Home > 1920, 20th Century, Classics, French Literature, Novel, Proust, Marcel > Mme de Guermantes, from dream to reality

Mme de Guermantes, from dream to reality

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Le côté de Guermantes. Tome 1. A la recherche du temps perdu, volume 3 by Marcel Proust. I will use the translation by CK Scott Moncrieff.

Le côté de Guermantes is the third volume of In Search of Lost Time. It is split into two books, and this post is about the first one.

In my previous post about Le côté de Guermantes, I said I would dedicate a whole post to Mme. de Guermantes, who is the central figure of this volume. The narrator now lives in an apartment dependant from the hôtel de Guermantes and thus sees her everyday around. He can observe her way of life from her in-and-outs and through the ballet of her servants. As Françoise gets acquainted with the servants from their landlord, she regales her masters with anecdotes about Mme de Guermantes. Françoise seems as aware as the narrator of who can visit whom in the high society.

The narrator has an idealized vision of Mme de Guermantes coming from his stays at Combray, where this noble family has owned an estate for decades. He has already described in Swann’s Way the impression left on him by Madame de Guermantes in the Combray church and his reveries about the Guermantes portrait on the stained-glass windows of the church.

He now lives near her and fantasizes about her. Due to all the memories and reveries associated with her name, he is from the start in the perfect mental state to become infatuated with her. But he is not as deeply in love with her as he was with Gilberte. His heart is available, he wants to think himself in love and her proximity makes of her the object of his fantasies.

J’avais, hélas, dans la réalité, choisi précisément pour l’aimer la femme qui réunissait peut-être le plus d’avantages différents et aux yeux de qui, à cause de cela, je ne pouvais espérer avoir aucun prestige ; car elle était aussi riche que le plus riche qui n’eût pas été noble ; sans compter ce charme personnel qui la mettait à la mode, en faisait entre toutes une sorte de reine. I had, alas, in reality, chosen to love the very woman who, in her own person, combined perhaps the greatest possible number of different advantages; in whose eyes, accordingly, I could not hope, myself, ever to cut any figure; for she was as rich as the richest commoner—and noble also; without reckoning that personal charm which set her at the pinnacle of fashion, made her among the rest a sort of queen.

The word « chosen » proves this is more a crush built by his imagination than a genuine sentiment. We usually fall in love and the verb “fall” implies it is an accident, not a choice. She is just living memories of sweet afternoons in Combray and she is intimately linked to his quest of perfection.  

Et même dans mes désirs les plus charnels toujours orientés d’un certain côté, concentrés autour d’un même rêve, j’aurais pu reconnaître comme premier moteur une idée, une idée à laquelle j’aurais sacrifié ma vie, et au point le plus central de laquelle, comme dans mes rêveries pendant les après-midi de lecture au jardin à Combray, était l’idée de perfection. And even in my most carnal desires, magnetised always in a certain direction, concentrated about a single dream, I might have recognised as their primary motive an idea, an idea for which I would have laid down my life, at the innermost core of which, as in my day dreams while I sat reading all afternoon in the garden at Combray, lay the thought of perfection.

She is a sort of ethereal woman. The woman he is infatuated with only exists in his imagination but he wants to take advantage of their living in the same place to know her. He starts strolling in the neighbourhood to “accidentally” meet her on the streets. He can’t help it, even if he is perfectly aware that she is irritated by these provoked encounters.  

Hélas! Si pour moi rencontrer toute autre personne était indifférent, je sentais que, pour elle, rencontrer n’importe qui excepté moi eût été supportable. Alas, if to me meeting any person other than herself would not have mattered, I felt that to her meeting anyone in the world except myself would have been endurable.

