by David Blake, Department Head, Fiction Department, Central Library
In Search of Lost Time: The Guermantes Way
Self-possession is a particularly French trait. One speaks differently with those who hold different positions in society, if one speaks at all. For speaking, or even being introduced to another, has social consequences. Society, the very highest of Belle Époque Paris, at last, joins romantic love as a major subject in this third volume of In Search of Lost Time. Our narrator, still an adolescent, has an obsessive love for the Duchesse de Guermantes whose noble ancestors’ likenesses he contemplated in the centuries-old stained glass windows of the ancient church he attended as a boy. The narrator longs to be introduced to the Duchesse. He stalks her on the streets of the aristocratic Faubourg St Germain as she makes her social rounds, tips his hat when she passes, but she does not acknowledge him.
The French have another exceptional trait. They place the highest value on brilliant conversation, wit, an expressive ease, which, based on the evidence of his remarkable writing, a young Marcel must have possessed in abundance. Still a youth, he is accepted in society at an age unimaginable to us here, today, and becomes an intimate of the Guermantes, Duke and Duchesse, and of their friends who own the most ancient names of France.
Proust holds the reader rapt for scores of pages as he discusses the conversation and social relations of a single party or dinner. He is unsparing but non-judgmental as he relates the silliness and vanity of the speech and conduct of social eminences, which he nonetheless values for the remnants of venerable manners that might have graced the seventeenth century court of the Sun King. In this and many other ways, Proust’s grand theme of time is evidenced in The Guermantes Way.
With no further data, anthropologists could create extensive scientific descriptions of the folkways and kinship patterns of Belle Epoque Paris, based only upon In Search of Lost Time. As with the other volumes of this grand work, brutal psychological introspection is intertwined with kaleidoscopic visual imagery. Proust’s eye for women’s fashion is much demonstrated in The Guermantes Way.
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