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After the relative intimacy of the first two volumes of In Search of Lost...
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After the relative intimacy of the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, The Guermantes Way opens up a vast, dazzling landscape of fashionable Parisian life in the late nineteenth century, as the narrator enters the brilliant, shallow world of the literary and aristocratic salons. Both a salute to and a devastating satire of a time, place, and culture, The Guermantes Way defines the great tradition of novels that follow the initiation of a young man into the ways of the world.
At an age when Names, offering us the image of the unknowable that we have invested in them and simultaneously designating a real place for us, force us accordingly to identify the one with the other, to a point where we go off to a city to seek out a soul that it cannot contain but which we no longer have the power to expel from its name, it is not only to cities and ruins that they give an individuality, as do allegorical paintings, nor is it only the physical world that they spangle with differences and people with marvels, it is the social world as well: so every historic house, every famous residence or palace, has its lady or its fairy, as forests have their spirits and rivers their deities. Sometimes, hidden deep in her name, the fairy is transformed by the needs of our imaginative activity through which she lives; this is how the atmosphere surrounding Mme de Guermantes, after existing for years in my mind only as the reflection of a magic-lantern slide and of a stained-glass window, began to lose its colors when quite different dreams impregnated it with the bubbling water of fast-flowing streams.
However, the fairy wastes away when we come into contact with the actual person to whom her name corresponds, for the name then begins to reflect that person, who contains nothing of the fairy; the fairy can reappear if we absent ourselves from the person, but if we stay in the person's presence the fairy dies forever, and with her the name, as with the Lusignan family, which was fated to become extinct on the day when the fairy Milusine should die. So the Name, beneath the successive retouchings that might eventually lead us to discover the original handsome portrait of an unknown woman we have never met, becomes no more than the mere photograph on an identity card to which we refer when we need to decide whether we know, whether or not we should acknowledge a person we encounter. But should a sensation from the distant past-like those musical instruments that record and preserve the sound and style of the various artists who played them-enable our memory to make us hear that name with the particular tone it then had for our ears, even if the name seems not to have changed, we can still feel the distance between the various dreams which its unchanging syllables evoked for us in turn. For a second, rehearing the warbling from some distant springtime, we can extract from it, as from the little tubes of color used in painting, the precise tint-forgotten, mysterious, and fresh-of the days we thought we remembered when, like bad painters, we were in fact spreading our whole past on a single canvas and painting it with the conventional monochrome of voluntary memory. Yet, on the contrary, each of the moments that composed it, in order to create something original, a unique blend, was using those colors from the past that now elude us, colors that, for instance, are still able to fill me with sudden delight, should the name Guermantes-assuming for a second after so many years the ring it had for me, so different from its present resonance, on the day of Mlle Percepied's marriage-chance to restore to me the mauve color, so soft, too bright and new, that lent the smoothness of velvet to the billowing scarf of the young Duchesse, and made her eyes like inaccessible and ever-flowering periwinkles lit by the blue sun of her smile. And the name Guermantes, belonging to that period of my life, is also like one of those little balloons that have been filled with oxygen or some other gas: when I manage to puncture it and free what it contains, I can breathe the Combray air from that year, that day, mingled with the scent of hawthorns gusted from the corner of the square by the wind, announcing rain, and at times driving the sunlight away, at others letting it spread out on the red wool carpet of the sacristy and tingeing it brightly to an almost geranium pink with that "Wagnerian" softness of brio, which preserves the nobility of a festive occasion. Yet, even apart from rare moments such as this one, when we can suddenly feel the original entity give a stir and resume its shape, chisel itself out of syllables that have become lifeless, if in the dizzy whirl of daily life, where they serve merely the most practical purposes, names have lost all their color, like a prismatic top that revolves too fast and seems only gray, when, on the other hand, we reflect upon the past in our daydreams and seek to grasp it by slowing down and suspending the perpetual motion in which we are carried along, we can see the gradual reappearance, side by side but utterly distinct from one another, of the successive tints that a single name assumed for us in the course of our existence.
