The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

The Guermantes Way

The two-minute 'Guermantes'

Marcel's family moves to the spawl of apartments making up the Hôtel de Guermantes. Thus granted almost daily sightings of the Duchesse de Guermantes, Marcel—of course!—falls in love with her. Hoping for an introduction, he vists her nephew, Robert de Saint-Loup, at the barracks in Doncières. Instead, they go to the theater with Saint-Loup's beloved (Rachel, whom we met earlier as a twenty-franc whore) and Marcel gets an invitation to the second-rate salon of the Marquise de Villeparisis, where he renews his acquaintance with the Baron de Charlus. (All these are members of the Guermantes clan.)

His grandmother dies, and, almost immediately. Albertine comes back into his life. (Since he doesn't care one way or another, he promptly succeeds in bedding her, though it's unclear whether this involves anything beyond heavy petting.) The Duchesse too, now that he's not infatuated with her, takes him up. Charlus, however, is a different matter. Marcel can't quite figure him out!

Exploring the ways of society

The Guermantes Way For me, this is the least compelling part of Proust's novel. In it, he further explores his peculiar conception of physical love, which in his view is never reciprocated. The man is an infatuated pursuer, squandering his time, wealth, and reputation on a woman who consumes them all while casting her own glances on lesser beings: in this case, Saint-Loup as the pursuer and Rachel as the pursued. On this whore whom at an earlier time he could have hired for twenty francs, Saint-Loup spends a fortune that Marcel estimates to be a million francs. (In one of Proust's neat transformations, however, Rachel has turned out to be a talented actress.)

There follows an astonishing tour de force at the Marquise de Villeparisis, where for some 100 pages we are immersed in a Dickensian comedy of society. The love of Saint-Loup for Rachel is an echo of Swann's for Odette; so too does the marquise's salon remind us of Madame Verdurin's, where Swann's love affair played out. Unusual for him, Proust pokes us in the eye with the comparison: a few days later, Young Marcel takes his grandmother for a stroll on the Champs Élysées, where she is taken ill. She retreats to the public toilets, and Marcel is left to listen to the frumpy woman who presides over these facilities, and who explains to the groundsman that not everyone is welcome into her "parlors." She's a stand-in for Madame Verdurin, for the Marquise de Villeparisis, and (ultimately) for the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Indeed, once we get to know her, the beautiful and brilliant Duchesse is no more to be admired than Madame Verdurin, whom Proust mocked so mercilessly in Swann's Way. Marcel's maiden visit to her salon actually takes considerably more than 100 pages to describe; the result is hardly flattering to this seeming pinnacle of society. The book ends in another Dickensian scene: Marcel and the ailing Charles Swann happen to be visiting the Duc and Duchesse just before they are to go out to a ball. The Duchesse wants Swann to travel with them to Venice; he demurs; she insists; he explains that he is incurably ill, and that by the time they leave he will be dead. The aristocratic couple simply don't want to hear it, and instead get into an uproar because she proves to be wearing black shoes with a red dress. They will serve, she says. The Duc will have none of it. Having just assured Swann that they were in a terrible hurry, and that the dying man will outlive them all, he now declares that there is plenty of time for the Duchesse to swap the black shoes for her red ones.

The translation

In the Penguin 'Guermantes', Mark Treharne follows the example set by James Grieve, translating la petite bande as "the little gang." But he's not nearly so slangy, and overall he steers a middle course between Scott Moncrieff and Lydia Davis, who did such a nice job with Swann's Way. Here, for example, Scott Moncrieff translates an amusing sentence about the style with which members of the Guermantes clan greet a stranger:

"At the moment when a Guermantes, were he no more than twenty, but treading already in the footsteps of his ancestors, heard your name uttered by the person who introduced you, he let fall on you as though he had by no means made up his mind to say "How d'ye do?" a gaze generally blue, always of the coldness of a steel blade which he seemed ready to plunge into the deepest recesses of your heart."

Treharne's version isn't radically different, but how much more smoothly it flows:

"The moment he heard your name uttered by the person introducing you, a Guermantes, even a twenty-year-old Guermantes, but treading already in the footsteps of his elders, let fall against you, as though he had not made up to mind to acknowledge you, a gaze that was generally blue and always as cold as a steel blade, seemingly destined to plunge into the deepest recesses of your heart."

That the concluding phrases are identical is no accident. Treharne concludes his introduction to The Guermantes Way by saying: "I should, finally, like to acknowledge my debt to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin edition revised by D.J. Enright. I have worked very much in the shadow of these previous translators and with much graditude toward them."

Look for the Penguin hardcover on (and ignore the link to a paperback edition, which is just a rip-off of the public domain translation of 1925).

Or the rather homely Penguin paperback (with a link to the Kindle e-book, if you're inclined that way).

Or settle for the Modern Library update of the classic Scott Moncrieff translation (likewise with a link to the digital edition).

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Proust Six-Pack

Swann's Way - In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower - The Guermantes Way - Sodom and Gomorrah - The Prisoner - The Fugitive - Finding Time Again

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