Sunday, October 15, 2006

book of books - Guermantes Way & Cities of the Plain

My wife is a big fan of Lost and I read somewhere that they had made season one about the crash, two about the hatch and season three was going to be about the others. Using that sort of sweeping thematic approach with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things past it seems the volume III is all about the Guermantes family and volume IV all about Albertine.

This is the second volume of three published by Chatto & Windus including The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain.

Plot summary
The Guermantes Way
The family move into an apartment in the Guermantes building and Marcel falls in love with the Duchess de Guermantes and stalks her and imagines being with her. After a visit to her nephew Saint-Loup at the army barracks he is stationed at not too far from Balbec, his interest in the Duchess peaks and after he has got over her he is introduced into her social world. What makes the break is that he is totally distracted by the death of his grandmother, which takes quite a while to occur. Once into the Guermantes social circle he meets the duchess and her family, which includes the mysterious Baron de Charlus and also Swann makes an appearance in a terrible condition because he is dying of some sort of inherited disease. The volume becomes bogged down towards the end with details of the behaviour and conversation of people in the Guermantes salon, which is not of great interest after a while.

Cities of the Plain
Apart from the development of Marcel’s relationship with Albertine the other main theme of this volume, which is mainly based in Balbec by the coast, rather than Paris, is that it deals on numerous occasions with the subject of homosexuality. Firstly, Baron de Charlus is discovered to be homosexual and then Marcel has fears that Albertine might be a lesbian. These fears cause him to turn his back on the social scene with the Verdurin’s at Balbec and not just return to Paris with Albertine as virtual prisoner but also to tell his mother that he intends marrying her.

Is it well written?
The same comments made about the first couple of volumes also apply here. The style is a mixture of dense description and dialogue between characters and it feels as if you are stepping into someone’s dream. There are passages that quite simply take your breath away and there are other moments where he very simply moves the story on when there could have been an opportunity to stretch it out. But what you feel as a reader facing a long trek up to the summit of theses two volumes, which are among the longest of the seven, is that some parts get too bogged down. So after a while you start to lose an interest in what is happening in the salons of Paris or in Balbec and yearn for the characters to move on. Welcome relief does come in the form of some real comedy, increasingly around de Charlus, who you sense is heading for a comic fall over his secret homosexuality.

Should it be read?
It is of course almost impossible to walk away from the commitment to read these two volumes once you have embarked on the Remembrance of Things Past journey. I am rather hoping that much like the second book in the Lord of The Rings trilogy the pace will quicken slightly in the remaining three books as the story nears its conclusion. Having said that some of the passages are rich in description and mood and where the admiration for Proust grows is the consistency in his writing. To be able to keep up a style of such high quality for 2,000 odd pages is an achievement most writers will never live to achieve and so in that respect these two volumes can stand tall on their own merits.

Leads to
It goes without saying that it leads to the final three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past but also there are other writers, some of which I have read in between volumes of Proust, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Andrei Makine's Dreams of My Russian Summers, that are all said to be influenced by a Proustian style

Version Read – Chatto & Windus hardback 1982

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