Of course, what shape this name Guermantes projected for me when my nurse-knowing no more, probably, than I today, in whose honor it had been composed-rocked me to sleep with that old song "Gloire ' la Marquise de Guermantes," or when, several years later, the veteran Marichal de Guermantes filled my nursemaid with pride by stopping in the Champs-Ilysies and exclaiming, "A fine child you have there!," giving me a chocolate drop from his pocket bonbonnihre, I cannot now say. Those years of my earliest childhood are no longer with me; they are external to me; all I can know about them, as with what we can know about events that took place before we were born, comes from other people's accounts. But after these earliest years, I can find a succession of seven or eight different figures spanning the time this name inhabited me; the first ones were the finest: gradually my dream, forced by reality to abandon a position that was no longer tenable, took up its position afresh, a little further back, until it was obliged to retreat even further. And as Mme de Guermantes changed, so did her dwelling place, itself born from that name fertilized from year to year by hearing some word or other that modified my dreams of it; the dwelling place itself mirrored them in its very masonry, which had become as much a mirror as the surface of a cloud or of a lake. A two-dimensional castle keep which was really no more than a strip of orange light where the lord and his lady, high up, decided upon life or death for their vassals, had been replaced-right at the end of the "Guermantes way," along which I used to follow the course of the Vivonne with my parents on all those sunny afternoons-by the land of bubbling streams where the Duchesse taught me to fish for trout and to recognize the names of the flowers whose purple-and-reddish clusters adorned the low walls of the neighboring garden plots; then it had become the hereditary property, the poetic domain from which the proud race of the Guermantes, like a mellowing, crenellated tower spanning the ages, was rising already over France, at a time when the sky was still empty in those places where Notre-Dame de Paris and Notre-Dame de Chartres were later to rise; a time when on the summit of the hill in Laon the cathedral nave had not been placed like the Ark of the Flood on the summit of Mount Ararat, full of patriarchs and judges anxiously leaning from its windows to see whether the wrath of God has been appeased, carrying with it the species of plants that will multiply on earth, brimming over with animals spilling out even from the towers, where oxen, moving calmly around on the roofs, gaze down over the plains of Champagne; a time when the traveler who left Beauvais at close of day did not yet see, following him and turning with the bends in the road, the black branching wings of the cathedral spread out against the golden screen of sunset. It was, this "Guermantes," like the setting of a novel, an imaginary landscape I could picture to myself only with difficulty and thereby longed all the more to discover, set amid real lands and roads that would suddenly become immersed in heraldic details, a few miles from a railway station; I recalled the names of the places around it as if they had been situated at the foot of Parnassus or of Helicon, and they seemed precious to me as the physical conditions necessary-in topographical science-for the production of an inexplicable phenomenon. I remembered the coats of arms painted beneath the windows of the church in Combray, their quarters filled, century after century, with all the lordly domains that this illustrious house had appropriated by marriage or gain from all the corners of Germany, Italy, and France: vast territories in the North, powerful cities in the South, assembled together to compose the name Guermantes and, losing their material form, to inscribe allegorically their sinople keep or castle triple-towered argent upon its azure field. I had heard of the famous Guermantes tapestries and could see them, medieval and blue, somewhat coarse, standing out like a cloud against the amaranth, legendary name beneath the ancient forest where Childebert so often went hunting, and it seemed to me that, without making a journey to see them, I might just as easily penetrate the secrets of the mysterious corners of these lands, this remoteness of the centuries, simply by coming into contact for a moment, in Paris, with Mme de Guermantes, the suzerain of the place and lady of the lake, as if her face and her words must possess the local charm of forests and streams and the same age-old characteristics as those recorded in the book of ancient customs in her archives. But then I had met Saint-Loup; he had told me that the house had borne the name Guermantes only since the seventeenth century, when his family had acquired it. They had lived, until then, in the neighborhood, and their title did not belong to the area. The village of Guermantes had taken its name from the chbteau and had been built after it, and, so that the village should not destroy the view from it, building regulations that were still in force dictated the lines of its streets and set limits on the height of its houses. As for the tapestries, they were by Boucher, acquired in the nineteenth century by a Guermantes with artistic tastes and hung, along with mediocre hunting scenes that he had painted himself, in a particularly ugly drawing room done out in adrinople and plush. By revealing these things to me, Saint-Loup had introduced into the chbteau elements that were foreign to the name Guermantes, and they no longer made it possible for me to go on extracting from its syllables alone the style in which it was built. Then the chbteau reflected in its lake had disappeared from the depths of this name, and what had appeared to me around Mme de Guermantes as her dwelling had been her Paris house, the Httel de Guermantes, as limpid as its name, for no physical and opaque element intervened to disrupt and darken its transparency.
Excerpted from Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust Copyright © 1998 by Marcel Proust. Excerpted by permission.
