Sodom and Gomorrah: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 4 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)by Marcel Proust
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Sodom and Gomorrah—now in a superb translation by John Sturrock—takes up the theme of homosexual love, male and female, and dwells on how destructive sexual jealousy can be for those who suffer it. Proust’s novel is also an unforgiving analysis of both the decadent high society of Paris and the rise of a philistine bourgeoisie that is on the way to supplanting it. Characters who had lesser roles in earlier volumes now reappear in a different light and take center stage, notably Albertine, with whom the narrator believes he is in love, and the insanely haughty Baron de Charlus.
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M. de Charlus in society—A doctor—Characteristic face of Mme de Vaugoubert—Mme d’Arpajon, the Hubert Robert fountain, and the merriment of Grand Duke Vladimir—Mme d’Amoncourt, Mme de Citri, Mme de Saint-Euverte, etc.—Curious conversation between Swann and the Prince de Guermantes— Albertine on the telephone—Visits while awaiting my second and last stay in Balbec—Arrival in Balbec— Jealousy with regard to Albertine—The intermittences of the heart.
As I was not in any hurry to arrive at the Guermantes soirée, to which I was not certain of having been invited, I whiled away the time outside; but the summer daylight seemed in no greater haste to move than I was. Although it was after nine o’clock, it was still the daylight that, on the Place de la Concorde, had given to the Luxor obelisk an appearance of pink nougat. Then it modified the tint and turned it into a metallic substance, with the result that the obelisk did not merely become more precious, but seemed thinner and almost flexible. You fancied that you might have been able to twist it, that this jewel had already been bent slightly out of true perhaps. The moon was in the sky now like a quarter of an orange, delicately peeled but with a small bite out of it. Later it would be made of the most resistant gold. Huddled all alone behind it, a poor little star was about to serve as the solitary moon’s one companion, while the latter, even as it shielded its friend, but more daring and going on ahead, would brandish, like an irresistible weapon, like a symbol of the Orient, its marvelous, ample golden cresent.
In front of the Princesse de Guermantes’s hôtel, I met the Duc de Châtellerault; I no longer remembered that half an hour before I was still haunted by the fear—which was soon indeed to take hold of me again— of coming without having been invited. We feel uneasy, and it is sometimes long after the moment of danger, forgotten thanks to our distraction, that we remember our unease. I said good day to the young Duc and made my way into the house. But here I must first note a trifling circumstance which will enable a fact that will follow shortly to be understood.
On that, as on the preceding evenings, there was someone who had the Duc de Châtellerault very much on his mind, without, however, suspecting who he was: this was Mme de Guermantes’s doorman (known in those days as the “barker”). M. de Châtellerault, very far from being an intimate—as he was of the cousins—of the Princesse, was being received in her drawing room for the first time. His parents, who had quarreled with her ten years ago, had made it up two weeks ago, and, obliged to be away from Paris on that evening, had asked their son to stand in for them. Now, a few days before, the Princesse’s doorman had met a young man in the Champs-Élysées whom he had thought charming but whose identity he had been unable to establish. Not that the young man had not proved as amiable as he was generous. All the favors that the doorman had imagined having to grant so young a gentleman, he had, on the contrary, received. But M. de Châtellerault was as cowardly as he was imprudent; he was the more determined not to disclose his incognito inasmuch as he did not know whom he had to deal with; he would have felt an even greater fear—though ill founded—had he known. He had merely passed himself off as an Englishman, and to all the doorman’s impassioned questions, who was eager to see someone to whom he was indebted for so much pleasure and largesse again, the Duc had merely answered in English, all the way along the Avenue Gabriel, “I do not speak French.”
Although, in spite of everything—because of his cousin’s maternal origins—the Duc de Guermantes affected to find something a trifle Courvoisier-like1 about the Princesse de Guermantes-Bavière’s salon, the general verdict on that lady’s spirit of initiative and intellectual superiority was based on an innovation not to be met with anywhere else in those circles. After dinner, and whatever the importance of the rout that was to follow, the seats at the Princesse de Guermantes’s were arranged in such a manner that you formed small groups, which, if need be, had their backs to one another. The Princesse would then mark her social sense by going and sitting in one of these, as if from preference. She was not afraid, however, of selecting and calling on a member of another group. If, for example, she had remarked to M. Detaille,2 who had naturally agreed, what a pretty neck Mme de Villemur had, whose position in another group showed her from behind, the Princesse did not hesitate to raise her voice: “Mme de Villemur, M. Detaille, great painter that he is, is busy admiring your neck.” Mme de Villemur understood this as a direct invitation to join in the conversation; with an agility born of her hours in the saddle, she caused her chair slowly to pivot through an arc of three-quarters of a circle and, without the least disturbance to her neighbors, sat almost facing the Princesse.
“You don’t know M. Detaille?” asked her hostess, for whom her guest’s skillful but modest about-face was not enough. “I don’t know him, but I know his work,” replied Mme de Villemur, with a winning and respectful expression, and an aptness that many envied, even as she was directing an imperceptible nod at the celebrated painter, her being summoned not having amounted to a formal introduction to him. “Come, M. Detaille,” said the Princesse, “I’m going to introduce you to Mme de Villemur.” The latter then showed as much ingenuity in making room for the author of The Dream3 as a little earlier in turning toward him. And the Princesse brought a chair forward for herself; indeed, she had summoned Mme de Villemur only so as to have a pretext for leaving the first group, where she had spent the regulation ten minutes, and granting an equal duration of her presence to a second. Within three-quarters of an hour, all of the groups had received her visit, which seemed every time to result from a sudden inspiration or a predilection, but which had the object above all of throwing into relief how naturally “a great lady knows how to entertain.” But now the guests at the soirée were starting to arrive, and the hostess had taken her seat not far from the entrance—erect and haughty, in her quasi-royal majesty, her eyes ablaze with their own incandescence— between two plain-looking Highnesses and the Spanish ambassadress.
I lined up behind several guests who had arrived ahead of me. Facing me I had the Princesse, whose beauty, among so many others, is no doubt not the only one to remind me of that particular party. But our hostess’s face was so perfect, had been struck like some beautiful medal, that for me it has preserved a commemorative value. The Princesse was in the habit of saying to her guests, when she met them a few days before one of her soirées, “You will come, won’t you?,” as if she felt a strong desire to talk with them. But since, on the contrary, she had nothing to say to them, the moment they arrived in front of her she contented herself, without getting up, with breaking off for a moment from her vacuous conversation with the two Highnesses and the ambassadress to thank them, by saying, “It’s kind of you to come,” not because she thought that the guest had given proof of kindness by coming, but in order to enhance even further her own; then, at once throwing him back into the river, she would add, “You’ll find M. de Guermantes at the door into the gardens,” so that you went off visiting and left her in peace. To some even she said nothing, contenting herself with displaying her admirable onyx eyes, as if you had come merely to an exhibition of precious stones.
The first person to go in ahead of me was the Duc de Châtellerault.
