“It is not possible to describe human life without bathing it in the sleep into which it plunges and which, night after night, encircles it like the sea around a promontory.” – Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way
Having recently read Anais Nin’s thoughts in The Novel of the Future, a book in which she lauded Proust and similar authors for being sensitive to the subconscious and incorporating elements of philosophy and psychology in their writing, I was very eager to start reading this volume. Nin also mentioned that Proust had a way of making characters unforgettable, and the servant Francoise is a prime example of the sort of character one can never forget once one has encountered her:
“Francoise, her footman and the butler heard the bell ring, not as a summons with no thought of answering it, but rather as the first sounds of instruments tuning up for the next part of a concert, when it is clear that there are only a few more minutes of the interval left to go.”
I have to admit that I had been slightly worried about liking this book because I hadn’t enjoyed “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” as much as I had “Swann’s Way”; I was concerned that my enjoyment of the remaining volumes would decrease. I needn’t have worried though; The Guermantes Way is a work of art.
In the first section, Proust has moved from Combray to Paris due to his ailing grandmother. Our protagonist is still as sensitive as ever and is in love with the married Mme Oriane de Guermantes. He turns out to be quite the obsessed, creepy stalker but at least his infatuation of her inspires some poetic passages:
“…She threw him a glance from her lovely eyes, cut from a diamond that intelligence and friendliness seemed to turn liquid at such moments, whereas when they were still, reduced to their purely material beauty, to their merely mineral brilliance, if the least thing caused them to move, even slightly, they set the depths of the orchestra stalls ablaze with the horizontal splendour of their inhuman fire.”
French society is completely satirized in this account. We are introduced to the shallow aristocratic society of salons and bluestockings. And there is scandal and slander galore.
The section where Proust’s grandmother passes away is poignant and heartbreaking. It reminds me of how one is often philosophical when confronted with death:
“We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.”
I think I’ll read book #4 earlier than planned.