By Elyse Graham
The Guermantes Way presents a troubling portrait of levity in the face of great loss. Proust began work on the version we know today of the third volume in his series after the outbreak of fighting in 1914, when Paris had all but shut down and the future of Europe looked grim. Over the course of the narrative, Marcel’s beloved grandmother dies, and Charles Swann, a central figure for him since childhood, reveals himself to be close to death. Moreover, our closer look in this volume into the old aristocracy—which will lose disproportionate numbers in the war to come, mutterings of which hostilities Proust has shifted back to this earlier date—shows it to be a spectacular but obsolete world that is already drifting to an end. The reaction of the living to these frightening realities is to surround themselves with frivolities and distractions. The band plays on, even after the lights have gone out.
The narrative begins at a point of rupture. Marcel’s family has left Combray for a new address in Paris, where the change of air may do some good for his ailing grandmother. As wretched as one would expect him to be after not just his routine, but his life, has overturned, Marcel consoles himself with the glamour of his new home. For his family’s new apartment, which his parents chose in part for its proximity to the grandmother’s close friend, Mme. de Villeparisis, shares a courtyard and a building complex with the private mansion of the Guermantes family.
From early childhood, Marcel has known the name Guermantes as a shorthand for magic and romance. A formidably illustrious family that traces its ancestry to the Frankish kings under Charlemagne, the Guermantes reside deep within the folk memory of France: Marcel’s nursemaid used to sing him old ballads about the Guermantes, and his great-aunt used to read him fairy tales about the princes of that house. In the church at Combray, which dates from the Middle Ages, the broad, fair faces of the Guermantes animate the Biblical scenes in the tapestries and radiate from the stained-glass windows.
Thus, when Marcel first sets out to cross paths with the Duchesse de Guermantes, he fully expects to encounter a creature who, as the contemporary habitation of the family name, lives up to its spell of otherworldliness and enchantment: “a fairy,” as he says, one of those ostentatiously literal forms that ideas of female power and wish fulfillment take for the very young. 1 And if living next door to the Duchess reveals a being, however powerful, who turns out to be made of the ordinary variety of solid, unpoetic flesh, Marcel understands the problem to lie not in the emotion, for fairy tales plot themselves along real sources of emotional power, but rather in the interpretation. After all, the local population that Marcel, as always, so carefully studies watch her with the deference and fascination due someone who really can grant wishes. The parties she throws for her personal court (which Marcel still finds himself imagining as phantom balls where the guests bow and dance without bodies, only the aura of their celebrated names) are the assemblies of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, which everyone envies, which stirs endless gossip, and which no mortal can penetrate without her favor. The real magic power lies in powerful connections.
Beyond all this, however, what most ensures the persistence of her enchantment over the narrator is that the Duchess remains unreachable. Though he can watch her visitors come and go and hear the daily patter of her household, Marcel has nowhere near the status that he would need to cross her threshold.
One evening, an unexpected event seems to grant Marcel’s desire for this world to take notice of him. While at the opera, in the cheaper seats, Marcel naturally turns his attention to the luxury section high above him, which includes the private box of the Princesse de Guermantes, whose cousin—the Duchess—has joined her for the show.
For Marcel, these aristocrats and their activities constitute the real spectacle in the theater. In one of his rolling metaphors, he compares the creatures in the boxes far above him—with their perch so high up in the shadows that their bodies seem to enter the world of those below only in fragile, glittering outline; with their sublime indifference to the gilt honors that ornament the temples in which they sit; with their separate and intricate hierarchy; with the easy, natural way they carry off fantastical costumes; with their air of such lofty purpose that whenever they give in to the banal, yawning, passing candies, they look to be merely playing at mortal gestures; with the immense attention they give to one another’s fights and flirtations, lending only cursory interest to the tragedies playing out gravely, microscopically, onstage—with the deities of a pagan land, like the Olympians or a species of river gods (35-55).