Needing to respond to all the smiles, all the waved greetings that came to him from the drawing room, he had not noticed the doorman. But the doorman had recognized him from the very first moment. In a moment, he was going to know the identity he had so longed to learn. As he asked his “Englishman” of two days before what name he should announce, the doorman was not merely moved, he judged himself to be indiscreet, tactless. He seemed to be about to reveal to all the world (who would suspect nothing, however) a secret that he was guilty of having uncovered in this way and of broadcasting publicly. On hearing the guest’s reply, “the Duc de Châtellerault,” he felt so overcome by pride that he remained speechless for a moment. The Duc looked at him, recognized him, saw himself ruined, as the manservant, meanwhile, who had regained control of himself and knew his armorial well enough to complete for himself an overmodest designation, shouted out with a professional vigor, mellowed by an intimate tenderness, “His Highness Monseigneur the Duc de Châtellerault!” But now it was my turn to be announced. Absorbed in contemplation of our hostess, who had not yet seen me, I had not reflected on the functions, terrible for me—though in another way than for M. de Châtellerault—of this doorman, clad in black like an executioner and surrounded by a troop of footmen in the most cheerful liveries, lusty fellows ready to lay hands on an intruder and show him the door. The doorman asked my name, and I gave it to him as mechanically as a condemned man allowing himself to be attached to the block. He at once raised his head majestically and, before I had been able to beg him to keep his voice down when announcing me so as to spare my amour-propre if I had not been invited, and that of the Princesse de Guermantes if I had been, he shouted out the disquieting syllables with a force capable of causing the roof of the house to vibrate.
The illustrious Huxley (he whose nephew currently occupies a preponderant place in the English literary world)4 recounts how one of his patients no longer dared go into society because often, in the very chair that was being politely indicated to her, she could see an elderly gentleman sitting. She was quite sure that either the gesture of invitation, or the presence of the elderly gentleman, was a hallucination, for they would not have been showing her to a chair that was already occupied. When Huxley, in order to cure her, forced her to return to a reception, she experienced a moment of painful hesitation, wondering whether the hospitable sign they made to her was the real thing, or whether, in order to obey a nonexistent vision, she was about to sit down in public on the knees of a flesh-and-blood gentleman. Her brief uncertainty was cruel. Less so perhaps than my own. From the moment I heard my own name being roared out, like the sound preceding a possible cataclysm, I had, so as at all events to plead my good faith and as if I were not tormented by any doubts, to advance toward the Princesse with a resolute air.
She caught sight of me when I was a few feet away and, what left me no longer in any doubt that I had been the victim of a conspiracy, instead of remaining seated as for the other guests, she got up and came toward me. A second later, I was able to heave the sigh of relief of Huxley’s patient when, having made up her mind to sit down on the chair, she found it was unoccupied and realized that it was the elderly gentleman who was a hallucination. The Princesse had just held out her hand to me with a smile. She stayed standing for a few moments, with the kind of graciousness peculiar to the stanza in Malherbe which ends, “And to do them honor the Angels stand.”5
She apologized for the fact that the Duchesse had not yet arrived, as though without her I must be bored. In order thus to bid me welcome, she performed about me, holding me by the hand, a very graceful pirouette, in whose vortex I felt swept away. I was almost expecting her then to hand me, like the leader of a cotillion, an ivory-knobbed cane or a wristwatch. Truth to tell, she gave me nothing like that, but as if, rather than dancing the Boston, she had been listening to a sacrosanct Beethoven quartet, the sublime strains of which she was afraid of disturbing, she halted the conversation there, or, rather, did not begin it, and, still radiant from having seen me enter, merely informed me of where the Prince was to be found.
I moved away and did not dare approach her again, sensing that she had absolutely nothing to say to me and that, in her immense goodwill, this marvelously tall and beautiful woman, noble as so many great ladies were who mounted the scaffold with such pride, could only, not daring to offer me some melissa cordial, have repeated what she had already twice told me: “You’ll find the Prince in the garden.” But to go up to the Prince was to feel my doubts revive in a different form.
At all events, someone had to be found to present me. Dominating every conversation could be heard the inexhaustible prattle of M. de Charlus, who was talking with His Excellency the Duc de Sidonia, whose acquaintance he had just made. As profession recognizes profession, so, too, does vice. M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each immediately nosed out that of the other, which was, for both, to be, when in company, monologuists, to the extent of being unable to bear any interruption. Having at once adjudged that the malady was without remedy, as a famous sonnet has it,6 they had made a resolve, not to stay silent, but each to speak without concerning himself with what the other would say. This had created that jumble of sound which, in Molière’s comedies, is produced by several people saying different things at one and the same time. The Baron, with his resonant voice, was certain in any case of having the better of it, of drowning out the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia, without discouraging the latter, however, for, whenever M. de Charlus drew breath for a moment, the interval was filled by the susurration of the Spanish grandee, who had imperturbably continued discoursing. I might well have asked M. de Charlus to present me to the Prince de Guermantes, but I was afraid (with only too good reason) that he might be angry with me. I had behaved toward him in the most ungrateful fashion in not taking him up on his offer for a second time, and in not showing him any sign of life since the evening when he had seen me home so affectionately. Yet I had certainly not had as an anticipated excuse the scene that I had just witnessed, that very afternoon, taking place between Jupien and him. I had suspected nothing of the sort. It is true that, a little time before, when my parents were reproaching me for my laziness and for not having yet taken the trouble of dropping M. de Charlus a line, I had reproached them furiously for wanting to make me accept dishonorable propositions. But anger alone, and the desire to find the words that would be most disagreeable to them, had dictated this untruthful reply. In actual fact, I had not imagined there to have been anything sensual, or even sentimental, in the Baron’s offers. I had said that to my parents out of sheer foolishness. But the future sometimes dwells in us without our knowing it, and the words thought to be untruthful describe an imminent reality.
M. de Charlus would no doubt have forgiven me my lack of gratitude. But what made him furious was that my presence that evening at the Princesse de Guermantes’s, as for some little time past at her cousin’s, seemed to make a mockery of his solemn declaration, “The only entrée to those salons is through me.” A grave fault, an inexpiable crime perhaps: I had not followed the hierarchical path. M. de Charlus well knew that the thunderbolts that he brandished at those who did not submit to his commands, or to whom he had taken a strong dislike, were beginning to pass, in the eyes of many, and however much fury he put into them, for thunderbolts of cardboard, and no longer had the strength to expel anyone from anywhere. But perhaps he thought that his power, although diminished, was still great and remained intact in the eyes of a novice such as myself. So I did not consider it the wisest course to ask a service of him at a party where my mere presence seemed like an ironic challenge to his pretensions.