 As she is Robert’s aunt, he finally manages to meet her at Mme de Villeparisis, another Guermantes relative. He has been acquainted with the old lady since his stay in Balbec. The tale of his visit in her salon occupies a great part of this volume. We learn more about Mme de Villeparisis and discover her position in the high society is not as glorious as the narrator had supposed it in Balbec. The explanation of how a woman can become an outcast in her social class and be only tolerated by her relatives is very interesting. But back to Mme de Guermantes. Here she is, in the salon:  

Mme de Guermantes s’est assise. Son nom, comme il était accompagné de son titre, ajoutait à sa personne physique son duché qui se projetait autour d’elle et faisait régner la fraîcheur ombreuse et dorée des bois de Guermantes au milieu du salon, à l’entour du pouf où elle était. Mme. de Guermantes had sat down. Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her corporeal dimensions the duchy which projected itself round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room, to surround the tuffet on which she was sitting.

The narrator has his still idealized vision and when she starts talking, he discovers who she is: a terrible gossip without a solid education. Vapid would be the word if she hadn’t that French nasty sense of humour and tendency to hurt other people just for the pleasure of uttering a witty remark; what we call in French un bon mot.  

Mais voyons Basin, vous savez bien de qui ma tante veut parler, s’écria la duchesse avec indignation, c’est le frère de cet énorme herbivore que vous avez eu l’étrange idée d’envoyer venir me voir l’autre jour. Elle est restée une heure, j’ai pensé que je deviendrais folle. Mais j’ai commencé par croire que c’était elle qui l’était en voyant entrer chez moi une personne que je ne connaissais pas et qui avait l’air d’une vache. “Why, Basin, you know quite well who my aunt means,” cried the Duchess indignantly. “He’s the brother of that great graminivorous creature you had the weird idea of sending to call on me the other day. She stayed a solid hour; I thought I should go mad. But I began by thinking it was she who was mad when I saw a person I didn’t know come browsing into the room looking exactly like a cow.”

A nice creature, indeed. Her irony can hit anybody. That the person she mocks is her nephew’s lover is of no importance:  

La demoiselle de Robert, je vous assure qu’elle est à mourir de rire. Je sais bien qu’on m’objectera cette vienne rengaine d’Augier : « Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse! » Eh bien, Robert a peut-être l’ivresse, mais il n’a vraiment pas fait preuve de goût dans le choix du flacon! If you saw Robert’s girl, I assure you, you’d simply die of laughter. Oh, I know somebody’s going to quote Augier at me: ‘What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk?’ Well, Robert may have got drunk, all right, but he certainly hasn’t shewn much taste in his choice of a bottle!

Isn’t she a lowbrow gossip? Proust’s genius explodes in that passage. In one cue, the reader understands that Mme de Guermantes is nasty and uneducated. Her tone is of contempt and mockery. And as Alfred de Musset, and not Augier, wrote “What matters the bottle so long as one gets drunk”, her lack of literary knowledge cannot escape neither the reader nor the narrator’s notice. What a dreadful moment it must have been for him! The goddess is down from her pedestal. The truth forces itself into the narrator’s mind… 

“Quelle buse!” pensais-je, irrité de l’accueil glacial qu’elle m’avait fait. Je trouvais une sorte d’âpre satisfaction à constater sa complète incompréhension de Maeterlinck. “C’est pour une pareille femme que tous les matins je fais tant de kilomètres, vraiment, j’ai de la bonté. Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle.” “What a goose !” I thought to myself. Irritated by the coldness of her greeting, I found a sort of bitter satisfaction in this proof of her complete inability to understand Maerterlinck. “To thinks that’s the woman I walked miles every morning to see. Really, I’m too kind. Well it’s my turn now not to want to see her.” (1)

…but he is not ready to accept it yet.  

Tels étaient les mots que je me disais ; ils étaient le contraire de ma pensée ; c’étaient de purs mots de conversation, comme nous nous en disons dans ces moments où, trop agités pour rester seuls avec nous-mêmes, nous éprouvons le besoin, à défaut d’autre interlocuteur, de causer avec nous, sans sincérité, comme avec un étranger. Thus I reasoned with myself; but my words ran counter to my thoughts; they were purely conversational words such as we say to ourselves at those moments when, too much excited to remain quietly alone, we feel the need, for want of another listener, to talk to ourselves, without meaning what we say, as we talk to a stranger.