The lower classes, meanwhile, he assigns the sterner reference point of the Old Testament. Any holder of a discount ticket who wanders around for too long before the show begins will have, when the signal sounds, “to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet…” (35). (Similarly, the narrator’s description, elsewhere, of his family’s servants as they take their luncheon, “that sort of solemn Passover which none might disturb,” compares their customs with the rites of the early church.) (11-12)
Collapsing metaphoric frames in this way is characteristic of Proust. It allows him to select his analogical tools with clinical precision, and, implicitly, to make the case that the imagination and its products are forms not of decoration, but of analysis. Aristocrats resemble the Olympian gods because they live beyond the possibility of harm, in consequence of which their conflicts, waged with fabulous arsenals, play out as a kind of cosmic comedy in which very little is at stake. They can set their whims and passions ahead of what for others are laws, since their powers and principalities far outdistance any ripples their actions might send, placing them high above respectability. “In the Guermantes world,” as the narrator remarks, “vagary of conduct, denied by saintly friends in the face of the evidence, seemed to matter much less than the maintenance of social relations. People feigned ignorance of their hostess’s sexual availability, provided that there were no embarrassing omissions on her guest-list” (421). By contrast, the lower classes must observe strict rules that secure them within the protection of the group and hedge their accounts with threatening and unknowable powers above. (Proust further points up their relative lack of power by specifying it as the early tribe, the early church—the bleak days of Egypt and Rome.)
For Marcel, looking up at the Princess and the Duchess, contemplating this sublime presence is an ecstasy. This takes on an electrifying new dimension when suddenly, against all expectations, the presence looks back: “…the Duchess, goddess turned woman, and appearing in that moment a thousand times more lovely, raised towards me the white-gloved hand which had been resting on the balustrade of the box and waved it in token of friendship, my gaze was caught in the spontaneous incandescence of the flashing eyes of the Princess, who had unwittingly set them ablaze merely by turning her head to see who it might be that her cousin was thus greeting, and the latter, who had recognized me, showered upon me the sparkling and celestial torrent of her smile” (55).
That’s the dream, of course—to be seen, to be selected out. After returning home, Marcel starts heading out for a walk every day at exactly the hour that will bring his path across that of the Duchess, so that he can run into her accidentally. Whenever he sees her, he feigns surprise, waves; but to his astonishment, her own expression starts taking on darker and darker signs of irritation. At last, he comprehends, and the casual meetings end. Although Proust prepared this volume as only a connecting passage in the vast interior machinery of his novel, this opening section shows off his easy facility with structure, setting up a circuit of tension and release that cordons off a self-contained narrative: the narrator effectively begins with a long number giving voice to a desire, which will pull the reader forward as a goal, and a light, through the darkness and tergiversations of the rest of the volume.
Shifting his tactics, Marcel pays a visit to Doncières, where Robert de Saint-Loup, his friend and a nephew of the Duchess, is stationed with his regiment. Marcel hopes to convince Saint-Loup to deliver him as a guest into the drawing-room of another of his relatives, Mme. de Villeparisis, who, being herself an aunt to the Duchess, close female kin with a somewhat overlapping social circuit, stands just a bit closer to that sacred aura. To this request Saint-Loup readily agrees, since his great-aunt is a little fallen in the world and he can contaminate her salon without offense.
The military setting allows Proust to draw back the frame, a little ominously, to the whole interminable story of human conflict; of alliances and disputes between nations, of strategy, tactics, security, aggression, the merciless basics of life and death, victory and defeat. Saint-Loup and his fellow officers show Marcel the duties and rhythms of military life and offer lessons in the history of warfare. (At some point we realize that Marcel must be monstrously charming, because the officers, and this is characteristic of the people he meets, not only answer all his questions, but also invite him to make a return visit any time he likes.) At the time of these scenes, France’s fighting forces are recovering, still, from their humiliation in 1870 and grappling with the advent of new and prodigiously powerful munitions. The Dreyfus case has also been a rising problem in military affairs, exposing wider battles over class and race, patriotism and identity, and it stirs and troubles much of the conversation. Unusually for a man of his class and military rank, Saint-Loup argues passionately in Dreyfus’s favor.
Back in Paris, Saint-Loup takes Marcel to an afternoon party at the home of Mme. de Villeparisis. A native aristocrat and heir to an illustrious name who gutted her social accounts in what seems to have been a particularly disgraceful youth, Mme. de Villeparisis must take her social network from the ranks of minor celebrities and the middle class, although she can drag some crowned heads from among her relatives to her parties. Hence the untroubled presence of Marcel; and his Jewish friend, Bloch, and some women of fallen reputation; and, the reason Marcel pressed Saint-Loup for an invitation, the hostess’s niece, the Duchesse de Guermantes.
