The Guermantes Way is the third volume of In Search of Lost Time. This volume sets the stage for the story proper to unfold, after the two preceding preparatory volumes, Swann’s Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.
The Guermantes Way is a coming of the age story where the narrator tells the story of his transformation from his childhood to the first bloom of his youth. Being at a susceptible age, his thoughts, youthful feelings, and first impressions of love sound quite naive. But as the story progresses, with the new acquaintances he makes (he always makes older acquaintances) his look of life gradually changes. These changes affect his character, and his thoughts become more mature. At the same time, however, he becomes a changed man from his Combray and Balbec days to a clear-headed, ambitious, social climber. This was not said in a bad way. In truth, our narrator doesn’t do any unscrupulous or immoral thing on his part to get to know the high society, although that is what he desires. Still, however, with the help of the friendships he struck at Balbec, he manages to get introduced to highly respected exclusive salons in Paris society.
The narrator takes us into the heart of Parisian aristocratic society, full of Dukes, Duchesses, Princes, Princesses, Comtes, Comtesses, Vicomtes, Barons, etc, giving us a first-hand account of the prejudices of the lot. It was truly amusing to read the narration of their pride of ancient lineage, the social etiquette, for example, who takes precedence over whom according to their title and royal blood, how some keep their salons exclusive to the highly privileged, and how the others try desperately to procure an invitation to enter them. The lot kept me entertained by their strict adherence to the long-held aristocratic conventions.
However, I was very much put off by some of the prominent characters of the story, especially the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes of whom the story mainly revolves around. I found the duo, the lady especially, snobbish. Although they make it quite a show to pretend that they don’t care one jot about their titles, it is in fact the very thing they do. And I found her “wit”, so much admired in the Parisian salons, Vulgar. It was appalling to read the sort of “wit” that was admired in Paris Society at Proust’s time.
Another disturbing factor was the antisemitism of French society of the day. There is much talk about the Alfred Dreyfus case in this volume which divided society. Some were convinced of his guilt simply because he was a Jew as if there is no doubt that, if he is a jew, he is capable of committing treason. Only a few believed in his innocence and advocated for a fair trial. The famous J’accuse, the open letter written to the President of the Third French Republic by Emile Zola cost him his liberty. Such strong open hostility displayed for the Jewish people was quite shocking, and it is no surprise that they were treated the way they did in the coming years which ended in the holocaust; the platform was built slowly to get there.
My main attraction to this series is Proust’s dreamy writing. Those who have read my review of the preceding two volumes will bear witness to his fact. In The Guermantes Way, however, I didn’t feel the same beauty that was abundant in the previous two Volumes. His writing here felt less poetic and more affected. Perhaps, it was because my expectations were set too high. And this is also not to say that his writing was devoid of poetry. There were many beautifully written parts full of charming metaphors. Yet, some affected parts disturbed the overall dreamy quality. It wasn’t fair for Proust to bring the reader to the earth with some pompous writing when he was happily soaring high towards an ethereal world with his poetry. 🙂 But to be fair, I do understand Proust’s strategy. Those parts were indispensable for him to bring out the vanity and pomposity of the aristocracy. Now that the story is forming, I should expect changes in the style of writing which is more proper for storytelling rather than abstract musings. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to being invested in the next adventure of the narrator’s life.