My Year with Proust: The Guermantes Way

After a long summer retreat at Balbec by the sea, we return to Paris with Proust and are thrown into the heart of Parisian high society. At the centre of it all shines the Duchess of Guermantes, Oriane, supposedly based on the real Countess Elizabeth Greffulhe. Oriane is known for her style and her intellect, manifesting itself in her so-called wit which to a modern reader is nothing more than bullying remarks driven by boredom to keep people talking about her and being slightly scared of whether they will fall victim of her ‘latest’ change of heart or fancy. No one is safe from these remarks, neither old friends nor well-loved family members despite her circle being extremely focused on family connections and keeping a tight hold onto whom they allow inside the circle. Especially the Duke is an encyclopedia of his ancestral connections and what titles they are rightful heirs to compared to titles given by the first empire, the second empire or the republican goverments. To these people, it is of high significance and shows whether one is truly an aristocrat or just an upstart with money or political connections.

Our narrator in Proust’s likeness, is very enamoured by the Duchess and feels very lucky to have met Saint-Loup in Balbec who turns out to be her nephew and therefore assists Proust in finally meeting and dining with the Guermantes’. Most of this volume is dedicated to this pinnacle dinner and how difficult it is to outsiders to grasp and peak through the curtain of all the subtle and not so subtle social codes and etiquette rules. The hypocrisy of Faubourg-Saint-Germaine is astounding and the level of pettiness the same. Along the social codes discussed, we also witness the prime political scandal of the time, the Dreyfus Affair, and how divided all of France was over this. The Guermantes family is also much divided with Saint-Loup taking a clear stand in believing Dreyfus’s innocence much to his family’s horror. Especially the Duke is enraged and the antisemitic views underlying the society comes out full-throttle which means Charles Swann, as a Jew, is no longer a friend of the house but a disgrace and a traitor alongside Dreyfus. These views were not only found in France but all across Europe and it is no wonder how this culminated in the Holocaust. When there is a go-to scapegoat for everything wrong in a society and making this based on religion, it becomes easy to blind oneself to reality and when lines and boundaries are crossed. Something we still need reminders of in today’s political and ethical climate.

Countess Greffulhe in her Worth gown photographed by Nadar                                             Albert Dreyfus

The Dreyfus Affair in short

To really understand all the references and how significant it is to the characters, I will attempt a small and condensed overview of the scandal. Beginning in 1894, a young Jewish officer named Albert Dreyfus is charged with treason due to have apparently given classified intelligence to the German embassy in Paris. He is stripped of honour and titles, and senteced to life-time jail. However, a couple of years later, evidence emerge that he is not the culprit but that it is actually another officer named Esterházy, a French citizen. In stead of releasing Dreyfus and charging Esterházy, the new evidence is suppressed and Dreyfus is once again jailed after a trial based on falsified evidence provided by the army.

Rumours of Dreyfus being framed began to spread and the public and newspapers took an active part in exposing the scandal creating a stark clift between the anti-army called ‘Dreyfusards’, which Saint-Loup is part of despite himself being in the army, and the Catholic and mostly conservative called ‘Anti-Dreyfusards’ which the rest of the Guermantes’ are part of. The pinnacle of this clift came as French novelist and journalist, Émile Zola published a famous open letter titled ‘J’accuse‘ in a newspaper in 1898, and the public put pressure on the army to reopen the case. From 1899, the trial continued and the scandal grew when it became more and more clear how injust the army had behaved, and largely because of the antisemitic sentiments flowing through society. Nevertheless, Dreyfus was proven not guilty in 1906 and had his titles and honour restored. He was reinstated in the French army and served in WWI before he died in 1935.

At the time of The Guermantes Way, Émile Zola has published his open letter and the trial has reopened but not cleared Dreyfus yet. We are therefore around 1900-1905, at the high of Le Belle Epoque and Moulin Rouge is in full business. Paris is swarmed by prostitutes, couturiers, and fashion is important. So important that the Duke of Guermantes is vitally interested in how his wife, Oriane, dresses, despite not being interested in her otherwise but spending his time with whatever mistress he fancies at that moment. Proust being the superb observer that he is, he gives the reader a lush glimpse of fabrics, jewellery, and how they work together to create an effect on the viewer. The high society ladies dress to be seen and they watch each other like vultures.

A funny little scene at the end of the volume shows Oriane crossing a large staircase at a party to greet a distant cousin who has fallen from grace and the inner circle. This seems very sympathetic of her, however, as Proust remarks, this is only done to show off her red gown and how well it would flow while crossing the stairs. The distant cousin is completely oblivious to this but revels in her good luck of being openly met by the Guermantes’ again.

The later half of this volume is the best part as this also features a wonderfully crazy scene between Proust and Monsieur de Charlus which involves throwing a vase! Absolutely hilarious because there seems to be no reason why it should have come to that. The Guermantes Way volume at a large however, is more dense and slower than the previous ones, and you echo Proust’s own disappointment of the longed-for dinner. Despite this, I still believe it is an important part of the whole work to really understand the characters and their developments in the volumes to come but beware, there are tons and tons of historical and ancestral info bits and pieces and you quickly lose track of who is who and from where. This could possibly be the exact point which Proust tries to make with this volume because none of these people seem to be at all relevant today.

I cannot help but make the connection to our present-day celebrity obsession along with royals (who are treated as celebrities as well). All these weird rules of ‘polite society’ and etiquette, and whom we invest cultural power to is ridiculed in this volume. They are not greater than anyone else. There is only one magic spell surrounding them and that is either old money or ruthlessness in making connections. But as Proust sees at the dinner, they are in fact really boring people!

{photo credit: 1 mine, 2, 3+4 edit mine, 5}


DANSK:

Efter lange skønne sommermåneder i Balbec er Proust tilbage i Paris og påbegynder opstigningen i det parisiske selskabsliv. I centrum af alt dette er Hertuginden af Guermantes og hvem end der er inde i varmen hos hende. Her gælder det at være så eksklusiv som muligt og ikke nødvendigvis at blive set. Dette bind er langsommere og føles mere teksttung end de foregående da læseren bliver bombaderet med aristokratiske slægtsskaber og hvem, hvad, hvor og hvorfor.

Derudover er Dreyfus-affæren i fuld gang og vi ser hvor stort et splid denne skandale skabte i Frankrig. Selv i dag er denne sag et berøgtet eksempel på antisemitisme og uretfærdighed. Det kan virkelig betale sig at læse lidt op på denne sag for at kunne forstå personernes tilhørsforhold og karakteristik. Det hjælper også at have en lille smule viden om hvordan Europas kongelige var i familie med hinanden og deres titler, da nogle af de spydige bemærkninger fra både Hertugen og Hertuginden ellers går én forbi. Ellers er det en fryd at se deres hykleri med Prousts knivskarpe blik og smukke vendinger. Så trods dette bind går trægt så fortsætter man gerne videre i værket.

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About Ann-Cathrine 38 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.