Wednesday, 3 February 1999

Marcel Proust: The Guermantes Way (1921)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 199

In the third volume of Remembrance of Things Past, the subject changes. From boyhood in Swann's Way, through adolescent lovesickness in Within A Budding Grove, Proust's narrator now emerges into Parisian society. The Guermantes are one of the oldest noble families in France, and he gradually becomes involved in their circle. (The title of this part also balances that of the first one, in that the two walks taken by the family in the narrator's childhood would either follow Swann's Way, past his house, or the Guermantes' way, past one of their estates.)

The society setting makes it easier to see in translation an aspect of Proust which is there in the original (apparently) - the humour. He has an essentially cynical view of society, seeing it generally populated by fools and bores with titles, the gifted merely tolerated on its fringes. Stupid opinions are applauded when they come from the mouth of the Princesse de Parme, a member of the former royal family; indeed, the opinions of others change as soon as she speaks. It is a case of who you know - and who knows your family - rather than who you are which brings success in the society portrayed in The Guermantes Way. Proust exploits both the stupid and the witty to produce humorous effects, while the whole text is really a denunciation of the basis of high society - snobbery.

The main topic of conversation, which has divided French society, is the Dreyfus affair. It is set at a time when the innocence of Dreyfus was yet to be established; some believed in him, others did not. The whole question was shot through with the varying degrees of anti-Semitism of the people involved. (One position recorded by Proust was that even if innocent he should be left to rot in prison because of the trouble he had caused.)

This serious issue (serious because it highlighted a strong but normally hidden vein of anti-Semitism in the French establishment) is used to make the world of upper-class society seem even more superficial and shallow. And that is, in the end, the main theme of The Guermantes Way - it is an exposé of the superficiality and shallowness of society.

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