At which moment I was stopped by a somewhat vulgar man, Professor E——. He had been surprised to see me at the Guermantes’. I was no less so to find him there, for never before, and never again subsequently, had a person of his sort been seen at the Princesse’s. He had just cured the Prince, who had already received the last rites, of an infectious pneumonia, and the very particular gratitude that Mme de Guermantes felt toward him for this was the reason why they had broken with custom and invited him. Since he knew absolutely no one in these drawing rooms and could not prowl about there indefinitely on his own like a minister of death, having recognized me, he had felt that, for the first time in his life, he had infinitely many things to say to me, which enabled him to keep in countenance and was one of the reasons why he had come toward me. There was a second reason. He attached great importance to never being mistaken in a diagnosis. Now, so many letters did he receive that he could not always remember clearly, when he had only seen a patient once, whether the illness had indeed followed the course he had assigned to it. It has not been forgotten perhaps that, at the time of my grandmother’s stroke, I had taken her round to him on the evening when he was having all those decorations sewn on. Some time having elapsed, he no longer remembered the announcement he had been sent at the time. “Madame your grandmother is indeed dead, is she not?” he said to me, in a voice in which near certainty had stilled a slight apprehensiveness. “Ah, indeed! Anyway, from the very first moment I saw her, my prognosis was altogether gloomy, I remember very well.”
Thus it was that Professor E—— learned or relearned of my grandmother’s death, and I have to say to his credit, which is that of the medical body as a whole, without manifesting, or perhaps feeling, any satisfaction. The mistakes of doctors are innumerable. They err as a rule out of optimism as to the treatment, and pessimism as to the outcome. “Wine? In moderation it can’t do you any harm, it’s a tonic when all’s said and done.... Physical pleasure? It’s a function, after all. I permit it, but not to be overdone, you understand. Excess of any kind is a mistake.” What a temptation all of a sudden for the patient to give up those two resuscitators, water and chastity! If, on the other hand, you have a heart or an albumin problem, or something of the kind, then there is not long to go. Grave but functional troubles are readily ascribed to an imaginary cancer. There is no point in keeping on with visits that could never stay an ineluctable disease. Should the patient, left to his own devices, now impose an implacable regimen on himself, and then be cured or at the very least survive, the doctor, greeted by him on the Avenue de l’Opéra when he thought him long since in the Père-Lachaise, will see in this tipping of the hat a gesture of sarcastic insolence. An innocent walk taken under his very nose would arouse no greater fury in the Assize Court judge who, two years before, had pronounced sentence of death on the seemingly fearless stroller. Doctors (this does not apply to all of them, naturally, and I do not omit, mentally, some admirable exceptions) are in general more disgruntled, more irritated by the quashing of their verdict than joyful at its execution. Which explains why Professor E——, whatever intellectual satisfaction he will have felt no doubt at finding he had not been mistaken, was able to speak only with sadness of the misfortune that had struck us. He was not keen to cut short the conversation, which was keeping him in countenance and was a reason for staying. He spoke to me of the heat wave we had been having in recent days, but although he was literate and could have expressed himself in good French, he said, “This hyperthermia doesn’t upset you?” The fact is that medicine has made some small progress in knowledge since Molière, but none in its vocabulary. My interlocutor added: “What you need to do is to avoid the sudations weather like this causes, especially in overheated drawing rooms. You can remedy them, when you return home and want something to drink, by heat”—which means, obviously, hot drinks.
Because of the manner of my grandmother’s death, the subject interested me, and I had recently read in a book by a great scientist that perspiration harmed the kidneys by causing what should issue elsewhere to pass through the skin. I had deplored the canicular weather during which my grandmother died, and had come close to holding it responsible. I made no mention of this to Dr. E——, but he said without being prompted, “The advantage of this very hot weather, when perspiration is very abundant, is that the kidney is correspondingly relieved.” Medicine is not an exact science.
Now that he had hold of me, Professor E—— asked only not to leave me. But I had just caught sight, making deep bows to the Princesse de Guermantes to left and to right, having taken a step backward, of the Marquis de Vaugoubert. M. de Norpois had recently introduced me to him, and I hoped that in him I would find someone capable of presenting me to our host. The proportions of the present work do not allow me to explain here the incidents during his youth in consequence of which M. de Vaugoubert was one of the few men (perhaps the only man) in society who found himself in what is known in Sodom as “confidence” with M. de Charlus.7 But if our minister to King Theodosius had some of the same faults as the Baron, they ranked as no more than the palest reflections of them. It was only in an infinitely milder, sentimental, and simpleminded form that he displayed those alternations between sympathy and loathing through which the desire to charm and then the fear—equally imaginary—of being, if not despised, then at least discovered, caused the Baron to pass. M. de Vaugoubert nonetheless displayed these alternations, but rendered absurd by a chastity, a “Platonism” (to which, highly ambitious as he was, he had, ever since the days of the Foreign Ministry examination, sacrificed all pleasure), above all by his intellectual nullity. But whereas, in M. de Charlus’s case, immoderate praises were trumpeted in a veritable sunburst of eloquence, and salted with the subtlest, most mordant raillery, which marked a man forever, with M. de Vaugoubert, on the contrary, sympathy was expressed with the banality of an utter mediocrity, a man of the fashionable world, and a functionary, and his grievances (generally a complete invention, as with the Baron) by a malevolence that was untiring but mindless and all the more shocking in that it was usually in contradiction of remarks the minister had been making six months earlier and would perhaps be making again before very long: a regularity of change that lent an almost astronomical poetry to the various phases of M. de Vaugoubert’s life, even though, this aside, no one could have put one less in mind of a heavenly body.
The “good evening” that he returned had nothing of that which M. de Charlus would have wished me. To this “good evening,” M. de Vaugoubert lent, apart from the high ceremoniousness he thought to be that of society and of diplomacy, a jaunty, brisk, smiling tone, so as to seem, on the one hand, overjoyed by life—whereas inwardly he was brooding over the setbacks to a career lacking in promotion and in danger of ending in a forced retirement—and, on the other hand, young, virile, and charming, though he could see, and no longer dared even to go and inspect in his mirror, the wrinkles forming on the outlying parts of a face all of whose seductiveness he would have liked to have preserved. It was not that he would have wished for actual conquests, the mere thought of which frightened him on account of hearsay, of scandal, and of blackmail. Having gone from an almost infantile debauchery to absolute continence on the day his thoughts turned to the Quai d’Orsay8 and the desire to make a great career, he wore the look of a caged beast, casting glances in all directions expressive of fear, craving, and stupidity. His own was such that he did not pause to consider that the street boys of his adolescence were no longer children and that, when a newspaper-vendor yelled “La Presse!”9 into his face, he shuddered in terror more even than in desire, believing he had been recognized and tracked down.
