The Guermantes Way

By Marcel Proust

Modern Library

Copyright © 1993 Marcel Proust
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0679600280

Chapter One

The early-morning twitter of the birds sounded tame to Frangoise. Every word from the maids' quarters made her jump; their every footstep bothered her, and she was constantly wondering what they were doing. All this was because we had moved. It is true that the servants in our former home had made quite as much stir in their quarters on the top floor, but they were servants she knew, and their comings and goings had become friendly presences to her. Now she even made silence the object of her painful scrutiny. And since the district to which we had moved appeared to be as quiet as the boulevard we had previously looked out upon was noisy, the sound of a man singing in the street as he passed (as feeble perhaps as an orchestral motif, yet quite clear even from a distance) brought tears to the eyes of the exiled Frangoise. And if I had made fun of her when she had been distressed at leaving an apartment building where we had been "so well thought of by everybody," weeping as she packed her trunks in accordance with the rituals of Combray and declaring that our former home was superior to any other imaginable, I, who found it as difficult to assimilate new surroundings as I found it easy to abandon old ones, nonetheless felt a close sympathy with our old servant when I realized that the move to a building where the concierge, who had not yet made our acquaintance, had not shown her the tokens of respect necessary to the nourishment of her good spirits had driven her to a state close to total decline. She alone could understand my feelings; this was certainly not the case with her young footman; for him, a person as remote from the Combray world as it was possible to be, moving into a new district was like taking a holiday in which the novelty of the surroundings provided the same sense of relaxation as an actual journey; he felt he was in the country, and a headcold gave him the delightful sensation, as if he had been a victim of a draft from the ill-fitting window of a railway carriage, of having seen something of the world; every time he sneezed, he rejoiced that he had found such a select position, having always wanted to work for people who traveled a great deal. And so it was not to him I went, but straight to Frangoise; and because I had laughed at her tears over a departure that had not affected me in the least, she now showed a frosty indifference to my misery, because she shared it. The so-called sensitivity of neurotics develops along with their egotism; they cannot bear it when other people flaunt the sufferings with which they are increasingly preoccupied themselves. Frangoise, who would not allow the least of her own troubles to pass unobserved, would turn her head away if I was suffering, so that I should not have the satisfaction of seeing my suffering pitied, let alone noticed. This is what happened when I tried to talk to her about our move. What is more, she was obliged, two days later, to return to our former home to collect some clothes that had been forgotten in the move, while I, as a result of the same move, was still running a temperature and, like a boa constrictor that has just swallowed an ox, was feeling painfully swollen by the sight of a long sideboard that my eyes needed to "digest"; and Frangoise, with a woman's inconstancy, returned home saying that she thought she was going to choke to death on our old boulevard, that she had gone "all around the houses" to get there, that never had she seen such awkward stairs, that she would not go back there to live for all the world, not if you were to offer her a fortune-unlikely hypotheses-and that everything (meaning everything to do with the kitchen and the hallways) was far better appointed in our new home. And this new home, it is time to explain-and to add that we had moved into it because my grandmother was far from well (though we kept this reason from her) and needed cleaner air-was an apartment that formed part of the Httel de Guermantes.

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 person's presence the fairy dies forever, and with her the name, as with the Lusignan family, which was fated to become extinct on the day when the fairy Milusine 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 past-like those musical instruments that record and preserve the sound and style of the various artists who played them-enable 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 tint-forgotten, mysterious, and fresh-of 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 Guermantes-assuming for a second after so many years the ring it had for me, so different from its present resonance, on the day of Mlle Percepied's marriage-chance 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 nurse-knowing no more, probably, than I today, in whose honor it had been composed-rocked me to sleep with that old song "Gloire ` la Marquise de Guermantes," or when, several years later, the veteran Marichal de Guermantes filled my nursemaid with pride by stopping in the Champs-Ilysies and exclaiming, "A fine child you have there!," giving me a chocolate drop from his pocket bonbonnihre, 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 people's 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 where the lord and his lady, high up, decided upon life or death for their vassals, had been replaced-right at the end of the "Guermantes way," along which I used to follow the course of the Vivonne with my parents on all those sunny afternoons-by the land of bubbling streams where the Duchesse taught me to fish for trout and to recognize the names of the flowers whose purple-and-reddish clusters adorned the low walls of the neighboring garden plots; then it had become the hereditary property, the poetic domain from which the proud race of the Guermantes, like a mellowing, crenellated tower spanning the ages, was rising already over France, at a time when the sky was still empty in those places where Notre-Dame de Paris and Notre-Dame de Chartres were later to rise; a time when on the summit of the hill in Laon the cathedral nave had not been placed like the Ark of the Flood on the summit of Mount Ararat, full of patriarchs and judges anxiously leaning from its windows to see whether the wrath of God has been appeased, carrying with it the species of plants that will multiply on earth, brimming over with animals spilling out even from the towers, where oxen, moving calmly around on the roofs, gaze down over the plains of Champagne; a time when the traveler who left Beauvais at close of day did not yet see, following him and turning with the bends in the road, the black branching wings of the cathedral spread out against the golden screen of sunset. It was, this "Guermantes," like the setting of a novel, an imaginary landscape I could picture to myself only with difficulty and thereby longed all the more to discover, set amid real lands and roads that would suddenly become immersed in heraldic details, a few miles from a railway station; I recalled the names of the places around it as if they had been situated at the foot of Parnassus or of Helicon, and they seemed precious to me as the physical conditions necessary-in topographical science-for the production of an inexplicable phenomenon. I remembered the coats of arms painted beneath the windows of the church in Combray, their quarters filled, century after century, with all the lordly domains that this illustrious house had appropriated by marriage or gain from all the corners of Germany, Italy, and France: vast territories in the North, powerful cities in the South, assembled together to compose the name Guermantes and, losing their material form, to inscribe allegorically their sinople keep or castle triple-towered argent upon its azure field. I had heard of the famous Guermantes tapestries and could see them, medieval and blue, somewhat coarse, standing out like a cloud against the amaranth, legendary name beneath the ancient forest where Childebert so often went hunting, and it seemed to me that, without making a journey to see them, I might just as easily penetrate the secrets of the mysterious corners of these lands, this remoteness of the centuries, simply by coming into contact for a moment, in Paris, with Mme de Guermantes, the suzerain of the place and lady of the lake, as if her face and her words must possess the local charm of forests and streams and the same age-old characteristics as those recorded in the book of ancient customs in her archives. But then I had met Saint-Loup; he had told me that the house had borne the name Guermantes only since the seventeenth century, when his family had acquired it. They had lived, until then, in the neighborhood, and their title did not belong to the area. The village of Guermantes had taken its name from the chbteau and had been built after it, and, so that the village should not destroy the view from it, building regulations that were still in force dictated the lines of its streets and set limits on the height of its houses. As for the tapestries, they were by Boucher, acquired in the nineteenth century by a Guermantes with artistic tastes and hung, along with mediocre hunting scenes that he had painted himself, in a particularly ugly drawing room done out in adrinople and plush. By revealing these things to me, Saint-Loup had introduced into the chbteau elements that were foreign to the name Guermantes, and they no longer made it possible for me to go on extracting from its syllables alone the style in which it was built. Then the chbteau reflected in its lake had disappeared from the depths of this name, and what had appeared to me around Mme de Guermantes as her dwelling had been her Paris house, the Httel de Guermantes, as limpid as its name, for no physical and opaque element intervened to disrupt and darken its transparency.


Excerpted from The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust Copyright © 1993 by Marcel Proust. Excerpted by permission.
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