Proust Progress Report 6: halfway through the third book

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

Exactly six months into reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and I’m halfway through the third volume. I have now finished the first part of Le côté de Guermantes, which was originally published separately.

If you’re looking for sizzling action, this book isn’t for you. The narrator has dinner with the military friends of his friend de Saint-Loup and is fascinated by military theory. He meets de Saint-Loup’s mistress, whom everyone except de Saint-Loup knows is a prostitute. He attends a salon where people are variously snobbish, uncouth, bien-pensant, antisemitic, evasively diplomatic and pretentious. He goes for a walk with the extremely creepy and probably predatory M de Charlus. At home, he finds his beloved grandmother is sick. He goes out for a walk with her and she has a heart attack.

Much of it is wryly funny, and there is one belly laugh. At least, I laughed out loud when after about twenty pages in which the narrator is a fly on the wall at the salon, the object of his infatuation who has not deigned to utter a single word to him when introduced, finally – after the narrator’s dear friend Robert de Saint-Loup whispers in her ear – turns to him and says, ‘Comment allez-vous?‘ Your mileage may vary.

I think of Proust as the Anti-Twitter: no proposition goes unquestioned, one’s immediate interpretation of a word or action is more likely than not to turn into its opposite when subjected to sustained, complex explication. No one ever gives a straight answer to a question. We know that Proust and his narrator are dreyfusards*, and the anti-dreyfusard characters are mocked mercilessly, but there’s no sign of Twitter’s door-slamming outrage. And yet Patrick Alexander, author of a guide to Proust, is rewriting In Search of Lost Time (in English) as a series of tweets. Sadly, my computer wouldn’t go far enough back in his Twitter timeline to give me his version of what I’ve just read, so I can’t tell whether he’s making a point of the impossibility of the project.

It turns out, though, that skimming @ProustTweet‘s timeline gave me hope that the endless conversations in this volume are about to give way to something a little more active. The account of grand-mère’s heart attack holds out that promise as well: it happens offstage while the narrator is paying attention to a silly conversation between the ‘marquise’ who attends the public toilets and a caretaker of the gardens they are visiting. The important things, it seems to be suggested, happen when the narrative is engaged elsewhere.


* Proust assumes that his readers are familiar with the Dreyfus Affair, which Wikipedia informs me divided the republic from 1894 to 1906. In essence a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for treason, and even when evidence of his innocence came to light the high-ranking office who had actually committed the treason was found not guilty and Dreyfus was again, against the evidence, and went to prison. In Proust, and I assume in the actual world, conservative, Catholic, antisemitic people of the upper classes tended to be antidreyfusards.

5 responses to “Proust Progress Report 6: halfway through the third book

  1. I’m very impressed with your persistence. I don’t know anyone, myself included, who’s got beyond Swann’s Way one and two, in English, let alone in French!

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    • It’s not as impressive as it seems, Kathy, and as I get further into it, it’s as if I belong to a slightly weird club. The State Library website recently had a story about a young man who visited the library every day for a couple of months to read the last volumes – and was thrilled to discover that one of the books he read had belonged to Mils Franklin, who had noted English translations of some words in the margins but seems not to have finished the book. Someone told me a man in his book group had read the whole thing in English and was now part way through it in French. At this point I think once will do me!

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    • And – what I started out to say – where Miles Franklin evidently consulted a dictionary regularly as she read À la recherche, I let the unfamiliar words go through to the keeper. And here are a lot of them. I’m just not a very serious Proustian.

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  2. The Dreyfus Affair seems to have been replicated by the tribulations and injustices of the Affaire Assange! Hopefully soon to come to an end – with the ugliness of all those who have persecuted him becoming properly exposed! But bravo on your Proustian effort!

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    • I see your point, Jim. But Assange really did do the things he’s accused – the question is whether they amount to treason or a much needed pubic service. Dreyfus simply didn’t do what he was accused of, and was sent back to prison after that had been thoroughly established

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