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!

A Trip to the Future: In Search of Lost Time

Dr. Anthony Fauci  announced that a vaccine for Covid-19 may be ready this fall.  And so, after a summer of lighter reading than usual, I’m finally hopeful and able to settle into Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the third novel in Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time, if you prefer the modern translation of the title.

I didn’t have the entire set, but these Vintage paperbacks were the first editions of Proust I read.

Some years back, I declared I intended to read all of Proust. I have a long history of intending to read Proust. As a teenager, I started with the last novel, The Past Captured. Perhaps I liked the cover? Perhaps it was short?  Now my mind needs to read  Proust in sequence, but it didn’t matter to me then and I understood it perfectly at the time.

My set didn’t have book jackets!

In the ’90s, I declared again I intended to read Proust. We bought a set of old Modern Library editions at The Haunted Bookshop, a small bookstore near the Greyhound bus station in my hometown. And so we ended up running for the bus with seven books weighing down our knapsacks.  I made it through four of the books that year.

In 2013, I declared it again. And so I read Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way (Penguin).  In 2014 I read Within a Budding Grove, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmarten and revised by D. J. Enright (Modern Library paperback edition). Here’s what I wrote in 2014 at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu

I am loving Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, though it’s futile to try to articulate it.  The series is one long novel, no? My husband, who has read the entire series in French, crossly says that Swann’s Way is the only volume worth reading.  Well, I’m simply loving it, but I see the structure is looser in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove. Of course it’s all modernist brilliance. And there are seven fucking volumes so get used to it! One basks in Marcel’s symphonic descriptions of places, walks, meals, dinner conversations, the hotel in Balbec, neurotic worries about girls, friendships with the pretentious Bloch and the generous Robert, and lovesickness for the lively Gilberte Swann,.  The pattern of hopeless, anxious love is set by  his relationship with his mother, but his love for Gilberte is also echoes the pattern of Swann’s courtship of the fickle Odette, who makes him miserable.   In the second volume, we are amazed to find that Swann has become a bourgeois husband bustling to convince government officials to dine with Odette, since his aristocratic connections won’t entertain her.  There are many comic episodes: when Gilberte tells Marcel that Swann and Odette don’t like him, Marcel is indignant and writes him a very long letter about his love and respect for the Swanns. Ah, youth!  So funny!

I will post something about The Guermantes Way –eventually. Meanwhile, let me refer you to a brilliant, fun article at, “How to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust,” by Marcelle Clements. The essay begins,

Some readers are lucky; they fall in love with Proust on page one and enter a sort of rapture that transports them through all six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Others struggle, resist, quit in a huff. My guess is that many readers are alternately smitten and outraged by Proust’s prose style, especially in the opening pages, when we are in the dark—or rather, in a room where the drapes are drawn—and the only thing we can figure out with any certitude is that the narrator is unable to get to sleep and that this reminds him of many other sleepless nights.

I think I’ll follow Marcelle Clements’ advice. But only the future can tell if I’ll read all of them!

All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go? Read Proust!

 Kristin Stewart reading Proust

It is your mission. You decide to finish Proust.  “It’s all downhill after Swann’s Way,” a friend confided. And since it has been five years since you read the last volume, you don’t even remember who the characters are.   So Swann’s Way again?

Funny, you’d rather read catalogues. One thing new this spring: all the models are suddenly LGBT.  Yes, the women are all holding hands…on a beach…and wearing plenty of things you’d like to buy:  embroidered jeans, summery tunics, and slip-on sandals that doubtless would slip off.  

If you bought these lovely clothes, you’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. These days, you mow the lawn for fun. Or go to the grocery store! 

The state has “reopened”–it  proudly is a hotspot– and it is a bit too much.  And so many people are staying home.  Restaurant dining rooms are empty.  The parking lot at Perkins is empty (perhaps it’s closed altogether).  Penney’s is out of business.  Supposedly drive-in theaters are open, but I’d like to know where the heck these drive-ins are.

The drive-through at Starbucks is very popular:  I’ve seen the lines!

Really, it’s enough to inspire you to stay home and keep reading Proust.  I’m going to go eenie-meenie-mo and pick a volume.

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