The World of Marcel

The Comtesse Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1886)

The Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1886)

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is one of the most incredible worlds to be found in all of literature. Stretched over seven volumes, it consists of some 3,000 pages published over a period of fourteen years, during the last several of which its author was no more. It tells of the life and loves of one Marcel (last name never supplied), who falls in unrequited love with a young girl named Gilberte Swann. At the same time, he adores—though not in a sexual way—the Duchess Oriane de Guermantes, who, in her person, represents the French aristocracy dating all the way back to the Middle Ages to the days of Gilbert the Bad. Above (and below) are illustrations of the Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe, who is thought to be one of the models for the Duchess. Later he falls for bad girl Albertine Simonet, based on his male Italian chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli, the most successful transgender operation in fiction.

Over the last several days, I have read the last volume of the series—Finding Time Again—for the second time. I found myself so deeply involved in Proust’s world that I resolved to do a third reading of the entire series, beginning with Swann’s Way, during tax season. I can’t have enough of Proust’s world, such that I feel that I inhabit it in some way.

I see the Duchess de Guermantes in her elegant draperies and with her piercing azure eyes in my sleep. And sometimes in my waking hours. Here is another view of her, taken by the photographer Felix Nadar in 1900:

Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1900)

The Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1900)

The fin-de-siècle world of Marcel is a fragile one, with the horrendous Dreyfus affair on one side (fully as divisive as our own cultural divisions between religious conservatives and sane people) and the First World War on the other. Proust takes us through all, from his childhood to his doubts expressed in the last volume whether he can live long enough to do justice to his memories. Fortunately, he did. Although he never finished editing the last three volumes of the series, enough remains intact to warrant equating their quality to the first four.

Many of my friends cannot stand Proust. One, a very literate high school teacher of English, found Swann’s Way to be unreadable. In fact, we have not seen each other much after that because he thought I was reading too many works he regarded as being doubtful. What, Proust, doubtful? Far from doubtful, he is the Twentieth Century’s Gold Standard for other writers to aspire to, but never reach, not by a country mile.

This spring, I will return to the world Marcel made and dream of the piercing gaze of Oriane de Guermantes. It is as if I could see it already….