Marcel Proust – Time Regained (Chap. 1)

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Tansonville


Tansonville seemed little more than a place to rest in between two
walks or a refuge during a shower. Rather too countrified, it was one
of those rural dwellings where every sitting-room is a cabinet of
greenery, and where the roses and the birds out in the garden keep you
company in the curtains; for they were old and each rose stood out so
clearly that it might have been picked like a real one and each bird
put in a cage, unlike those pretentious modern decorations in which,
against a silver background, all the apple trees in Normandy are
outlined in the Japanese manner, to trick the hours you lie in bed. I
spent the whole day in my room, the windows of which opened upon the
beautiful verdure of the park, upon the lilacs of the entrance, upon
the green leaves of the great trees beside the water and in the forest
of Méséglise. It was a pleasure to contemplate all this, I was saying
to myself: "How charming to have all this greenery in my window" until
suddenly in the midst of the great green picture I recognised the
clock tower of the Church of Combray toned in contrast to a sombre
blue as though it were far distant, not a reproduction of the clock
tower but its very self which, defying time and space, thrust itself
into the midst of the luminous greenery as if it were engraved upon my
wndow-pane. And if I left my room, at the end of the passage, set
towards me like a band of scarlet, I perceived the hangings of a
little sitting-room which though only made of muslin, were of a
scarlet so vivid that they would catch fire if a single sun-ray
touched them.

During our walks Gilberte alluded to Robert as though he were turning
away from her but to other women. It was true that his life was
encumbered with women as masculine attachments encumber that of
women-loving men, both having that character of forbidden fruit, of a
place vainly usurped, which unwanted objects have in most houses.

Once I left Gilberte early and in the middle of the night, while still
half-asleep, I called Albertine. I had not been thinking or dreaming
of her, nor had I mistaken her for Gilberte. My memory had lost its
love for Albertine but it seems there must be an involuntary memory of
the limbs, pale and sterile imitation of the other, which lives longer
as certain mindless animals or plants live longer than man. The legs,
the arms are full of blunted memories; a reminiscence germinating in
my arm had made me seek the bell behind my back, as I used to in my
room in Paris and I had called Albertine, imagining my dead friend
lying beside me as she so often did at evening when we fell asleep
together, counting the time it would take Françoise to reach us, so
that Albertine might without imprudence pull the bell I could not
find.

Robert came to Tansonville several times while I was there. He was
very different from the man I had known before. His life had not
coarsened him as it had M. de Charlus, but, on the contrary, had given
him more than ever the easy carriage of a cavalry officer although at
his marriage he had resigned his commission. As gradually M. de
Charlus had got heavier, Robert (of course he was much younger, yet
one felt he was bound to approximate to that type with age like
certain women who resolutely sacrifice their faces to their figures
and never abandon Marienbad, believing, as they cannot hope to keep
all their youthful charms, that of the outline to represent best the
others) had become slimmer, swifter, the contrary effect of the same
vice. This velocity had other psychological causes; the fear of being
seen, the desire not to seem to have that fear, the feverishness born
of dissatisfaction with oneself and of boredom. He had the habit of
going into certain haunts of ill-fame, where as he did not wish to be
seen entering or coming out, he effaced himself so as to expose the
least possible surface to the malevolent gaze of hypothetical
passers-by, and that gust-like motion had remained and perhaps
signified the apparent intrepidity of one who wants to show he is
unafraid and does not take time to think.

To complete the picture one must reckon with the desire, the older he
got, to appear young, and also the impatience of those who are always
bored and _blasés_, yet being too intelligent for a relatively idle
life, do not suffici-. ently use their faculties. Doubtless the very
idleness of such people may display itself by indifference but
especially since idleness, owing to the favour now accorded to
physical exercise, has taken the form of sport, even when the latter
cannot be practised, feverish activity leaves boredom neither time nor
space to develop in.

He had become dried up and gave friends like myself no evidence of
sensibility. On the other hand, he affected with Gilberte an
unpleasant sensitiveness which he pushed to the point of comedy. It
was not that Robert was indifferent to Gilberte; no, he loved her. But
he always lied to her and this spirit of duplicity, if it was not the
actual source of his lies, was constantly emerging. At such times he
believed he could only extricate himself by exaggerating to a
ridiculous degree the real pain he felt in giving pain to her. When he
arrived at Tansonville he was obliged, he said, to leave the next
morning on business with a certain gentleman of those parts, who was
expecting him in Paris and who, encountered that very evening near
Combray, unhappily revealed the lie, Robert, having failed to warn
him, by the statement that he was back for a month's holiday and would
not be in Paris before. Robert blushed, saw Gilberte's faint
melancholy smile, and after revenging himself on the unfortunate
culprit by an insult, returned earlier than his wife and sent her a
desperate note telling her he had lied in order not to pain her, for
fear that when he left for a reason he could not tell her, she should
think that he had ceased to love her; and all this, written as though
it were a lie, was actually true. Then he sent to ask if he could come
to her room, and there, partly in real sorrow, partly in disgust with
the life he was living, partly through the increasing audacity of his
successive pretences, he sobbed and talked of his approaching death,
sometimes throwing himself on the floor as though he were ill.
Gilberte, not knowing to what extent to believe him, thought him a
liar on each occasion, but, disquieted by the presentiment of his
approaching death and believing in a general way that he loved her,
that perhaps he had some illness she knew nothing about, did not dare
to oppose him or ask him to relinquish his journeys. I was unable to
understand how he came to have Morel received as though he were a son
of the house wherever the Saint-Loups were, whether in Paris or at
Tansonville.