There is nothing such as being insincere with ourselves when we need to acknowledge a fact we would rather not or try to force ourselves to be indifferent when that thing/person we would like to forget does matter anyway and we perfectly know it. 

The narrator also explains how Mme de Guermantes invites artists because they are fashionable and attract other fine people but never discuss their art with them. Is she even interested? I hope we’ll hear more of her in the second book of this volume.  

I know there are many quotes in this post but how can I paraphrase Proust in my cheap English? Honestly, I lack the words to tell how witty, intelligent, insightful this is. We are thrown in a world totally different from ours but that sounds strangely familiar. We all know a Mme de Guermantes. Gossips come from all social classes and whatever their supposedly good education, their meanness overcomes good manners and seeps through their chat.

The narrator is progressively losing his illusions and experiences that all that glitters is not gold. Well, he’s becoming an adult. 

(1) A word on the translation « Maintenant, c’est moi qui ne voudrais pas d’elle » literally means “I wouldn’t want her now” and not “it’s my turn not to want to see her”. If I’m correct, the sexual connotation is thus erased of the English text.

  1. January 28, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I can see the humorous side now. Uneducated people who want to be witty are funny, indeed. People who are full of themselves a funny as well. I enjoyed the quotes and that you chose to dedicate a whole post only to her is a great idea, a nice chnage from pure reviews. It is worth to look more closely at certain details of a book. I often feel a bit frustrated with my own reviews as I don’t want to write to much but there is always so much left unsaid. More than one post on the same book is a good solution to this dilemma.

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    • January 28, 2011 at 7:14 pm

      I can do that kind of post with Proust because no one reads Proust for the plot. I can say whatever I want, I don’t think it will spoil another reader’s pleasure.

      Avoiding spoilers is a problem when writing a review. I enjoyed being able to go deeper in the analysis when I read The Art of Losing because Guy had already done the pre-reading review and after re-directing the new reader to his blog, I felt allowed in mine to say whatever I wanted. Nice. That’s what I’ll do with Rebecca West, I think.

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  2. January 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Yes you are correct. The sexual connotation has been extracted. Too bad. A great nasty character btw.

    Reminds me of Alien Hearts–a novel (Maupassant)in which the male character makes the decision to be ‘in love.’

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    • January 28, 2011 at 7:21 pm

      Not the first time Scott Moncrieff does that. (maybe the publisher required it, who knows) It’s really prude though as Proust is really polite.

      I haven’t read Alien Heart but will read your review. Does character “decides” to be in love like the narrator (for the feeling of being in love) or like Julien Sorel (because he sees an interest in it or is flattered by Mme de Rênal and Mathilde’s attentions)?

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      • January 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm

        I think part of it is boredom. Mariolle’s life has no focus and when he meets the fascinating Madame de Burne, he’s well aware (warned) that she collects men. I think part of him wants to be “the one” who gets her–so there’s a competitive streak there. But there’s another part that desires A Grand Passion.

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        • January 29, 2011 at 11:51 pm

          Interesting that the situation is reversed. Usually it’s a woman who thinks she’ll be “the one” to be able to turn a bad boy (or a “beau ténébreux”) into a great husband. Or make him discover what love is. Is Maupassant making fun of romance?

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  3. January 29, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I waded through Proust some fifteen or so years ago, and I know – indeed, I knew even at the time – that much of it was going over my head. Proust’s sensibilities seemed so very alien to my own, that I found it hard to adjust. I know I need to read it again, and, this time, with fifteen years more experience of life, maybe I could take in a bit more. I am enjoying reading your posts on it: for one thing, it is reminding me how much I had missed.