The conversation turns dark as politics and social conflicts leak in. Some of the guests, members of less favored circles, received invitations only because the hostesses of Paris are playing at being fashionably political by filling their parlors with anti-Dreyfusards, and the air crackles between these arrivistes, the real upper class, and Bloch, to whom everyone in the room acts increasingly hostile. In the meantime, Mme. de Villeparisis and her best friend launch social assaults against each other, marshaling advance attacks of snobbery to conceal their poverty and loneliness. The diplomat, M. de Norpois, and a German prince bargain over the prince’s desire to win election to the Academy, a contest that reveals the thoroughgoing cynicism of the dance between nations in their negotiations over peace or war, where both men received their training, and that also shelters hints from the mature narrator of the war to come. The major worry of the prince, who has been sickly, is that he will die before he gets elected.
Even the casual banter betrays flashes of anxiety concerning the twilight already falling over the aristocratic world to which the party belongs. A historian, hoping for a speaking engagement, pitches a paper on the price of bread during a peasant uprising; a duke quips, a little too truthfully, “Gad, sir, kings and queens don’t amount to much these days” (239); someone else makes a joke about what would happen to the room “if we were to have another of those revolutions which have stained so many pages of our history with blood” (221).
As for the Duchesse de Guermantes, she arrives in bored resignation, returns Marcel’s greeting with frost, and leaves early when she hears that such a vulgarian as Odette Swann is on the guest list.
Above this backdrop of warfare, class struggle, and social insecurity, which already has to peep through a layer of verbal deflections and distractions, Proust circulates yet another layer, a visible correlative of those distractions: the comic trading of hats. This kind of routine was a staple of vaudeville, light opera, and other popular genres that descended from the commedia dell’arte, and it is tempting to see a theatrical influence here. First the guests, on entering, show off their hipness to current fashion by setting their top hats on the floor. The historian fails to get it and warns the others several times of their gaffe, making himself more awkward each time. Soon M. de Norpois enters and, to disguise the fact that he is sleeping with the hostess, carries in a hat he has grabbed in the corridor, as though he has just been, not upstairs, but in the street. Marcel recognizes the hat as his own and then has to try to retrieve it without embarrassing the diplomat. While figuring out how to do this, Marcel notices that one of the hats on the floor, not the one beside the Duke, bears the royal coronet of the Guermantes. There are more royal hats than royal heads. When he later sees that Charlus, one of the vulgar types at the reception, is trying to abscond with the expensive chapeau, he tries to save the man from disgrace by gently pointing out his mistake. There follows a mutually befuddled dialogue, which Marcel tries to bring to common ground with a joke about the stupidity of the Duc de Guermantes. Naturally, the Baron Palamède de Charlus is the Duke’s brother.
Like the wandering props of stage clowns, the intractable hats in this sequence pull a lot of conceptual work into tight form. First, as colorful counterpoints to the social scene, they offer clues to the machinations operating underneath. Henri Bergson thought that showing the extent to which these operations are mechanical in the literal sense is the rhetorical purpose of these games and the reason we find them funny. What the moving tokens reveal of the social interface they chart is its similarity to a device tightly wound with wheels or springs: any gesture or intention, however slight, that drops into the gears will pass from receiver to receiver, changing as each contributes his role and escalating by mathematical progression, so that the effect will grow to surprising and often wildly complex dimensions as the mechanism spirals onward and outward, flying beyond human control. We can even take these sequences and run them in loops, or turn them inside out, or play them in musical variations, since everything has stiffened into automatic gestures and rote routines. Nor can the human participants prevent this from happening, since the social stage has transformed them from themselves into their roles. By these lights, the value of these broad antics is to give a simple and universal face, the face of a child’s drawing, to our helplessness, our rueful predictability, in so many contexts: to expound upon those moments when outside forces seem to take over the characteristics and even the agency that should belong to us alone, a flaw in the human clay for which the only patch is laughter. 2
Is anything else going on? Hats are, of course, resonant symbols of identity: they hold the shape of the body and can even extend its moods in a language of gestures, tilts, and flips, and they signal the owner’s loyalty to a particular social group and class. Placing the hats on the floor, shuffling the hats into confusion, carries to the fore a sweep of problems about identity, as well as the associated social problem of the relationship between outsiders and insiders. The character who affects social disguise by carrying the wrong hat unwittingly makes others insiders to his secrets; the character who misreads the code of positioning hats betrays himself as an outsider to fashion; characters who fail to recognize which hats belong to which owners suffer because of their position as outsiders in a world where everyone just knows everyone else. The circulation of hats offers a comic proxy for the anxieties about social status and integration, the circulation of insidership and outsidership, which dominate the party.
