Ha! I finally finished reading The Guermantes way, which means I'm halfway through the Proust Project. Three more years, and I'll be done. (In this edition, The Prisoner and The Fugitive are in one volume.) Why three years? I just can't handle more Proust than one book per year. It takes a certain state of mind to read; I have to force myself to relax and accept that this will take the time it takes. Maybe it's the frantic pace of life nowadays, but it takes effort to slow down and focus on something like Proust. If you don't immerse yourself in the prose, you'll miss out on what makes Proust extraordinary.
As far as I can tell, the point of the story (the whole set, not just this volume) is to follow the young narrator (we never find out his name, but it's basically Marcel himself) on his way to becoming a writer. He twitters around and talks a lot about writing, but never actually writes, which has to do with the "lost time" theme as well.
The first book is about his childhood in Combray and about M. Swann (a middle-class gentleman who has somehow managed to get into society circles) and his ill-advised courtship of Odette, a courtesan he eventually marries. The second one, Within a Budding Grove, has the narrator travel to the seaside where he follows a group of girls around (that one ends on a big anticlimax, FYI). So it's about budding sexuality, and maybe some metaphorical budding as a writer.
The Guermantes way is the third volume. I think the name is meant to contrast with Swann's Way. As you can tell from the name, this volume is about the Guermantes family. We get to spend more time with Saint-Loup and meet his soldier pals while the narrator tries to wrangle an invitation to meet the Duchess de Guermantes (Saint-Loup's aunt), whom he is obsessed with. Then the narrator's grandmother dies. That part I found quite moving. The next half is about the narrator trying to get into the Duchess Guermantes' salon, and there's a lot of mooning around and idolising her, but then the narrator turns nasty and shows how pompous, uninformed, and vulgar the aristocrats really are, even his beloved Mme Guermantes. He also tells us of her husband, who is unfaithful to her, and their relationship. The Dreyfus affair is also discussed at length. And, as in the previous volumes, everything always seems to come back to that time in the narrator's childhood when he thought his mother wouldn't come up to kiss him goodnight.
As you might have gathered from the above, Proust isn't exactly my favourite writer. It's almost a love-hate relationship. Once again, I found myself frustrated with the book. Nothing much happens, and even when it does, it's something relatively low-key and ordinary, so if you like a bit of plot in your novels, stay away from this one. Even though the characters feel like real people, even the ones that start out feeling a bit like caricatures (I'm looking at you, Bloch), one of the issues for me is that I just can't connect to any of them on an emotional level. I don't really care what happens to them. Most of the characters are quite unlikeable, and the narrator comes off as very judgemental and pompous at times.
But there is a reason In Search of Lost Time is considered a classic. Proust's descriptions are gorgeous and insightful. I love the way they flow and develop, mimicking memory. Sometimes you just pause and think back to a similar experience, and it feels like he has captured it perfectly on the page.
There is something fascinating about the idea of lost time and memory. I saw the new Ingrid Bergman documentary Jag är Ingrid at the movies a week ago, and there was a scene from Autumn Sonata where she listens to her daughter play the piano. It's a long scene and she has nothing else to do than to watch the daughter, so the emotion has to show on her face to make the scene work. When she didn't get it right the first time, the director asked her what she was thinking about as the daughter played, and she said something about her not being a concert pianist but still being proud of her. Then he told her to think of the now grown-up daughter as the child she was, and we get the most beautiful and complex emotion from her: this is her little girl who is all grown up, and when she plays the piano, all the mother sees is the little girl who rushed over to hug her in that spontaneous way that small children do. And now she's losing her. It's amazing. I wish I could do that in my writing. And Proust can. So I'll keep reading until I figure out how he does it.
My husband loves these books, and offered an insight about the overarching plot (yeah, he says there is one. Imagine that?). Apparently the narrator finally gets around to writing the book (this book), hence the title of the last part, Time Regained, and all the people we've met along the way come to more or less bad ends. Only the artists and writers prosper; only they have succeeded in creating something that lasts. A powerful message, right?
Not satisfied with only my own perceptions, I did some googling and found a few analyses of the work. I liked the litkicks one, in case you want to have a look.
This was a tough book to get through, but I think it was worth it. The next one is called Sodom and Gomorrah, so hopefully things'll pick up in that one. I'll guess find out next year.