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|A Note on the Translation||xv|
|Suggestions for Further Reading||xvii|
1. Time is a central concern for Proust, appearing first in the title and last as the final word of the novel. What is his vision of the past? Does he have a vision of the present? The future? Can the Narrator be said to be living in the past? Is he like the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, with "jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today"?
2. The renowned translator of Proust, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, originally grouped the opening section of In Search of Lost Time under the title "The Overture, " which includes two famous passages, the good night kiss and the evocative taste of the madeleine. Does this seem apt? If so, how might this fifty-odd page beginning prefigure what will transpire later? What would you expect to follow, given that an overture usually introduces the main themes of a musical work? What does it suggest about Proust's conception of literature and music?
3. The episode of the good night kiss strikes some readers as odd or contradictory: the Narrator's need for a kiss seems almost infantile, while his power of observation seems extraordinarily precocious. Considering that he is sent to bed at eight o'clock, how old do you think the Narrator is? Is it significant that his father suggests the Narrator be given the kiss he craves, whereas his mother is reluctant, saying "We mustn't let the child get into the habit . . ."? Is the fact that the Narrator succeeds in getting the kiss he wants a good thing or a bad thing? Why?
4. "The whole of Proust's world comes out of a teacup, " observed Samuel Beckett. Indeed the episode of the madeleine dipped in tea is the first (and most famous) of numerous instances of"involuntary memory" in the novel. A recognized psychological phenomenon triggered by smells, tastes, or sounds, involuntary memory vividly reproduces emotions, sensations, or images from the past. Why do you think readers and critics universally consider this scene to be pivotal? What does the Narrator think about the experience of involuntary memory? What might its function be in the scheme of In Search of Lost Time?
5. Another emblematic theme involves the recurring "little phrase" of music by Vinteuil that catches the ear of Swann at the Verdurin's salon and steals into his life. How do Vinteuil's compositions stir both Swann and the Narrator? In Proust's scheme of things, is music a higher art than painting or writing because it can produce involuntary memories? How does involuntary memory affect writing and painting? Is it unrelated to art except as a necessary catalyst?
6. In "Combray" we are introduced to the Narrator's family, their household, and their country home. Since Paris is the true heart of upper-class France, why do you think Proust chose to begin In Search of Lost Time elsewhere? What do we learn from the Narrator's description of his family's life and habits? Is the household dominated by men or by women? Does the Narrator's account seem accurate, or is it colored by his own ideas and preoccupations?
7. A madeleine dipped into a cup of tea first impelled Proust into the "remembrance of things past." Though Proust was a gourmet in his youth, in the final years of his life he subsisted mainly on fillets of sole, chicken, fried potatoes, ice cream, cakes, fruit, and iced beer. Consider how food and culinary happenings - from meals at the restaurant in the Grand Hotel in Balbec to dinners at La Raspelière and the Guermantes's in Paris - form an integral part of the work.
8. Swann's Way and the Guermantes Way are presented as mutually exclusive choices for promenades, with Swann's Way given primacy of place at the novel's outset. Where, metaphorically speaking, does Swann's Way seem to lead? What are the aesthetic signposts and milestones the Narrator points out? What does the landscape around Combray represent?
9. "I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature, " Proust once said. In his description of the area around Combray - and in many other places in the novel - the Narrator describes churches, and particularly steeples. Indeed, Howard Moss cites the steeple as one of Proust's most important symbols. In religious architecture, the steeple represents man's aspiration toward God, and by inference toward Art, the Proustian religion. What else might it suggest? Does it have a counterpart in nature?
10. Proust and the Narrator share an appreciation of gardens and flowers - Proust himself was eager to visit Monet's celebrated garden - and in a sense, all Combray can be seen as a garden. What associations does this evoke? How does the Narrator respond to natural beauty? What do flowers mean to him? How do we know?
11. Proust's work is filled with "doubling" - the most obvious being the identification of the author with a fictional self of the same name but with somewhat different characteristics. Is Swann a double of the Narrator? What qualities do they share? In what ways do they seem different? What is the importance of the fact that Swann is a Jew?
12. Louis Auchincloss questions the use of a fictional first person named "Marcel, " who is but isn't Proust. Marcel claims that he is neither a snob nor a homosexual, yet he is obsessed with both. Would Proust have strengthened Marcel's viewpoint by making it that of the young social climber that he himself so clearly was? Did he enhance or detract from Marcel's credibility by casting him as one of the few heterosexuals in the book? Does it matter that Marcel regards "inversion" as a dangerous vice? Did Proust?