But, failing the pleasures sacrificed to an ungrateful Quai d’Orsay, M. de Vaugoubert—and it was on this account that he would have liked still to be found attractive—had sudden impulses of the heart. God knows with how many letters he had pestered the ministry, what personal stratagems he had deployed, and how many times he had drawn on the credit of Mme de Vaugoubert (who, because of her corpulence, her high birth, her masculine look, and especially because of the mediocrity of her husband, was thought to be endowed with superior qualities and fulfilling the true functions of the minister) in order, for no valid reason, to get a young man entirely devoid of merit taken on to the staff of the legation. It is true that, a few months or a few years later, should this insignificant attaché have appeared to show, without the least hint of any evil intent, signs of coldness toward his chief, the latter, believing himself despised or betrayed, devoted the same hysterical ardor to punishing him as once to gratifying him. He moved heaven and earth to get him recalled, and the director of political affairs would receive a letter daily: “What is keeping you from getting rid of this fellow for me? Give him a bit of a talking to, for his own good. What he needs is to be given a really hard time of it.” For which reason, the post of attaché to the court of King Theodosius was far from pleasant. But in every other respect, thanks to his perfect good sense as a man of the world, M. de Vaugoubert was one of the French government’s best representatives abroad. When, later on, a supposedly superior man, a Jacobin,10 well informed in every sphere, replaced him, war was not long in breaking out between France and the country ruled over by the King.
Like M. de Charlus, M. de Vaugoubert did not like to be first with a greeting. Both preferred to “respond,” forever fearful of the rumors that the person to whom they would otherwise have held out their hand might have heard about them since they last saw him. In my own case, M. de Vaugoubert did not have to ask himself the question, for in fact I had gone to greet him first, if only because of the difference in age. He answered me with a wondering and delighted look, his two eyes continuing to jump about as if there were forbidden clover to be grazed on either side. I thought it proper to solicit from him my introduction to Mme de Vaugoubert before that to the Prince, about which I was counting on speaking to him only afterward. The idea of bringing me into contact with his wife appeared to fill him with joy for himself, as for her, and he led me with resolute steps toward the Marquise. Arriving in front of her, and indicating me with both his hand and his eyes, with every possible mark of consideration, he remained nonetheless without speaking, and after a few seconds withdrew, with a fidgety look, so as to leave me alone with his wife. The latter had at once held out her hand to me, but without knowing to whom this mark of affability was being addressed, for I realized that M. de Vaugoubert had forgotten what my name was, had perhaps not recognized me even, and, not wanting, out of politeness, to admit it, had made the introduction consist of pure pantomime. So I was no further advanced; how to get myself presented to our host by a woman who did not know my name? Moreover, I found myself forced to talk for a few moments with Mme de Vaugoubert. This annoyed me from two points of view. I had no wish to remain forever at this party, for I had arranged with Albertine (I had given her a box for Phèdre)11 that she would come and see me a little before midnight. It is true that I was not in love with her; by getting her to come that evening, I was obeying a wholly sensual desire, even though we were in that torrid season of the year when a liberated sensuality is more ready to visit the organs of taste and seeks coolness above all. More than for the kiss of a girl, it thirsts for an orangeade or for a bath, or to gaze indeed on that peeled and juicy moon that was quenching the thirst of the sky. But I was counting on ridding myself at Albertine’s side—who brought back for me, moreover, the coolness of the waves—of the regrets I could not fail to be left with by so many charming faces (for the soirée the Princesse was giving was for girls as well as ladies). There was nothing attractive, on the other hand, about the morose Bourbon face of the imposing Mme de Vaugoubert.
It was said at the ministry, without the least hint of malice, that in this ménage it was the husband who wore the skirts and the wife the breeches. Now, there was more truth in this than they thought. Mme de Vaugoubert was a man. Whether she had always been one, or had become what I now saw her to be, hardly matters, for in either case we are dealing with one of nature’s most touching miracles, whereby, in the second case especially, the human kingdom is made to resemble the kingdom of flowers. On the first hypothesis—whether the future Mme de Vaugoubert had always been so heavily mannish—nature, by a stratagem both diabolical and beneficent, gives to the young girl the deceptive aspect of a man. And the adolescent male who does not like women and wishes to be cured lights with joy on this subterfuge, of discovering a fiancée who for him is the embodiment of a market porter. In the contrary case, if the woman does not to start with have masculine characteristics, she gradually acquires them in order to please her husband, unconsciously even, by that sort of mimeticism whereby certain flowers give themselves the appearance of the insects they seek to attract. The regret she feels at not being loved, at not being a man, virilizes her. Even aside from the case that concerns us, who has not observed how many of the most normal couples end up resembling one another, sometimes even by exchanging their good qualities? A former German chancellor, the Prince von Bülow, had married an Italian woman.12 In due course, on the Pincio, it was remarked how much Italian delicacy the German husband had acquired, and how much German coarseness the Italian Princess. To move out to a point eccentric to the laws we are tracing, everyone knows of an eminent French diplomat whose origin was recalled only by his name, one of the most illustrious in the East.13 As he matured, as he aged, the Oriental whom no one had ever suspected was revealed, and on seeing him you regretted the absence of the fez that would have been the crowning touch.
To come back to habits wholly unknown to the ambassador whose ancestrally padded silhouette we have just evoked, Mme de Vaugoubert embodied the type, acquired or predestined, the immortal image of which is the Princesse Palatine, forever in her riding habit, who, hav- ing taken more from her husband than his virility, and espousing the defects of the men who do not like women, denounces in her gossipy letters the mutual dealings of all the great noblemen at the court of Louis XIV.14 One of the factors that further accentuate the masculine appearance of women such as Mme de Vaugoubert is that the neglect they are left in by their husbands, and the shame that they feel, casts a gradual blight on everything womanly in them. In the end, they acquire the virtues and defects that the husband does not have. As he grows more frivolous, more effeminate, and more indiscreet, they become the charmless effigy, as it were, of the virtues that the husband ought to be practicing.
Traces of opprobrium, annoyance, and indignation had clouded Mme de Vaugoubert’s regular features. I felt, alas, that she looked on me with interest and curiosity as one of the young men who appealed to M. de Vaugoubert, and whom she would have so much liked to be, now that her aging husband preferred youth. She looked at me with the attentiveness of those provincial women who copy out of a fashion catalogue the tailored dress that looks so well on the pretty young person in the drawing (the same one on every page, in point of fact, but illusorily multiplied into different individuals thanks to the difference in the poses and the variety of outfits). The vegetal attraction that drove Mme de Vaugoubert toward me was so strong that she went so far as to seize hold of my arm so that I might take her to drink a glass of orangeade. But I freed myself on the pretext that, on the point of leaving as I was, I had not yet had myself presented to our host.
The distance separating me from the entrance to the gardens, where he stood talking to one or two people, was not very great. But it made me more afraid than if, in order to cross it, I had had to expose myself to a running fire.
