The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

The Guermantes Way

"Thus the empty spaces of my memory were covered by degrees with names that in taking order, in composing themselves with relation to one another, in linking themselves to one another by increasingly numerous connections, resembled those finished works of art in which there is not one touch that is isolated, in which every part in turn receives from the rest a justification that it confers on them."

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 -- Saint-Loup, the marquise, and the baron -- 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 no longer infatuated with her, becomes quite fond of him. Charlus, however, is a different matter. Marcel can't quite figure him out!

Exploring the ways of society

For me, The Guermantes Way is the least compelling book in 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 time, wealth, and reputation on a woman who consumes them 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 the author's neat transformations, however, Rachel has turned out to be a talented actress.) I find it useful to think of a Proustian franc as the equivalent of today's US dollar.

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, whose petty vanity she shares, along with their ruthless domination of their respective salons.

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 is not only exhaustive but exhausting, or so I find it. In the relatively compact Modern Library paperback, it occupies 180 pages; in the Penguin/Viking hardcover, 138; and in the new Yale University Press edition, 144. I am always bored by it, and especially by the play between "the wit of the Guermantes" as opposed to that of their cousins, the Courvoisiers. Perhaps this is deliberate; perhaps Proust wants us to be bored with the Duc and the Duchesse. More than anywhere else in "The Search," I was glad to have William Carter's Lecture 13 in his streaming course at Proust Ink to smooth my way through the Guermantes salon.

After another of those puzzling encounters with the Baron Charlus, the book ends in a second Dickensian scene. Marcel and the ailing Charles Swann happen to be visiting the Guermantes 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 don't want to hear it, and instead get into an uproar because the Duchesse is wearing black shoes with her red dress. No matter, 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 surely 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 new translations

The Guermantes Way In the Penguin/Viking Guermantes, Mark Treharne follows the example set by James Grieve, translating la petite bande as "the little gang." Another bit of slang that strikes me as wrong: when the Duc de Guermantes helps young Marcel off with his outer garments, every other translator has the Duc referring to the young man's "duds." For Treharne, they're "clobber" -- a word that neither I nor my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary have ever seen in that context. I had to turn to the Shorter Oxford to discover that it's late-19th century British slang for "clothing, gear, equipment."

Overall, though, Treharne 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 (as revised by Kilmartin and Enright) describes the manner in which a Guermantes acknowledges an introduction:

"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?" to you a gaze generally blue and always of the coldness of a steel blade which he seemed ready to plunge into the deepest recesses of your heart."

The High Country

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

"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. In his introduction, Treharne says: "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 gratitude toward them."

I find it interesting that William Carter, who doesn't call himself a translator, but merely an editor and annotator of Scott Moncrieff, sometimes departs more freely from the 1925 text. In that quote about the haughty Guermantes male, he goes even further than Treharne:

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, let fall upon you, as though he had by no means made up his mind to say hello to you, a gaze generally blue, always of the coldness of a steel blade that he seemed ready to plunge into the deepest recesses of your heart.


There's one place where Carter follows Scott Moncrieff and probably shouldn't have. During the long (and to me rather tedious) dinner party at the Guermantes', Proust writes "répondit la duchesse," which Scott Moncrieff translated as "replied the Duke." I take this to be a careless moment in the Scotsman's monumental quest, and indeed Terence Kilmartin corrected it in 1981. For the 1992 Modern Library edition, D J Enright likewise used "replied the duchess" (p. 702) as did Mark Treharne for the Penguin Proust (p. 510). Carter, by contrast, sticks with Scott Moncrieff. There are other differences, too, where one or the other Guermantes jests at the expense of General Monserfeuil, who kept losing elections even as he regularly fathered chidren (italics as in the original):

Proust: — Mais parfaitement, répondit la duchesse, c'est le seul arrondissement où le pauvre général n'a jamais échoué.

Scott Moncrieff: "Why, of course," replied the Duke, "that's the one division where the poor General has never failed to get in."

Modern Library: "Why, of course," replied the Duchess, "it's the one ward where the poor General has never failed."

Penguin: "But of course," replied the Duchess, "it's the only sort of campaign the poor general has never lost."

Yale: "Why, of course," replied the duke, "that's the one arrondissement where the poor general has never failed to get in."

Which apart from the sex change comes closer to Proust's pun on the term for a voting district of Paris, derived from a verb that meant "to round," hence a sly reference to Mme Monserfeuil's expanding belly. (In 1925, one did not speak of a lady's pregnancy: like many post-Victorian writers, Scott Moncrieff called it "an interesting condition.")

Which one to buy?

Ten years ago, when the "Penguin Proust" was new, I much preferred it to the Scott Moncrieff translation. Since then, I've read and enjoyed the Modern Library updates by Kilmartin and Enright, and now I'm halfway through the Yale University press edition from William Carter. Really, you can't go wrong with any of the three.

The Modern Library Guermantes -- a scholarly do-over of Scott Montcrieff -- is available as a hefty paperback and as a remarkably low-priced Kindle ebook.

The handsome and more adventurous Penguin/Viking hardcover is sadly out of print, but you can find new and used copies at for less than $10 secondhand ... but ask the vendor for an assurance that it's the Treharne translation, ISBN 978-0670033171. I'd be less nervous at the American Booksellers Exchange website. Amazon also sells the Penguin Classics paperback.

Finally, there's my current favorite, the freshened and Americanized Yale University Press edition by William Carter.

Warning: don't rely on Amazon links or reader reviews, because the store doesn't distinguish between the Modern Library, Penguin, Yale, and 1920 public domain translations!

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The 6-volume Modern Library ebook

1. Swann's Way | 2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower | 3. The Guermantes Way | 4. Sodom and Gomorrah | 5. The Prisoner | 6. The Fugitive | 7. Finding Time Again

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