At Proust’s Salon: The Guermantes Way

Reading Proust can be ecstatic, or it can be a slog. And so I was enchanted by the following remark about Moncrieff’s translation of Proust in a letter from  Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh. “There is not one joke in all the 16 of S. Moncrieff’s volumes. In French one laughs from the stomach, as when reading you.”

I have had a mixed experience with Proust. There is not a lot of joking in the revised translations of Moncrieff by Terence Kilmarten and D. J. Enright, as I recall.  But then humor is hard to translate.

I have had better luck with the  new-ish Penguin translations of In Search of Lost Time,   where even humor comes across.   In 2013, I finally connected with Proust through Lydia Davis’s lyrical translation of Swann’s Way, the first volume in the Penguin Classics edition of In Search of Lost Time. Davis writes beautifully and also has a sense of humor.

Now here I am, many years later–reading in a pandemic.  I recently felt the urge to read Proust after weeks of light-ish reading. And so I have spent three weeks reading Mark Trehorne’s lucid translation of The Guermantes Way, the third volume in the Penguin series.

Trehorne’s style is plain but robust.  I didn’t particularly notice the style, which is often a good thing in translation. The  narrative is surprisingly fast-paced, insofar as observations of minute details of social life and musings about culture and the arts can be said to be fast.   There isn’t much of a plot, but you don’t miss it. Instead, the novel consists of thoughtful and sometimes wickedly witty meditations and analysis of events in the unnamed narrator’s life.

As the novel opens, he is melancholy because his family has moved to a new apartment in a wing of the Hotel Guermantes  for his grandmother’s health.  He misses Combray.  But soon the narrator finds a new interest:  he develops a crush on Mme Guermantes, the duchess. When he isn’t reading, writing, or sleeping (and he sleeps badly), he thinks about her.

From the 2011 TV film of “À la recherche du temps perdu”

The narrator obsessively takes walks in the neighborhood so that he happens often to pass Mme Guermantes. She barely notices him and probably does not know who he is.  At the theater, he is enraptured when he sees her in a box with friends.  And he tries to get information about her from his  friend St. Loup, her nephew, who is not particularly impressed by his aunt.  But by the time the witty Mme Guermantes notices him and invites him to her elite salon, he no longer is interested.  That’s the way of the world!

I adored the hundreds of pages at the salons, especially the “third-rate salon” of Mme de Villeparisis, which doesn’t attract an elite clientele.  There is much humor in these scenes.  Though she is related to the Guermantes, she has fallen a few classes in the world.  Her guests include timid historians, brash novelists, and minor royalty. The intense rivalry between Mme de Villeparisis and Mme Leroi for guests at their salons reminds me of  Mapp and Lucia.

Mme de Villeparisis has the advantage over Mme Leroi of being an excellent writer, which means her salon is likely to be remembered by posterity even though the guests are less important.  Proust writes,

Her salon might be different from a truly fashionable one, which would not be frequented by many of the bourgeois ladies she entertained, and in which one would have encountered instead the sort of brilliant women that Mme Leroi had finally managed to attract, but nothing of this is perceptible in her memoirs, where certain dull acquaintances of the author’s have disappeared because there is no reason for them to be included; and the visitors who did not frequent her salon leave no gap in her work, because, in the necessarily restricted space available, there is room for only a few figures, and if they happen to be royal personages, historic personages, then the utmost impression of elegance that any memoir can present to the public has been achieved.

The writer has the last word!