Many women by whom I fancied I might be able to get myself presented were in the garden, where, even as they feigned an impassioned admiration, they hardly knew what to do with themselves. Parties of this kind are generally anticipated. They scarcely become real until the next day, when they occupy the attention of the people who were not invited. If, on reading the article of a critic who has always evinced the greatest admiration for him, a true writer, devoid of the foolish amour-propre of so many literary people, finds the names of second-rate authors listed but not his own, he does not have time to dwell on what might for him be cause for astonishment: his books reclaim him. But a society woman has nothing to do, and, on discovering in Le Figaro, “Yesterday the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes gave a grand soirée, etc.,” she exclaims, “What! I talked, three days ago, for an hour with Marie-Gilbert, without her so much as mentioning it!,” and she racks her brains wondering what she might have done to the Guermantes. It has to be said that, where the Princesse’s parties were concerned, the surprise was sometimes as great among those who were invited as among those who were not. For they exploded at the very moment when they were least expected, and sent a summons to people whom Mme de Guermantes had been neglecting for years. And almost all society people are so insignificant that each of their peers judges them only according to their degree of friendliness, cherishes them if invited, detests them if excluded. In the case of these last, if, indeed, the Princesse, even though they were among her friends, did not invite them, this often arose from her fear of displeasing “Palamède,” who had excommunicated them. So I could be certain that she had not spoken about me to M. de Charlus; otherwise, I would not have found myself there. He was now leaning, facing the garden, next to the German ambassador, on the balustrade of the great staircase that led back into the house, so that, in spite of the three or four female admirers who had congregated around the Baron and were almost screening him, the guests were obliged to come and wish him good evening. He answered by styling people by their names. You heard successively, “Good evening, M. du Hazay; good evening, Mme de la Tour du Pin-Vercluse; good evening, Mme de la Tour du Pin-Gouvernet; good evening, Philibert; good evening, my dear Ambassadress,” and so on. This made for a continuous yapping, interspersed with well-meaning advice or questions (to the answers to which he paid no heed), which M. de Charlus addressed in a tone at once gentler, artificial, in order to attest to his indifference, and benign: “Mind the little one doesn’t catch cold, gardens are always a bit damp. Good evening, Mme de Brantes. Good evening, Mme de Mecklembourg. Is your young daughter here? Has she put on that ravishing pink dress? Good evening, Saint-Géran.” Certainly, there was arrogance in this attitude. M. de Charlus knew he was a Guermantes occupying a preponderant place at this entertainment. But there was not only arrogance, and the very word “entertainment” evoked, for a man of aesthetic gifts, the sense of luxury and of curiosity that it may have if the entertainment in question is being given not by society people but in a painting by Carpaccio or Veronese. It is even more likely that the German Prince that was M. de Charlus was picturing to himself, rather, the entertainment that unfolds in Tannhäuser, with himself as the Margrave, having a kindly, condescending word for each of the guests at the entrance to the Warburg, as they disperse into the castle or the park, saluted by the long phrase, a hundred times repeated, of the famous March.15
I had to come to a decision, however. I was well able to recognize under the trees women with whom I was more or less friendly, but they seemed transformed because they were at the Princesse’s and not at her cousin’s, and because I saw them sitting not in front of a Saxe plate but beneath the branches of a chestnut tree. The elegance of the setting played no part in it. Had it been infinitely less than at “Oriane’s,” the same unease would still have existed inside me. Should the electricity happen to go off in our drawing room and have to be replaced by oil lamps, everything seems altered. I was rescued from my uncertainty by Mme de Souvré. “Good evening,” she said as she came up to me. “Is it long since you saw the Duchesse de Guermantes?” She excelled at lending words of this kind an intonation that proved she was not uttering them out of pure stupidity, like those people who, not knowing what to talk about, are forever accosting you and naming some common acquaintance, often very vague. She, on the contrary, had a fine conductor wire in her eyes, which signified: “Don’t think I didn’t recognize you. You’re the young man I’ve seen at the Duchesse de Guermantes’s. I remember very well.” Unfortunately, the protection extended over me by these seemingly stupid yet delicately intentioned words was extremely fragile and vanished the moment I sought to make use of it. Mme de Souvré had the art, if it was a matter of backing up a request to someone of influence, of appearing both to be recommending it in the eyes of the petitioner, and not to be recommending this petitioner in the eyes of the exalted personage, in such a way that this double-edged gesture opened a credit balance of gratitude from the former without incurring any debt vis-à-vis the other. Encouraged by this lady’s good grace to ask her to present me to M. de Guermantes, she seized on a moment when our host’s eyes were not turned in our direction, took me maternally by the shoulders, and, smiling at the Prince’s face, which was turned away so that he could not see her, she thrust me toward him with a movement purportedly protective yet deliberately ineffective, which left me stranded almost at my point of departure. Such is the cowardliness of society people.
That of a lady who came up to greet me by calling me by my name was greater still. I tried to recover her name even as I was speaking to her; I remembered very well having dined with her, I remembered things she had said to me. But my attention, straining toward that inner region where these memories of her were, was unable to discover the name. Yet it was there. My mind was engaged on a sort of game with it, in order to grasp its contours and the letter it began with, and finally to illuminate it in its entirety. It was so much wasted effort; I could more or less sense its mass, its weight, but as for its forms, comparing these with the mysterious captive huddled in the darkness within, I said to myself, “That’s not it.” My mind might certainly have been able to create the most difficult names. But, alas, it had not to create but to reproduce. Any action of the mind is easy when it is not subject to reality. Here I was forced to submit. At last, suddenly, the name came in its entirety: “Mme d’Arpajon.” I am wrong to say that it came, for I do not believe it appeared to me under its own propulsion. Nor do I think that my numerous faint memories relating to this lady, whose help I did not cease to solicit (by exhortations such as, “Come on, this is the woman who’s a friend of Mme de Souvré, who has so simple-minded an admiration for Victor Hugo, along with so much terror and repugnance”)—I do not believe that all these memories, fluttering about between me and her name, served in the very least to refloat it. In the great game of “hide-and-seek” played out in the memory when we are trying to recover a name, there is not a series of graduated approximations. We can see nothing; then, all of a sudden, the exact name appears, and quite different from what we thought we could divine. It is not it that has come to us. No, I believe, rather, that, as we go on through life, we spend our time distancing ourselves from the zone where a name is distinct, and that it was by the exercise of my will and my attention, which enhanced the acuity of my inward gaze, that I had suddenly penetrated the semidarkness and seen clearly. At all events, if there are transitions between forgetfulness and memory, those transitions are unconscious. For the intermediate names through which we pass, before finding the right name, are themselves false, and bring us no closer to it. They are not even names, properly speaking, but often mere consonants not to be found in the rediscovered name. The work of the mind as it passes from nothingness to reality is so mysterious, on the other hand, that it is possible after all that these false consonants are a pole held clumsily out to us in advance, to help us grapple the right name. “All of which,” the reader will say, “teaches us nothing about this lady’s disobligingness; but since you’ve been at a standstill for this long, let me, M. l’Auteur, make you waste one minute more to tell you how regrettable it is that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he is not yourself), you should already have had so little memory as to be unable to recall the name of a lady whom you knew very well.” It is very regrettable, you are right, M. le Lecteur. And sadder than you think, once it is sensed as heralding the day when names and words will vanish from the illuminated zone of the mind and we shall have to give up forever naming to ourselves those whom we have known best. It is regrettable, indeed, that, from our youth on, it should require such labor to recover names we know well. But were this infirmity to occur only with names barely known and quite naturally forgotten, and which we do not want to weary ourselves by recalling, then this infirmity would not be without its advantages. “And what are they, pray?” Well, monsieur, the fact is that this malady alone causes us to take notice of and to learn, and enables us to analyze, the mechanisms of which we would otherwise be ignorant. A man who drops into his bed each evening like a dead weight and lives again only at the moment of coming awake and getting up, will that man ever dream of making, if not great discoveries, then at least some minor observations, concerning sleep? He hardly knows whether he sleeps. A spot of insomnia is not without its uses for appreciating sleep, for projecting a certain light into that darkness. An unfailing memory is no very powerful stimulus for studying the phenomena of memory. “So Mme d’Arpajon finally introduced you to the Prince?” No, but be quiet and let me take up my story again.