13. "Swann in Love" might be thought of as a dress rehearsal for the Narrator's own performance, and Swann's passion for Odette establishes a model for various other love relationships that appear later in the book. Proust believed that all emotions and behavior obey certain psychological laws. E. M. Forster maintained that "Proust's general theory of human intercourse is that the fonder we are of people the less we understand them - the theory of the complete pessimist." Do you agree? How does Swann's love affair reflect this? What conclusions does the Narrator draw from his perception of Swann's experience? In what way does this differ from Swann's own view?
14. The Balbec sequence of Within a Budding Grove gathers a group of the novel's principal characters, many for the first time: Robert de Saint-Loup, the Baron de Charlus, and Albertine, to name three of the most important. Others begin to emerge in their true significance, like Elstir the painter. Why do you think Proust chose to bring them together in Balbec? In what ways does Balbec echo or amplify Combray? Is the little "society" of Balbec a preview in microcosm of Paris?
15. While writing In Search of Lost Time Proust often rummaged through his vast photographic collection of Belle Époque luminaries as a means of stimulating his memory. "You could see that his thoughts were following a kind of underground track, as if he were organizing everything into images before putting them into words, " recalled his maid Céleste Albaret. Indeed, the Baron de Charlus, in Within a Budding Grove, speaks of the special importance of photographs in preserving an unsullied moment of time past, before it has been altered by the present. Discuss how Proust used photographs in the story - just as he exploited the technology of trains, cars, and airplanes - as symbols of passing time.
16. In his landmark essay on Proust, Edmund Wilson praises the broad Dickensian humor and extravagant satire that animate vast sections of In Search of Lost Time, yet he goes on to call it "one of the gloomiest books ever written." Can you reconcile Wilson's remarks?
17. Critic Barbara Bucknall maintains that "no Proustian lover really cares at all for his beloved's feelings." Is this true? Would the Narrator agree? Would the author? Are there any happy or satisfied couples in In Search of Lost Time? Or is love in Proust inevitably a prelude to misunderstanding?
18. "Proust's stage [is] vaster than any since Balzac's, and packed with a human comedy as multifarious, " said Edith Wharton. Discuss Proust's depiction of the elaborate hierarchy of French society - from the old nobility of the Faubourg to la haute bourgeoisie, from rich and cultivated Jews to celebrated artists - that forms the great backdrop to In Search of Lost Time. What cracks appear in the aristocratic world of the Guermantes that make us realize it is slowly crumbling? What forces stand ready to propel Mme. Verdurin and her bourgeois salon upward on the social ladder? In recording this change is Proust, in fact, chronicling the birth of modern society?
19. The title Sodom and Gomorrah functions on many levels. What does it suggest about the nature of society? What new areas does it open up? How does the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah relate to Proust's characters? Since the very nature of In Search of Lost Time involves looking backward, should we expect a parallel between the Narrator and Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt?
20. Critics agree that Sodom and Gomorrah opens a new phase of In Search of Lost Time. If the first three volumes represented the Overture and the first movement of Proust's great composition, with Balbec as an interlude, then the second movement begins here. What seems different? In what ways have the Narrator's preoccupations changed? Are these changes reflected in Proust's style or tone?
21. The Narrator's explicit initiation into the nature of homosexuality occurs while he is waiting in the courtyard of the Duchesse de Guermantes to observe the pollination of her orchid, from which he is distracted by Charlus and Jupien. What is the effect of this particular juxtaposition? Since flowers and insects have already been established as symbols of eros in nature, is this a veiled comment on the "unnatural"? Is the Narrator observing the two men in the same way as he observes the flower? Is his unconcern with being a voyeur connected to the writer's role as an observer of the world in all its aspects? Edith Wharton found the scene offensive and deemed it a lapse in Proust's "moral sensibility." Why?
22. Many crucial sexual scenes in Proust, including the one just mentioned, are witnessed through the "lenses" of windows, which become a commanding metaphor in the novel. Consider how Proust first introduces the window device by way of the magic lantern slides in Marcel's bedroom at Combray. How are windows analogous to Proust's notion of viewing life through a telescope, an instrument that propels images through dimensions of both space and time?
23. The Captive and The Fugitive show the Narrator acting out his own version of the grand passions he has observed so keenly and dispassionately in others. But when it comes to his own affairs, Howard Moss says that the Narrator's greatest lie is that he is objective with respect to Albertine. To whom is the Narrator lying, the reader or himself? Is he aware of his lack of perspective? If he is mistaken about one of the most important relationships in his life, can readers trust his observations about other subjects and people?
Posted November 28, 2011
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