Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Guermantes Way (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
"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."

--The review--

By this point in Proust's six-volume epic novel, the reader has already quashed around 1300 pages of prose. It being fair to say that these 1300 pages have not been especially accessible or easy to read, it is therefore also fair to say that the reader’s hopes are raised by the comparatively accessible beginning of The Guermantes Way. However, this effect sadly tapers.

This is reinforced by the volume's "War and Peace" quality, in the respect that the military and political discussion will be more enjoyable for some than for others. This aspect relies on prior knowledge and could inhibit understanding or enjoyment of this volume of the novel for those not in the know (including myself). Proust consequently risks losing his readers’ attention as a result.

However, there are some gleams in the night. Proust is masterful of the dry insult and witty comeback; even today, anyone with this power at their disposal is likely to be able to muddle through any situation life throws at them. The dialogue in this volume is also much more enjoyable than it has been in previous volumes, tension is managed well, and Mr Charlus also comes into his own as a great, amusing character. Could this prove to be some of the character development we have longed for during the reading of the past nearly two thousand pages?!

Alas, the author does not sustain this skilful depiction of character. The timing of the appearance of the grandfather for just about the first time in the entire novel means that he is unconvincing in his grief: Proust has not invested the time or energy in making us care about him by building up his character more. The author also continues to tell rather than show, with places remaining easy to visualise while people are not always so; this suggests that the author can describe well but chooses not to, which seems a highly bizarre trait to be attached to such a highly acclaimed novel.

There are other, more academic, points which make this volume interesting, perhaps as redemption for the above. Proust is metacritical, talking about the skills of authorship frequently. We have the fun of trying to work out if he is making Marcel deliberately ironic or just pretentious, and the deeper enjoyment of the volume being more like a work of philosophy in places than a work of fiction. The first slightly strange translation is also seen in this volume, with the word ‘formed’ being used for ‘educated’ or ‘trained’, as a sign of the translator or editor taking the French ‘former’ (to train or educate) or ‘formation’ (education or training) a little too literally.

By the end of this volume we are more or less halfway through the opus; we should be rolling along by now but to the contrary are still having to work hard. However, Proust still knows how to throw in a few details that mean we don’t just give up here. Is the doctor incompetent, or just wrong? And is the ending as predictable as the final sentences lead us to believe, or is there a massive twist coming? Here’s hoping for the latter.

No comments: