Proust goes on holiday

My last post was all about the stress. As we were feeling frazzled, my husband, daughter and I booked flights and Air BnB and headed to Kos for some half term sunshine – bliss! Kos was beautiful and all the more impressive for being empty – it was the very tail end of the season so we got to enjoy a multitude of stunning beaches to ourselves.

As my idea of a beach read is the kind of hefty tome I don’t usually have enough time or concentration for in my everyday life, I took the next instalment of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – Volume 3,  The Guermantes Way. It’s been a while since I read the last one – In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and while I remember enjoying it, I’d forgotten how deliciously witty Proust’s prose can be.

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In The Guermantes Way Proust turns his attention to the social lives of the late Nineteenth Century Parisian Aristocracy. The novel is a marvellously scathing satire on social aspirations. Having been admitted into the salons of the most fashionable figures of Parisian society, He draws back the velvet drapes to reveal the seething snobbery and shallowness of the very narcissists whose company and approval he so desperately sought.

At the beginning of the novel, Proust visits the opera and compares the auditorium to an undersea world with the wealthy, important people in their boxes, occasionally emerging from the gloom to enjoy the gaze of those below, like exotic sea creatures.

…these radiant daughters of the sea were constantly turning round to smile at the bearded tritons who hung from the anfractuous rocks of the ocean depths, or at some aquatic demi-god whose skull was a polished stone around which the tide had washed up a smooth deposit seaweed and whose gaze was a disc of rock crystal. They leaned towards these creatures and offered them bonbons; occasionally the waters parted to reveal a new nereid who had just blossomed out of the shadowy depths, a late arrival who smiled apologetically; then, at the end of the act… the divine sisters plunged back together and disappeared into the darkness.

I enjoyed this whole aquatic themed passage, but especially the moments of humour:

The Marquis de Palancy, his head turned sideways on his craning neck, his great eye glued to the glass of his monocle, moved slowly around in the transparent gloom and appeared no more to see the public in the stalls than a fish that drifts by, unaware of the crowd of curious visitors, behind the glass wall of an aquarium.

The young, unassuming narrator of the earlier volumes of ISOLT has noticeably matured into a more assured voice – and one with bite. Proust’s evocations of this rarified and exclusive world are hilariously barbed – I didn’t expect to laugh out loud, but I did several times. However, there were certain aspects of the book that I struggled with. During his visits to the various salons, there is much debate about the Dreyfus affair which dominated French public life at the time. Dreyfus was an officer for French Military Intelligence and also happened to be Jewish. He was convicted of spying for the Germans although further evidence came to light that suggested he was innocent. The furore over the affair stirred up strong nationalistic and anti-Semitic feelings, which are openly expressed by many in the circles Proust mixes with, although he does not share their opinions. Encountering prejudice is always uncomfortable, but due to the current political climate and the increase in racism in our times, I found this made for depressing reading. It made me wonder, will it never end?

I have a firm image in my mind of Proust as a slightly sniveling weakly youth who couldn’t go to the seaside without his grandmother in tow, so I found it disconcerting when he made mention of visits to prostitutes, as casually as if he’d just popped out to the corner shop. I don’t know why I was so shocked. There’s something peculiarly personal about reading Proust. We are made privy to his every thought, so we see the world through his eyes in incredible detail. It feels like we are the same, until you realise that we are not, and he is writing as a man, for men. Women are objects to obsess over, to collect, to become infatuated with, to agonise over or to pay for. The gaze is male, and the gazed at, female. Women are not meant to do the observing. There’s not much I can do about that, and I’m enjoying so many other aspects of the book that, along with most other Nineteenth Century literature (and the rest), I’m just going to have to keep reminding myself of the historical context in which the book was written.

As the book progresses, Proust gradually moves up to the most exclusive social circles. The higher he rises, the worse the snobbery and self-centredness he encounters. I have to admit, I reveled in his bitchy accounts of all the back-biting and gossip. However, the novel ends on a poignant note when the extent of the shallow narcissism is revealed. When a friend informs the Duc and Duchesse of Guermantes are informed that he is unable to accompany them on a trip because he is dying, their main concern is whether this news will make them any later for their dinner engagement.

But please, the last thing I want to do is hold you up, and you’ve a dinner-party to go to,’ he added, because he knew that for other people their own social obligations mattered more than the death of a friend, and as a man  of considerate politeness he put himself in their place.

The Duc’s insensitive response says it all:

Good-bye… he said, thrusting us gently away, off you go, now, before Oriane comes down… If she finds you still here she’ll start talking again. She’s already very tired, and she’ll be dead by the time she gets to that dinner. And quite frankly, I have to tell you that I’m dying of hunger… The Duc had absolutely no qualms in speaking in this way to a dying man, for because they were what was uppermost in his mind, they seemed more important to him.

As with the last two volumes, The Guermantes Way took an age to read – a combination of tiny print, loads of pages and the need to read it really slooooowly. Despite the issues I had with it, over all, it was a real treat. I’ve enjoyed the prose so much I quite fancy diving straight into Sodom and Gomorrah. I may be some time….

In the meantime, here’s Proust enjoying a spot of sun-bathing.

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