Mme d’Arpajon was even more cowardly than Mme de Souvré, but her cowardice had greater excuse. She knew she had always had little influence in society. This influence had been further weakened by the liaison she had had with the Duc de Guermantes; the latter’s rejection of her was the final straw. The ill- humor produced in her by my request to be introduced to the Prince resulted in a silence, which she was naïve enough to think was an appearance of not having heard what I said. She did not even realize that anger had caused her to frown. Or perhaps she did realize but was not troubled by the contradiction, using it for the lesson in tact she could give me without being too impolite—I mean, a lesson that was wordless but no less eloquent on that account.
Mme d’Arpajon was in any case much annoyed, the gaze of many having been raised toward a Renaissance balcony at the corner of which, in place of the monumental statues that were so often placed there in those days, there leaned, no less sculptural than they, the magnificent Duchesse de Surgis-le-Duc, she who had just succeeded Mme d’Arpajon in the affections of Basin de Guermantes. Beneath the flimsy white tulle that protected her against the cool night air could be seen the supple body of a Winged Victory. My one remaining recourse was to M. de Charlus, who had gone back into a room below, which gave access to the garden. I had ample leisure (since he was pretending to be absorbed in a simulated game of whist, which enabled him not to appear to see people) in which to admire the willful and artistic simplicity of his dress coat, which, thanks to tiny details that a couturier alone might have discerned, looked like a Harmony in Black and White by Whistler;16 or, rather, black, white, and red, for M. de Charlus wore, suspended by a broad ribbon against the jabot of his evening attire, the white, black, and red enamel cross of a knight of the religious Order of Malta. At that moment, the Baron’s game was interrupted by Mme de Gallardon, who had her nephew in tow, the Vicomte de Courvoisier, a young man with a pretty face and an impertinent air: “Cousin,” said Mme de Gallardon, “allow me to introduce to you my nephew Adalbert. Adalbert, you know, the famous Uncle Palamède you’re always hearing about.” “Good evening, Mme de Gallardon,” replied M. de Charlus. And he added, without even looking at the young man, “Good evening, monsieur,” with a surly look, and in so violently discourteous a tone that everyone was astounded. Perhaps, knowing that Mme de Gallardon had her suspicions as to his habits and had been unable to resist for once the pleasure of alluding to them, M. de Charlus was anxious to forestall whatever embroidery she might add to a friendly reception of her nephew, at the same time making a resounding profession of his indifference with respect to young men; or perhaps he considered that the aforesaid Adalbert had not replied to his aunt’s words with a sufficiently respectful air; or perhaps, eager to press home his attack later on so attractive a cousin, he wanted to give himself the advantages of a previous act of aggression, like those sovereigns who, before engaging in a diplomatic démarche, support it with a military action.
It was not as difficult as I had thought for M. de Charlus to accede to my request for an introduction. For one thing, in the course of the last twenty years, this Don Quixote had tilted against so many windmills (frequently relatives who he claimed had behaved badly toward him), and had forbidden people to be invited with such regularity “as someone unfit to be received,” by either male or female Guermantes, that the latter were beginning to be afraid of quarreling with all the people whom they liked, and of being deprived until the day they died of the company of certain newcomers about whom they were curious, in order to espouse the thunderous yet unexplained grudges of a brother-in-law or cousin who would have wanted them to abandon wife, brother, and children for his sake. Being more intelligent than the other Guermantes, M. de Charlus had noticed that only one in two of his vetoes was effective, and, looking ahead to the future and fearing that one day it might be him of whom they would deprive themselves, he had begun to cut his losses, to lower, as they say, his prices. Moreover, if he was capable of giving an identical life to some hated individual for months, or for years, on end—to whom he would not have tolerated extending an invitation, but would rather have fought, like a street porter, with a queen, the rank of whatever stood in his way no longer counting for him—his explosions of anger, on the other hand, were too frequent for them not to be somewhat fragmentary. “The imbecile, the miserable devil! We’re going to return him to where he belongs, sweep him into the gutter, where, alas, he won’t do much for the salubriousness of the town,” he would shout, even when alone at home, on reading a letter he considered irreverent, or on recalling a remark that had been repeated to him. But a fresh outburst against a second imbecile would dispel the earlier one, and, provided the first imbecile proved deferential, the attack he had occasioned was forgotten, not having lasted long enough to create a foundation of hatred on which to build. So perhaps—in spite of his ill-humor against me—I would have succeeded with him when I asked him to introduce me to the Prince, had I not had the unhappy idea of adding, out of scrupulousness, and so that he should not suppose me tactless enough to have entered on the off chance, relying on him to enable me to stay, “You know that I know them very well, the Princesse has been very kind to me.” “Well, if you know them, what need have you of me to introduce you?” he snapped at me and, turning his back, resumed his make-believe game of cards with the nuncio, the German ambassador, and a personage whom I did not know.
Then, from the depths of those gardens where once the Duc d’Aiguillon had bred rare animals, there reached me, through the wide-open doors, a sniffing sound, of someone breathing in all this elegance and wanting none of it to go to waste. The sound drew closer; I made in its direction on the off chance, with the result that the words “good evening” were murmured into my ear by M. de Bréauté, not like the jagged, metallic sound of a knife being ground on the wheel, let alone the cry of the young wild boar that lays waste the crops, but like the voice of a potential savior. Less influential than Mme de Souvré, but less fundamentally afflicted than her by disobligingness, far more at ease with the Prince than was Mme d’Arpajon, under an illusion perhaps concerning my own place in the Guermantes circle, or perhaps knowing it better than I did, I yet had, in those first seconds, some difficulty in securing his attention, for, with nostrils dilated and the papillae of his nose quivering, he was facing in all directions, his monocle eye wide with curiosity, as though he had found himself faced by five hundred masterpieces. But, having heard my request, he welcomed it with satisfaction, led me toward the Prince, and presented me to him wearing a hungry, ceremonious, and vulgar expression, as though he were passing him, along with a recommendation, a plate of petits fours. Just as the Duc de Guermantes’s greeting was, when he wanted, friendly, imbued with camaraderie, cordial, and familiar, so I found that of the Prince stiff, solemn, and haughty. He barely smiled at me, and addressed me gravely as “monsieur.” I had often heard the Duc make fun of his cousin’s aloofness. But from the first words he spoke to me, which, in their coldness and seriousness, formed the most complete contrast with Basin’s way of speaking, I realized at once that the fundamentally disdainful man was the Duc, who spoke to you from your first visit “as an equal,” and that, of the two cousins, the truly simple one was the Prince. In his reserve I found a greater sense, I will not say of equality, for that would have been inconceivable for him, but at least of the consideration one may accord an inferior, as occurs in any strongly hierarchical setting, at the Palais de Justice, for example, or in a university faculty, where a public prosecutor or a “dean,” conscious of his high office, perhaps hides more actual simplicity and, once you get to know him better, more kindness, true simplicity, and cordiality beneath a traditional hauteur than someone more up-to-date in his affectation of a bantering camaraderie. “Are you expecting to follow Monsieur your father’s career?” he said to me with a distant yet interested expression. I replied summarily to his question, realizing he had only asked it in order to be gracious, and moved away to let him welcome the new arrivals.