    Reading your post above, I do seem to remember much of this scene in the salon, where Madame de Guermantes, for all her exalted social status, is revealed to be the small-minded amalgam of ignorance, stupidity and malice. It reminded me somewhat of Hélène’s salon in “War and Peace”: Hélène, too, is small-minded, petty and stupid, but, as the hostess of a glittering salon, is regarded as witty, intelligent and accomplished – everything, in short, that she isn’t. (Chekhov too picked up this theme and played his own variation on it in one of his finest short stories – “The Grasshopper”.) What Proust seems to concentrate on are the changing perspectives of the narrator, and of the difficulty in accepting even a self-evident truth when its opposite is already firmly implanted in the mind.

    The version of Proust I read, by the way, was also the Scott-Moncrieff translation, but revised first by terence Kilmartin, and, subsequently, by D. J. Enright to bring it in line with the latest critical French text, and to remove any “obvious error of translation. But I do know that many still consider the originlal Scott-Moncrieff version to be the best read in English.

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    • January 30, 2011 at 12:00 am

      At 15, I was too young to fully appreciate Proust and I’m really glad to read it again now.
      For example, when I re-read Swann’s Way, I had another perspective of the anguish the young narrator feels at night when his mother doesn’t kiss him good night. I saw it through his mother’s eyes and realized how adults can miss how important something can be for a child.

      “What Proust seems to concentrate on are the changing perspectives of the narrator, and of the difficulty in accepting even a self-evident truth when its opposite is already firmly implanted in the mind.”
      Exactly. But I think we all have difficulties sometimes to acknowledge we are wrong. He’s like Emma Wodehouse, his imagination runs wild.

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  4. January 30, 2011 at 2:01 am

    Book Around the Corner: I don’t think Maupassant is making fun of romance as much as scrutinizing it through a different lens.

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  5. February 2, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    I’ve watched the first part of TV version of In Search of Lost Time. It corresponds to In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and The Guermantes Way.
    It’s a good version, with a voice over quoting passages from the book.

    The only thing that bothered me is that the actor chosen to be the narrator made me think of Rowan Atkinson. So Mr Bean reciting whole passages from In Search of Lost Time sounded weird. The film is centred on events and thoughts but the narrator sounds a bit shallow.

    The site for catch up TV of France Télévisions is http://www.pluzz.fr
    The film can be viewed during a week at
    http://www.pluzz.fr/a-la-recherche-du-temps-perdu.html
    I don’t know if it works from abroad, sometimes these sites control IP addresses and block the access to foreign IPs.

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  6. February 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    You’re powering through these. As ever it sounds extraordinary. Witty and perceptive and simply beautiful.

    I must find a way to find time for the second volume.

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    • February 3, 2011 at 2:32 pm

      I hope you can read it soon. Even if you read it slowly (I did) you’re never lost, what he writes stays in mind.

      Knowing what’s happening next, I notice some hints Proust has left in the volume about the characters and what will become of them. It’s incredible that a single mind has been able to map such a complicated set of characters and events in his head and write the first volumes with an idea of what he will write in the last ones. (and all this without a computer)

      I need to start the second part of The Guermantes Way, as soon as I get rid of that de Villiers book.

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  7. September 15, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Thanks. This was useful and thought-provoking. Regarding your note on the translation, I think “ne pas vouloir de qqn” is more often equivalent to “want nothing to do with s.o.”. Your “want her” is actually more sexual in tone than Moncrieff’s “want to see her”, which could denote platonic social relations or more likely receiving in one’s home, especially because “see” as a euphemism for dating is a fairly recent development.

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    • September 18, 2016 at 9:48 am

      Thanks for your message, it’s always nice to have comments on older posts.

      The thing is: the narrator has a crush on Madame de Guermantes. It’s not platonic. In this context, “Je ne voudrais pas d’elle” isn’t “I want nothing to do with her” but really more a lover’s rejection. A “I don’t want you anymore”

      I think that for “I want nothing to do with her”, a French would say “Je ne veux plus en entendre parler”.

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  1. January 25, 2015 at 12:38 am
  2. January 25, 2017 at 10:24 pm

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