I read some Proust and felt the same way you did. Then I read this, went back to read some more. I’m glad I did.
Getting the Proust habit
August 6, 2007 9:30 AM
The arrival of summer caused me to desert In Search of Lost Time for a few weeks. After finishing Within A Budding Grove I filled my days with the traditional British pastimes of building flood defences, taking up tennis for about 48 hours and contracting trench foot at festivals. I also made time to read some new, undemanding single-volume novels with sentences shorter than my lower intestine. So it was with more of a sense of duty than anticipation that I opened volume three, The Guermantes Way.
Spend any length of time reading about Proust and you’ll hear that his writing is addictive. In fact, the ubiquity of this claim was something I found off-putting. Novels aren’t heroin or peanut M&Ms, after all. To me it sounded like so much hyperbole, and as a book reviewer I’ve sprayed around too much of that myself to fall for anyone else’s. But after reading The Guermantes Way I’m beginning to see some sense in the claim; I got so lost in it that a new Harry Potter book could have been published and I wouldn’t even have noticed. And now the fact that various commitments are going to keep me from Sodom and Gomorrah for a week is as frustrating as having to break off from a good thriller at a cliffhanger moment.
That The Guermantes Way should prove so compelling isn’t obvious from a summary. An account of Marcel’s entry into the Belle Époque salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris’s most fashionable district, the book largely consists of two visits to the theatre, followed by two extended accounts - comprising half of the 2002 Penguin edition’s 600 pages - of society parties.
In the space of those 600 pages, however, Proust brilliantly subverts Marcel’s snobbishness - which pervaded the previous volume - by artfully switching the novel’s perspective from that of Marcel as narrator (older, wiser, alive to the swarming absurdities of the Faubourg Saint-Germain scene) and Marcel as protagonist (a young man suspicious at the difference between his preconceptions and his actual experiences of the social elite, but unwilling to recognise its banalities). Proust wrote about this in a 1914 letter to Jacques Rivière: “I did not want to abstractly analyse this evolution of a thought, but rather recreate it, make the reader live it. I am therefore forced to paint errors, without feeling obliged to indicate that I think they are errors. Too bad if the reader believes that I think they are true.”
This method gives Proust scope to flex his stylistic muscles fully. He leaps between satire, political debate (the Dreyfus affair looms large, with its polarising alliances and poisonous anti-semitism), sexuality, and the brutally frank description of a family member’s death, while larding the whole thing with enough one-liners that you could trim it all down into a more than decent comic novella. And through all of this the viewpoint changes unannounced, leaving the reader - as if they themselves were a guest at one of these parties - to determine from conversation to conversation how best to interpret it.
It’s exhilarating to be immersed in such a fully realised world, and even more so to be left to navigate it under your own steam. The humour is the final ingredient that cements the book’s greatness, making it as easy to love as it is to admire. As for being addicted, I’d like to claim I’m not, but I will own up to a serious dose of literary dipsomania. But so much for my own incipient habit. Are there any fully paid-up Proust junkies out there?
Hemingway at least had the grace to use short declarative sentences. My problem with Hemingway is that he was a fan not a participant. He wrote about what he saw or heard unlike Dos Pasos, for example, not what he participated in.