I caught sight of Swann, and wanted to speak to him, but at that moment I saw that the Prince de Guermantes, instead of receiving Odette’s husband’s greeting there, where he stood, had immediately, with the force of a suction pump, dragged him off to the end of the garden, but, so certain persons informed me, “in order to show him the door.”
So distracted in society that I did not learn until two days later, from the newspapers, that a Czech orchestra had been playing throughout the evening and that there had been, minute by minute, a constant succession of Bengal fire, I recovered a certain capacity for attentiveness at the thought of going to see Hubert Robert’s celebrated fountain.17
It could be seen from afar, set up to one side, in a clearing sequestered by beautiful trees, several of which were as old as it was, slender, immobile, solidified, allowing only the faintest spray, falling back from its pale and tremulous plume, to be disturbed by the breeze. The eighteenth century had purified the elegance of its lines, but, in determining the jet’s style, seemed to have arrested its life; at this distance, you had an impression of art rather than the sensation of the water. The moist cloud that was perpetually gathering at its summit had itself preserved the character of the age, like those that congregate in the sky around the palaces of Versailles. But from close up, you became aware that, even as they respected, like the stones of an ancient palace, the design traced out for them beforehand, the waters were being constantly renewed as they sprang upward, seeking to obey the ancient orders of the architect, and executing them accurately only by appearing to violate them, their innumerable scattered surges able to give the impression of a single impulse only from a distance. This last was in actual fact as frequently interrupted as the scattering of its fall, whereas, from a distance, it had seemed to me dense, inflexible, of an unbroken continuity. From quite close up, you could see that this continuity, altogether linear in appearance, was ensured at every point in the jet’s ascent, wherever it ought to have been broken, by the coming into play, the lateral reprise, of a parallel jet that rose higher than the first and was itself, at a greater, and by now exhausting, height, relieved by a third. From close to, spent drops were falling back from the column of water and meeting their ascending sisters along the way, and now and again, torn and seized by an eddy of the air disturbed by this tireless upsurge, they drifted before capsizing into the basin. By their vacillations, and by traveling in the contrary direction, they frustrated, and with their soft vapor they blurred, the verticality and tension of this shaft, which bore above it an oblong cloud formed of innumerable droplets, yet appearing to have been painted an immutable golden brown, which rose, infrangible, immobile, slender, and rapid, to add itself to the clouds in the sky. Unfortunately, a puff of wind was enough to send it obliquely across the ground; at times even, a single disobedient jet would diverge and, had it not remained at a respectful distance, would have soaked the incautious crowd of onlookers to the skin.
One of these minor accidents, which hardly ever occurred except at moments when the breeze got up, was somewhat disagreeable. Mme d’Arpajon had been led to believe that the Duc de Guermantes—in actual fact not yet arrived—was with Mme de Surgis in the galleries of pink marble, which were reached through the double colonnade, hollow inside, that rose from the rim of the basin. Now, just as Mme d’Arpajon was about to enter one of these colonnades, a strong gust from the warm breeze twisted the jet of water and inundated the good lady so thoroughly that, with the water trickling down inside her dress from her décolletage, she was as soaked as if she had been plunged into a bath. Then, not far away, a rhythmical rumbling sounded, loud enough to be audible by an entire army, yet prolonged in periods as if it were addressed not to the whole assembly but successively to each section of the troops; it was the Grand Duke Vladimir,18 laughing for all he was worth at the sight of Mme d’Arpajon’s immersion, one of the jolliest things, he liked to say afterward, he had ever witnessed in all his life. A few charitable souls pointing out to the Muscovite that a word of condolence from him was perhaps in order and would give pleasure to the lady, who, although she would never see forty again, and even as she was mopping herself with her scarf, without asking for anyone’s help, had extricated herself, despite the water that had made the rim of the basin treacherously wet, the Grand Duke, a kindly man at heart, thought action was called for, and, the last drumrolls of laughter having hardly been stilled, a fresh rumbling could be heard, still more violent than the earlier one. “Bravo, old girl!” he cried, clapping his hands as if at the theater. Mme d’Arpajon did not appreciate having her dexterity praised at the expense of her youth. And when someone said to her, deafened by the sound of the water, which was dominated even so by the thunder of Monseigneur, “I believe His Imperial Highness said something to you.” “No, it was to Mme de Souvré,” she replied.
I crossed the gardens and reascended the steps, where the absence of the Prince, who had vanished off to one side with Swann, had swollen the crowd of guests around M. de Charlus, just as, when Louis XIV was not at Versailles, more people gathered at Monsieur his brother’s. I was stopped as I passed by the Baron, while behind me two ladies and a young man were approaching to greet him.
“It’s nice to see you here,” he said, offering me his hand. “Good evening, Mme de La Trémoïlle; good evening, my dear Herminie.” But no doubt the memory of what he had said to me concerning his role as head of the Guermantes hôtel had given him the desire to appear to be feeling, with regard to what displeased him but which he had been unable to prevent, a satisfaction to which his lordly impertinence and his hysterical amusement at once lent a form of excessive irony: “It’s nice,” he repeated, “but above all it’s very comic.” And he began to let out roars of laughter that seemed to testify both to his delight and to the incapacity of human speech to give it expression, as certain people meanwhile, knowing both how hard of access he was and how liable to insolent “outbursts,” approached in curiosity and then, with an almost indecent haste, took to their heels. “Come, don’t be angry,” he said, touching me gently on the shoulder, “you know I’m very fond of you. Good evening, Antioche, good evening, Louis-René. Have you been to see the fountain?” he asked me in a tone of voice more affirmative than questioning. “It’s very pretty, is it not? It’s marvelous. It could be even better, of course, by doing away with certain things, then there’d be nothing to equal it in France. But even as it is, it’s among the best things. Bréauté will tell you they were wrong to hang lanterns, to try and make people forget it was he who had that absurd idea. But when all’s said and done, he succeeded in making it only a little bit uglier. It’s much harder to disfigure a masterpiece than to create it. We already had a vague suspicion anyway that Bréauté was no Hubert Robert.”
