In Search of Lost Time Volume III: The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
Do you like parties? I don’t mean goon-in-the-backyard, sausage sandwich kind of parties. I mean the sort of parties which involve military officers, pomp and pecking order. You know, society wankfests that lumber on intolerably despite the apparent desire of everyone else to be anywhere else?
I certainly hope you like ’em, because there’s two in this tome and they take up the bulk of the text. I sincerely hope you’re up on your Dreyfus/anti-Dreyfus arguments, and able to sustain yourself on the wit of the be-diamonded class while they sup. Because if you aren’t and can’t, you’re shit out of luck for the better part of 800 pages.
(It’s a bit like the time I was flying internationally and The Thirteenth Floor was the in-flight film, and I kept microsleeping, so it felt as if the movie had gone on for decades, and existed only to plague me.)
It wouldn’t be a Proustian tale without a bunch of characters you’d forgotten about – rightly, because of the thousands of pages that have been consumed since their last appearance – show up again. There’s a bit of time spent racking brains for who’s who, though given our Narrator’s initial pants-wetting over Berma, I felt chuffed that I identified here with only a slight amount of pondering.
As ever, our (currently) nameless Proust stand-in dissects society and wit while acting like a bit of a sociopath. Relatives die and he’s not overly concerned. Military best mates date secret prostitutes and he ruminates at length on the fact with a weird dispassion. He’s grown up now, though he’s still wan and palely loitering (and furtively jacking it over the aristocracy). He does, at one point, stamp on a man’s hat so it cannot be said that he’s as languid as the prose, but it is a near thing.
Oh! He also stalks an upper class woman every day. Gosh, these youngsters and the shit they get up to. I get the whole man of his time thing, but dear god it’s painful reading about a misanthrope’s covert actions. I understand that this is ultimately to set our boy up for failure (both with regard to his desire and its attainment) but there’s a certain element of squick that can’t be covered with fine observation or a neat bon mot.
There is a sense here of setting things up for the future. Not as much goes on as in previous volumes, though what does go on provides plenty of potential narrative alleyways. The value of painting, society and intelligence are discussed, though gossip – at all levels – seems to win out. I know this is going to go somewhere, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of disappointment I felt when completing this volume – until I realised that feeling a bit floppy and useless is precisely the point.
Onwards. I’m halfway through now, so there’s no going back.
(I’m gonna hate the narrator by the end of this, aren’t I?)