Likewise, the issue of identity becomes, in society, a problem of circulation: one presents a face and then fights like hell to keep hold of it, to manage it, an impossible task in a context where by definition to participate is to give over one’s reputation to public use. An advertisement for how one hopes to be seen, an emblem, as formal wear, of the upper classes from which an aspirational society takes its standards, an icon of the intellect that learns the codes and plots the next move, the hat signifies the hopes and the bewilderment of the social climber trying to navigate a world where the rank of the players and the meaning of their gestures require endless reevaluation. 3 It offers the protection of a costume, but can be just as deceptive. In this sense, the scene Proust presents here fits into his larger theme connecting the social world with the glamour and duplicity of the theater. To succeed socially, one must know which act to turn and when. Marcel, whose analytical side tends to keep him detached and analyzing experiences, rather than just yielding to them and enjoying, seems to possess a rather mournful sensitivity to the thinness of such performances. (“But for the fellow-guest, if he thought about the matter, there was something strangely melancholy about it all….”) (214) Whereas the others can stay more unreflectively in character, from his perspective we see how all these affinities with role-playing can destabilize one’s sense of who people really are: their dramatic transformations, their seeming insubstantiality, as they pass through different roles.
Finally, although taking an academic reading here risks entering cliché, there is also the possibility that the hat business is a little obscene. After all, the tradition of physical comedy has a rich history of exploiting for subversive purposes the taboo aura of the body, and, as we shall see, the whole sequence ends with a naughty joke.
The final hat winds up in the hands of Charlus. He has already offered to escort Marcel back to his apartment, and, as the two make their way along the thoroughfare, he links their arms and begins to talk about the younger man’s provinciality, his own fabulous connections, his valuable knowledge on dark and recondite subjects. The two have already crossed paths earlier, briefly, at Balbec: Charlus is intense, moody, saturnine, unsettling, an extravagant dresser and poet manqué, and, as he allows Marcel to know, a special friend of the Princesse de Guermantes. His rapid barrage of what sound like promises and what sound like threats utterly bewilders Marcel, who also notices dimly that the acquaintances he sees are suddenly giving him strange looks. Of course, the reader knows (as the mature narrator, at last an insider to this language, acknowledges) that Charlus is flirting with him. At the climax of this confusion, Charlus tells Marcel to think it over, swings into a cab with a handsome young driver, and thunders off.
And immediately after this comic lift, Marcel walks through his front door, hears the servants still arguing over the Dreyfus case, and then finds his grandmother in an abyss of illness. Proust knows that the most effective use of these moments of levity is to emphasize what a fine wire we tread over the depths. Doctor Cottard (“Ill? You’re sure it’s not what they call a diplomatic illness?”) advises the old woman to take a stroll in the Champs-Elysées and sit for some sun and air under one of the laurel groves that her grandson admires, which, as the doctor cheerfully remarks, happens also to be the symbol of Apollo, the god of medicine; and it is there that she suffers the stroke that ultimately kills her (308).
The next few weeks are given over to her final decline and, at last, her death, with many people from the family’s circle of acquaintance coming to offer solace at her bedside, but few of them willing to acknowledge the gravity that lies before them. M. de Norpois drops mention, several times, of the important meetings he has given up for the sake of his good friends, the Duc de Guermantes invests his arrival with all the pomp and grandeur of one who knows that his presence marks the crowning honor of this family occasion, Saint-Loup comes out of genuine compassion but ostentatiously ignores Marcel as part of an argument over a girl, and the grandmother’s sisters send their regrets but opt to stay home so that they can attend a concert series. Even Marcel initially responded to his grandmother’s crisis with a defensive barrage of superficiality, admonishing her on the way home after her stroke for not waving to a friend on the street. Bergotte, however, visits regularly and sits with the family, quietly sharing their grief. He has been suffering from an obscure illness and senses that his own life will soon reach its end.
1 Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House, 1981: 5. Hereafter cited by page number only.
2 Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. New York: MacMillan, 1911.
3 See Fred Miller Robinson, The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.