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The Guermantes Way
by Marcel Proust, Trans. By C. K. Scott-moncrieff
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Vikings In Search of Lost Time is the first completely new translation of Prousts masterwork since the 1920s. Under Christopher Prendergasts general editorship, these superb editions bring us a more rich, comic, and lucid Proust than American readers have previously been able to enjoy.
After the relative intimacy of the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, The Guermantes Way opens up a vast, dazzling landscape of fashionable Parisian life in the late nineteenth century as the narrator enters the brilliant, shallow world of the literary and aristocratic salons. Both a salute to and a devastating satire of a time, place, and culture, The Guermantes Way defines the great tradition of novels that follow the initiation of a young man into the ways of the world.
At an age when Names, offering us the image of the unknowable that we have invested in them and simultaneously designating a real place for us, force us accordingly to identify the one with the other, to a point where we go off to a city to seek out a soul that it cannot contain but which we no longer have the power to expel from its name, it is not only to cities and ruins that they give an individuality, as do allegorical paintings, nor is it only the physical world that they spangle with differences and people with marvels, it is the social world as well: so every historic house, every famous residence or palace, has its lady or its fairy, as forests have their spirits and rivers their deities. Sometimes, hidden deep in her name, the fairy is transformed by the needs of our imaginative activity through which she lives; this is how the atmosphere surrounding Mme de Guermantes, after existing for years in my mind only as the reflection of a magic-lantern slide and of a stained-glass window, began to lose its colors when quite different dreams impregnated it with the bubbling water of fast-flowing streams.
However, the fairy wastes away when we come into contact with the actual person to whom her name corresponds, for the name then begins to reflect that person, who contains nothing of the fairy; the fairy can reappear if we absent ourselves from the person, but if we stay in the persons presence the fairy dies forever, and with her the name, as with the Lusignan family,1 which was fated to become extinct on the day when the fairy Mélusine should die. So the Name, beneath the successive retouchings that might eventually lead us to discover the original handsome portrait of an unknown woman we have never met, becomes no more than the mere photograph on an identity card to which we refer when we need to decide whether we know, whether or not we should acknowledge a person we encounter. But should a sensation from the distant pastlike those musical instruments that record and preserve the sound and style of the various artists who played them2enable our memory to make us hear that name with the particular tone it then had for our ears, even if the name seems not to have changed, we can still feel the distance between the various dreams which its unchanging syllables evoked for us in turn. For a second, rehearing the warbling from some distant springtime, we can extract from it, as from the little tubes of color used in painting, the precise tintforgotten, mysterious, and freshof the days we thought we remembered when, like bad painters, we were in fact spreading our whole past on a single canvas and painting it with the conventional monochrome of voluntary memory. Yet, on the contrary, each of the moments that composed it, in order to create something original, a unique blend, was using those colors from the past that now elude us, colors that, for instance, are still able to fill me with sudden delight, should the name Guermantesassuming for a second after so many years the ring it had for me, so different from its present resonance, on the day of Mlle Percepieds marriagechance to restore to me the mauve color, so soft, too bright and new, that lent the smoothness of velvet to the billowing scarf of the young Duchesse, and made her eyes like inaccessible and ever-flowering periwinkles lit by the blue sun of her smile. And the name Guermantes, belonging to that period of my life, is also like one of those little balloons that have been filled with oxygen or some other gas: when I manage to puncture it and free what it contains, I can breathe the Combray air from that year, that day, mingled with the scent of hawthorns gusted from the corner of the square by the wind, announcing rain, and at times driving the sunlight away, at others letting it spread out on the red wool carpet of the sacristy and tingeing it brightly to an almost geranium pink with that Wagnerian softness of brio, which preserves the nobility of a festive occasion. Yet, even apart from rare moments such as this one, when we can suddenly feel the original entity give a stir and resume its shape, chisel itself out of syllables that have become lifeless, if in the dizzy whirl of daily life, where they serve merely the most practical purposes, names have lost all their color, like a prismatic top that revolves too fast and seems only gray, when, on the other hand, we reflect upon the past in our daydreams and seek to grasp it by slowing down and suspending the perpetual motion in which we are carried along, we can see the gradual reappearance, side by side but utterly distinct from one another, of the successive tints that a single name assumed for us in the course of our existence.
Of course, what shape this name Guermantes projected for me when my nurseknowing no more, probably, than I today, in whose honor it had been composedrocked me to sleep with that old song Gloire à la Marquise de Guermantes, or when, several years later, the veteran Maréchal de Guermantes filled my nursemaid with pride by stopping in the Champs-Élysées and exclaiming, A fine child you have there!, giving me a chocolate drop from his pocket bonbonnière, I cannot now say. Those years of my earliest childhood are no longer with me; they are external to me; all I can know about them, as with what we can know about events that took place before we were born, comes from other peoples accounts. But after these earliest years, I can find a succession of seven or eight different figures spanning the time this name inhabited me; the first ones were the finest: gradually my dream, forced by reality to abandon a position that was no longer tenable, took up its position afresh, a little further back, until it was obliged to retreat even further. And as Mme de Guermantes changed, so did her dwelling place, itself born from that name fertilized from year to year by hearing some word or other that modified my dreams of it; the dwelling place itself mirrored them in its very masonry, which had become as much a mirror as the surface of a cloud or of a lake. A two-dimensional castle keep which was really no more than a strip of orange light whe...
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