I rejoined the line of visitors who were entering the house. “Has it been long since you saw my delightful cousin Oriane?” the Princesse asked me; she had shortly before deserted her armchair by the entrance, and with her I now returned to the drawing rooms. “She’s due to be here this evening, I saw her during the afternoon,” added our hostess. “She promised me. I believe, in any case, that you are dining with the two of us at the Queen of Italy’s,19 in the embassy, on Thursday. Every possible Highness will be there, it’ll be most intimidating.” They could in no way have intimidated the Princesse de Guermantes, whose drawing rooms teemed with them, and who used to say “my little Coburgs” as she might have said “my little dogs.” And so Mme de Guermantes said, “It’ll be most intimidating,” out of sheer silliness, which, among society people, even outweighs their vanity. With respect to her own genealogy, she knew less than an agrégé20 in history. Where her connections were concerned, she was keen to show that she knew the nicknames they had been given. Having asked me whether I would be dining the following week at the Marquise de la Pommelière’s, often known as “la Pomme,” the Princesse, having obtained a negative reply, was silent for a few moments. Then, for no reason other than a deliberate display of involuntary erudition, banality, and conformity to the prevailing spirit, she added, “She’s quite an agreeable woman, la Pomme!”
It was just as the Princesse was talking with me that the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes made their entrance. But I was unable at first to go forward to them, for I was snapped up in passing by the Turkish ambassadress, who, pointing to our hostess, whom I had just left, exclaimed, seizing hold of me by the arm: “Oh, what a delightful woman the Princesse is! A being so superior to all others! I fancy that were I a man,” she added, with a hint of Oriental obsequiousness and sensuality, “I would devote my life to that heavenly creature.” I replied that I indeed found her charming, but that I knew her cousin the Duchesse better. “But there’s no comparison,” the ambassadress said to me. “Oriane is a charming woman of the world who gets her wit from Mémé and Babal, whereas Marie-Gilbert is somebody.”
I never much like thus being told without possibility of reply what I am to think about people whom I know. And there was no reason why the Turkish ambassadress’s judgment as to the merits of the Duchesse de Guermantes should be any more sure than my own. On the other hand, which also explained my irritation with the ambassadress, the fact is that the defects of a mere acquaintance, or even of a friend, are for us true poisons, against which we are fortunately “mithridatized.” But, without making the least show of scientific comparisons and talking of anaphylaxis, let me say that, at the heart of our friendly or merely social dealings, there is a hostility, cured temporarily but recurring in fits. Normally, we suffer little from these poisons as long as people are “natural.” By saying “Babal” and “Mémé,” to refer to people whom she did not know, the Turkish ambassadress had suspended the effects of the “mithridatism” that normally made her bearable. She had irritated me, which was the more unjust inasmuch as she had not spoken in this way in order to make me think she was an intimate of “Mémé,” but because an over-rapid education had led her to name these noble lords according to what she believed was the local custom. She had completed her schooling in a few months without seeing it through to the end. But, on reflection, I discovered another reason for my displeasure at remaining with the ambassadress. It was not long since, at “Oriane’s,” this same diplomatic personage had told me, wearing a serious, considered expression, that the Princesse de Guermantes was frankly antipathetic to her. I saw fit not to dwell on this about-face: the invitation to this evening’s party had brought it about. The ambassadress was perfectly sincere in telling me that the Princesse de Guermantes was a sublime creature. She had always thought so. But, never having until now been invited to the Princesse’s, she thought she must give to this kind of noninvitation the form of a voluntary abstention founded on principle. Now that she had been invited, and very likely would be from now on, her sympathy could express itself freely. There is no need, in order to explain three-quarters of the opinions held about people, to go so far as a love that has been spurned or an exclusion from political power. Our judgment remains unsure: an invitation refused or received determines it. Moreover, the Turkish ambassadress, in the words of the Duchesse de Guermantes, who was carrying out an inspection of the drawing rooms with me, “did well.” She was above all very useful. The true stars of society are weary of appearing there. Anyone who is curious to set eyes on them has often to immigrate into another hemisphere, where they are more or less alone. But women of the Ottoman ambassadress’s kind, newly entered into society, do not fail to shine there, everywhere at once, so to speak. They are useful to performances of the kind known as a soirée or a rout, to which they would have themselves dragged from their deathbeds rather than miss them. They are the extras on whom you can always count, zealous in never missing a party. Thus foolish young men, unaware that they are false stars, see them as the queens of fashion, whereas instruction would be needed to explain to them the reasons in virtue of which Mme Standish, not known to them and who paints cushions, far away from society, is at least as great a lady as the Duchesse de Doudeauville.21
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Meet the Author
Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil in 1871. His father, an eminent Professor of Medicine, was Roman Catholic and his mother was Jewish, factors that were to play an important role in his life and work. He was a brilliant, very literary schoolboy, and later a half-hearted student of law and political science. In his twenties he became an assiduous society figure, frequenting the most fashionable Paris salons of the day. During this period he published a volume of sketches and stories, Les Plaisirs et le jours, and between 1895 and 1900 wrote a novel, Jean Santeuil, which was in many ways a first draft for his masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu.
After 1899 his chronic asthma, the death of his parents and his growing impatience with society caused him to lead an increasingly retired life. In the early 1900s he produced celebrated literary pastiches and translations of Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies and it was during this period that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, although it was not published until 1954. From 1907, he rarely emerged from a sound-proofed room in his apartment on the Boulevard Hausmann in Paris, in order to insulate himself against the distractions of city life as well as the effect of the trees and flowers which he loved but which brought on his attacks of asthma. He slept by day and worked by night, writing letters and devoting himself to the completion of À la recherche du temps perdu. He died in 1922 before the publication of the last three books of his great work. With À la recherche du temps perdu Proust attempted the perfect rendering of life in art, of the past recreated through memory. It is both a portrait of the artist and a discovery of the aesthetic by which the portrait is painted, and it was to have an immense influence on the literature of the twentieth century.
John Sturrock is a writer and critic who has previously translated Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and Rimbaud. A consulting editor at the London Review of Books, he lives in West Sussex, England.
- Date of Birth:
- July 10, 1871
- Date of Death:
- November 18, 1922
- Place of Birth:
- Auteuil, near Paris, France
- Place of Death:
- Paris, France
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is the first completely new translation since Moncrieff's, and it is wonderful-- the prose is clearer and closer to Proust's French, and the book is more enjoyable then its Modern Library doppleganger. The only problem is the last two volumes of the new Penguin translation won't be available in the U.S. until 2019, so until then you will either have to finish Search using Moncrieff, or order the Penguin translation from overseas. An excellent novel, a wonderful translation, and a great new way to meet Madame Verdurin, M. Charlus, Brichot, Swann, Albertine and many other great characters.