Maybe it’s reading The Guermantes Way under drastically different circumstances than the first two books, or maybe it’s that by the third volume, you can no longer see clearly back to the beginning of the entire work, nor can you see anything like the end. But really, The Guermantes Way seems like a tougher slog in general, because there’s no longer a clear narrative thread, and there is less philosophical substance (Proust having dispatched the idea of it in the previous two volumes) than previously. Instead, there’s endless parties with endlessly revolving characters, with no clear end and no clear direction.
That’s the way it reads for the first three hundred pages. There’s nothing to match the drama of Swann and Odette, and no passages as concentrated as those in the first section of Within a Budding Grove, though there are some nice bits in the later pages. They’re not enough to stave off the feeling that Proust’s leviathan has run aground and is flailing.
That’s not to say that it is not a compelling portrayal. Marcel, now a young adult, wanders through the upper social circles of Paris and sees characters, mostly seen before, dithering about in their own preoccupations. He does very little; he seemingly has no obligations. The rest of the crowd, including such past charmers as Cottard, Bloch, M. de Charlus, and Mme de Villeparisis, evince no development whatsoever, just a presentation of their often shallow selves. In “Swann in Love,” they provided the background tableaux against which Swann acted out his passions. Here, with Marcel considerably less involved and active than he was in “Place-Names: The Place” (in Balbec), there is only the peopled scenery. Marcel’s infatuation with the elite Guermantes clan, on display during a visit to the theater where he rhapsodizes over the Princess’s dress, and his concern with the art of the actress Berma: these things are the raw material of his memories, and they don’t resonate as earlier passages did because they are so particular to their time and place, shorn of passions that readers in which readers can recognize themselves.
This network of private, unique connections is what he’s after:
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. And great fatigue followed by a good night’s rest can to a certain extent help us to do so. For in order to make us descend into the most subterranean galleries of sleep, where no reflexion from overnight, no gleam of memory comes to light up the interior monologue–if the latter does not itself cease–fatigue followed by rest will so thoroughly turn over the soil and penetrate the bedrock of our bodies that we discover down there, where our muscles plunge and twist in their ramifications and breathe in new life, the garden where we played in our childhood. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. (89)
The problem with such an approach, as Proust intimates, is that without an external point of reference, with only an excavation of purely internal sensations and impressions, the relation of one’s own mind and memories to common, shared experience does not exist. In going over and over the shared experience in the first part of The Guermantes Way, he leaves readers very little to grasp, other than portraits of scenery.
It is not until three-hundred pages in, halfway through the volume, that the death of Marcel’s grandmother gives shape to what’s gone before. Given that the second part of the book accelerates rapidly, the contrast feels intentional. It serves to make the first part even more elusive.