High Society, Low Life

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Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past begins, as I discussed in an earlier piece (SF no. 56), with the narrator recalling the times he spent as a boy in his great-aunt’s house in the village of Combray. There were two walks the family regularly took from the house, one in the direction of a property owned by a family friend, M. Swann, and the other in the direction of an estate owned by a very grand aristocratic family with local connections, the Guermantes. The Way by Swann’s, the first walk, is the name of the first book of Proust’s novel. The Guermantes Way, the second walk, is the name of the third, and with it the narrator and reader enter a new world, of dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, and all the high society of Paris’s fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain.

The narrator’s knowledge of the Guermantes, as with almost everything else in Proust’s vast but subtly constructed work, begins at a very early stage. They appear first in the form of a medieval ancestor, Geneviève de Brabant, in the magic-lantern slides projected on to the curtains of the young boy’s Combray bedroom. Another ancestor of this ancient French family is present in the local church, where Gilbert the Bad, a descendant of Geneviève, is depicted in one of the stained-glass windows. As a result, the name Guermantes is wrapped in mystery for the young boy, associated as it is with the remotest medieval past and with maidens awaiting rescue in the bedtime story read to him by his great-aunt. So when one day he catches a glimpse of the Duchesse de Guermantes in the flesh, at a wedding in the church where she is a guest of honour, he is disappointed to find that she looks little different from other women he knows, ‘a fair-haired lady with . . . a pimple at the corner of her nose’.

We step into the world of the Guermantes proper, however, when the narrator – now an adolescent – and his family move to their new apartment in Paris, in a wing of the Guermantes’ residence. The move takes place at the beginning of The Guermantes Way and here and in the succeeding book, Sodom and Gomorrah, we find ourselves in the brilliant (and not so brilliant) social world of the salons, a seemingly endless round of afternoon and evening receptions, gala opera performances and glittering lunches and dinners, from select gatherings at the Duchesse de Guermantes’ to a less select five o’clock

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About the contributor

Anthony Wells has spent the best part of a lifetime avoiding putting pen to paper, prevaricating with a number of occupations including monitoring East German radio for the BBC, librarianship and running a family business. He hopes it’s going to be a case of better late than never.

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