrested for treason- allegedly, for passing on military secrets to the German embassy in Paris, and was subsequently sent to Devil's Rock in 1894. It came to light, however, that Dreyfus was entirely innocent, and one Major Esterhazy was guilty of the crime.

In the eventual retrial, members of the Army brass framed Dreyfus, presenting forged documents supposedly proving his guilt. Dreyfus was sent back to prison, the result being a loud public outcry led by the writer Emile Zola. Dreyfus was retried yet again in 1898; this was when the public debate reached a fevered pitch. A Hungarian journalist named Theodor Herzl assigned to cover the case was so shocked at the angry mobs calling for Dreyfus's blood that he wrote a book, Der Judenstaadt, arguing that Jews would never be fairly treated in European society and so needed their own homeland- this was the birth of the Zionist movement.

Proust does a good job of showing how where one stood on the scandal reflected a basic attitude towards French society, between preserving it warts-and-all and a more 'free-thinking' attitude about reform. His older aristocrats are so anti-Dreyfus that they see no need to express their opinions. Some of them, who one might expect to be pro-Dreyfus, are not. Swann, importantly, is pro-Dreyfus and a Jew, and his alienation from high society is completed here, while his wife, pathetically, pretends to be a nationalist. There's again a sense of mental calcification, reinforced by 'tradition'. All the Guermantes set are anti-semites, although some will come around in future volumes. In the end, Dreyfus was exonerated, freed, and went on to serve with distinction in World War I. It took French high society a shamefully long time to recognize the obvious.

So, is In Search of Lost Time a six-volume indictment of French high society? I've heard some readers point out the inconsistency of Proust's critique of snobs when his own social connections are fairly evident. Being undercultured is overrated and Proust is one of the most cultured writers imaginable. High Society in the novel is sort of like a greenhouse: it allows clever minds like Swann's, Saint-Loup's, or our narrator's to flourish, but it's a rather artificial environment separated from the outside world. The culture within has nearly calcified and frozen in time. And the fact that a man as brilliant as Swann is on the outs suggests the reversal of values of a sub-culture in decline. Proust is writing in retrospect about this world's last gasp. He is like an anthropologist detailing a vanishing tribe that will disappear completely after 1914.


Anonymous said...

you have a wonderful site!

celia f said...

I have just finished reading "The Way by Swann's" the latest translation in English by Lydia Davis. My very first attempt at reading Proust! My knowledge of the French language is not enough - I think - for me to understand all the nuances of the prose if I'd read it in French. Although I am tempted to give it a try, now that I "know" a little more than before. What would your suggestion be please? kind regards. Celia