135Journals Book Club: In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust, Part 4

29 Apr







Alfred Dreyfus is stripped of his rank and publicly humiliated. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Now I have entered the third book, The Guermantes Way
The narrator’s family moves from Combray to Paris. They live in an apartment that shares a courtyard with the home of the aristocratic Guermantes family. This is the same family about whom he had often fantasized as a child (one of the two walks his family would take was “the Guermantes Way.” Although he hates the new apartment, he is OBSESSED with Madame Guermantes (which is confusing—is this is the same Mme Guermantes he found so ordinary before?). He takes endless walks just so he’ll cross paths with her, but she doesn’t really notice him.

There is a long section where he describes a second visit to the theater to see the famous actress Berma. Only this time he is not disappointed by her acting. Perhaps it is partly because he isn’t as sick with anticipation as he was the first time. But partly it is because he sees in her how she combines craft with something that is beyond craft. He also seems keenly, painfully aware to every intrigue among the various theatergoers—who, in high society, is there to see and who is there to be seen. Of course, Mme. Guermantes is there, so he practically has a coronary.

Later, he goes to a place called Doncières to visit his friend Robert St-Loup, a close relative of the irresistible Mme Guermantes. St.-Loup is a military officer, and spending time among the soldiers is quite fascinating to the narrator. Apparently St.-Loup has a high regard for the narrator’s intellect because he likes to show him off, and the other soldiers evidently find him charming as well. Meanwhile, he is quite engaged by long discussions of military history (interesting to me, perhaps not to the less nerdily inclined as it were), such as why certain locations are natural places for battles to take place because of their geography—either because they are at a crossroads of culture or because of their terrain. Also interesting is the discussion (and avoidance of discussion) of the issue of the day—L’Affaire Dreyfus. The subject of whether Dreyfus should have another trial is such a hot-button issue that in polite society—even in polite society, it is almost unbearable for anyone to speak about unless they are sure they are talking to fellow Dreyfusards or anti-Dreyfusards. (Here’s your handy guide to the Dreyfus affair in case you forgot the details. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair). St.-Loup, contrary to most aristocrats, is pro-Dreyfus. This event is very important because it stirred up a lot of anti-Semitism in France.

The narrator tries to get St.-Loup to wangle an introduction to Mme Guermantes because he can tell she thinks he’s an idiot because he always likes to take a walk exactly when she’s taking a walk. And he wants to get the photograph of Madame Guermantes St.-Loup has on his dresser.–a request that St.-Loup refuses. The intensity of his desires and his actions make  the narrator seem very manipulative and complex. He certainly doesn’t come off as a very noble person. I was thinking about that. He could have whitewashed what a dreadful little wretch he was—after all, it’s his book, he can write anything he wants. But I think—or rather, I feel, I intuit—that what he is trying to get at more than anything else is the truth of HIS STORY. To avoid speaking of this constant, painful yearning he has for one unsuitable object or person after another would be a way of NOT telling his story. He needs to lay out the facts of the case as he sees them. As he experiences them. Most importantly, as he FEELS them. It is strange to think of him as both sensitive and insensitive at the same time. But these two things are not at all opposites. He is deeply sensitive to himself. It’s other people with whom he is not in sympathy. In reality, that kind of person can be most unpleasant, or at least artificial in his dealing with others. But I will have to give him credit because he used this quality, this excruciating sensitivity, to write something that has a universal quality to it. The emotions he describes are deeply individual, yet at the same time, it is easy to relate to one’s own less than noble emotions, whether it’s spending time at a party trying desperately to get a seat close to someone you find amusing or attractive, rather than be in some boring Siberia with worthy but dull people, or making a fool out of yourself by arranging your days so you can “accidentally” bump into someone you have a crush on.

Writing Prompt: What is something foolish you have done to get closer to someone whose attention you craved?

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