Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 30, 2009

The Guermantes Way

DSC00343by Marcel Proust
Translated by Mark Treharne

I’ve been reading the third volume of In Search of Lost Time since July 11th, which incidentally is the author’s birthday. Actually, I made a point of starting The Guermantes Way on that day, and then didn’t pick it up again until September 15th…! Since then I’ve read it in fits and starts, and as the month of December ticked away I was worried that I wouldn’t finished it before the end of the year. However, this morning I woke up and to my own astonishment I thundered through the last 95 pages – more Proust than I’ve ever read in one day. I’m celebrating with a Maudite by the Canadian brewery Unibroue – as close as I could come to a French beer in a pinch, and I may as well add quite a delicious choice!

When I started this book I was initially peeved with the translator, Mark Treharne, because in his introduction he blatantly gave away huge plot points (even more upsetting than usual considering that plot points are few and far apart in Proust’s work!) However I soon forgave him since, either due to his translation or to the actual tone of this section, the pace of the book seemed to pick up and the dry humor that had surfaced infrequently in the last two volumes seemed more and more prevalent.

In this volume Marcel’s desire to infiltrate the glamorous world of the aristocracy, as embodied in particular by the Guermantes family, became more than just an out of reach dream. He was invited into the home of the Duchesse de Guermantes and was treated fairly well, although his social station as a middle class person could not be ignored. Over the course of several amazingly long and detailed passages dealing with the dinner parties of the rich and famous, Marcel was able to thoroughly observe his hosts and the guests who flocked around them, listening to their witty conversation and exploring the intricacies of their own social positions. As per usual with Marcel, he left somewhat disillusioned, for of course the magical world he imagined and the kings and queens of intellect that dwelt there could never stand up to reality. However, he finally handled a disappointment like this with better grace.

While I found a great deal of Proust’s meticulous deconstruction of French society life at this period in history tedious, I could relate to Marcel’s frustration with balancing his social life with his internal and creative life, and could definitely recognize myself in him as he circulated through a party, listening to conversations and outwardly expressing interest, while inwardly getting all mind boggled at the ridiculousness of people trying to impress other people.

I made note of lots of beautiful or interesting passages, since with Proust you can’t avoid interesting and beautiful tangents. The reason I keep on reading has more to do with the discovery of exquisite descriptions of ordinary things (‘The gray daylight, falling like fine rain, wove an endless succession of transparent webs, through which the Sunday strollers appeared in a silvery haze.‘) than with how much I care about what happens to Marcel.

I enjoyed his encounters with Robert Saint-Loup, a young and vibrant Guermantes who thinks, for whatever unknown reason, that Marcel is a particularly fabulous friend – and every scene with the bizarre M. de Charlus is laugh-out-loud funny – but even in spite of the ‘action’ that I mentioned earlier, this volume was my least favorite thus far. Still amazing, in it’s very special Proust-ly way, of course, but not as much of a delight as the first two volumes.

Leaving me hanging with the final, thoroughly ironic scene, does of course compel me to continue, so my excitement over finishing The Guermantes Way will be short lived. I might as well try to read the next three books in 2010, right?

For now I will pour myself another Maudite and raise a toast to Marcel who, after all, finds things much more ‘wondrous‘ with the help of ‘so much fine wine‘! p. 522 That I can definitely relate to. 🙂

Previously: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and Swann’s Way.


  1. I hate, hate, hate, when translators and/or intros give away huge plot points. I think that’s just unforgivable!

    Wine does seem to make things more wondrous. Just imagine if he had champagne!

    …speaking of which, Happy New Year!!!

  2. Jill – It’s my own fault, really. I’ve started to change my ways and read the intos to books last! Happy New Year to you too. 🙂

  3. Sorry about those prematurely divulged plot points. It did turn out quite satisfactorily though, didn’t it? And as you suggest, I just want to keep reading now given what is revealed in the last third of the novel. In my (finally posted) post I suggested we read the final three volumes at the end of April, August, and December so that Richard and others who are interested might catch up. Thoughts?

  4. Frances – I like the way you think! I started out reading Proust on my own, but it was hugely encouraging to encounter you and Claire and join my reading effort with yours. I think I’ll start volume 4 in February, so at my usual Proust reading pace I could potentially be done by the end of April! 🙂 I’m off you read your review now.

  5. This is probably my least favourite of the first three as well, but even so, I really loved it. The exquisite descriptions you point to are also about 80% of the reason why I kept reading in the first two books and the first half of this one. But gradually, midway through The Guermantes Way, I was beginning to see a cohesive story unfolding. Very excited to continue.. like you, I might also start early, as he is extremely difficult to rush, isn’t he?

  6. Claire – It WAS exciting to see the story develop, and I found many of the dropped hints about future events very intriguing!

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