Reading The Guermantes Way (the third book of Remembrance of Things Past), what struck me most was how it was interrupted by death.
The narrator’s beloved grandmother suffered a stroke and her health quickly declined and she died. It seemed to happen incredibly quickly. Proust’s writing is famously languorously paced, each book moving in stately, incremental time, but the pages move quickly towards death in this instance. He doesn’t hesitate to spend twenty pages on a single conversation on the street, which makes how few pages are needed to chronicle her illness and final passing and how those pages hurtle forward a painful shock.
Later in the book, the Duc de Guermantes is desperately afraid that he will has to miss a party (and an assignation) because his cousin will die before he leaves. To maintain social conventions, he works furiously to receive news that he is alive so that, even if he dies while he’s out, the Duc won’t have to cancel his plans, because he claim ignorance (‘I just heard news from him and he was doing better!’).
Moments later, Swann says that he is dying, with perhaps just months left to live. Within a handful of pages of that announcement, The Guermantes Way is over.
A friend of mine is a local handyman, doing odd jobs for people in the neighborhood. He knew someone, a friend, who made a little money sweeping the sidewalk in front a local business. That friend died and the store’s owner gave the sweeping job to another fellow.
To me, I thought this was generous act by the storeowner: offering a little extra money to someone who needed it.
My friend, however, saw something different. The man who had passed was being forgotten and replaced by the world hard upon his passing. Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year, Hamlet said.
He took it personally, because he wondered if, when his time came, his stone would sink without a ripple, as his friend’s passage had apparently left the storeowner unaffected.
Death happens quickly.
On a less morbid note, I am understanding these books better than when I tried to read them as a teenager. The difference between the two ‘ways,’ I can understand better. The more bohemian way of Swann and the aristocratic path of the Guermantes. Now, on a literal level, Swann is just as aristocratic as the Faubourg Saint Germain, and though perhaps more cultured, is not particularly artistic, but the metaphor is still there.
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