Françoise, knowing all that M. de Charlus had done for Jupien and
Robert Saint-Loup for Morel, did not conclude that this was a trait
which reappeared in certain generations of the Guermantes, but
rather--seeing that Legrandin much loved Théodore--came to believe,
prudish and narrow-minded as she was, that it was a custom which
universality made respectable. She would say of a young man, were it
Morel or Théodore: "He is fond of the gentleman who is interested in
him and who has so much helped him." And as in such cases it is the
protectors who love, who suffer, who forgive, Françoise did not
hesitate between them and the youths they debauched, to give the
former the _beau role_, to discover they had a "great deal of heart".
She did not hesitate to blame Théodore who had played a great many
tricks on Legrandin, yet seemed to have scarcely a doubt as to the
nature of their relationship, for she added, "The young man
understands he's got to do his share as he says: 'take me away with
you, I will be fond of you and pet you,' and, _ma foi_, the gentleman
has so much heart that Théodore is sure to find him kinder than he
deserves, for he's a hot head while the gentleman is so good that I
often say to Jeannette (Theodore's fiancée), 'My dear, if ever you're
in trouble go and see that gentleman, he would lie on the ground to
give you his bed, he is too fond of Théodore to throw him out and he
will never abandon him'." It was in the course of one of these
colloquies that, having inquired the name of the family with whom
Théodore was living in the south, I suddenly grasped that he was the
person unknown to me who had asked me to send him my article in the
_Figaro_ in a letter the caligraphy of which was of the people but
charmingly expressed.

In the same fashion Françoise esteemed Saint-Loup more than Morel and
expressed the opinion, in spite of the ignoble behaviour of the
latter, that the marquis had too good a heart ever to desert him
unless great reverses happened to himself.

Saint-Loup insisted I should remain at Tansonville and once let fall,
although plainly he was not seeking to please me, that my visit was so
great a happiness for his wife that she had assured him, though she
had been wretched the whole day, that she was transported with joy the
evening I unexpectedly arrived, that, in fact, I had miraculously
saved her from despair, "perhaps from something worse." He begged me
to try and persuade her that he loved her, assuring me that the other
woman he loved was less to him than Gilberte and that he intended to
break with her very soon. "And yet," he added, in such a feline way
and with so great a longing to confide that I expected the name of
Charlie to pop out at any moment, in spite of himself, like a lottery
number, "I had something to be proud of. This woman, who has proved
her devotion to me and whom I must sacrifice for Gilberte's sake,
never accepted attention from a man, she believed herself incapable of
love; I am the first. I knew she had refused herself to everyone, so
much so that when I received an adorable letter from her, telling me
there could be no happiness for her without me, I could not resist it.
Wouldn't it be natural for me to be infatuated with her, were it not
intolerable for me to see poor little Gilberte in tears? Don't you
think there is something of Rachel in her?" As a matter of fact, it
had struck me that there was a vague resemblance between them. This
may have been due to a certain similarity of feature, owing to their
common Jewish origin, which was little marked in Gilberte, and yet
when his family wanted him to marry, drew Robert towards her. The
likeness was perhaps due also to Gilberte coming across photographs of
Rachel and wanting to please Robert by imitating certain of the
actress's habits, such as always wearing red bows in her hair, a black
ribbon on her arm and dyeing her hair to appear dark. Then, fearing
her sorrows affected her appearance, she tried to remedy it by
occasionally exaggerating the artifice. One day, when Robert was to
come to Tansonville for twenty-four hours, I was amazed to see her
come to table looking so strangely different from her present as well
as from her former self, that I was as bewildered as if I were facing
an actress, a sort of Theodora. I felt that in my curiosity to know
what it was that was changed about her, I was looking at her too
fixedly. My curiosity was soon satisfied when she blew her nose, for
in spite of all her precautions, the assortment of colours upon the
handkerchief would have constituted a varied palette and I saw that
she was completely painted. To this was due the bleeding appearance of
her mouth which she forced into a smile, thinking it suited her, while
the knowledge that the hour was approaching when her husband ought to
arrive without knowing whether or not he would send one of those
telegrams of which the model had been wittily invented by M. de
Guermantes: "Impossible to come, lie follows," paled her cheeks and
ringed her eyes.

"Ah, you see," Robert said to me with a deliberately tender accent
which contrasted with his former spontaneous affection, with an
alcoholic voice and the inflection of an actor. "To make Gilberte
happy! What wouldn't I do to secure that? You can never know how much
she has done for me." The most unpleasant of all was his vanity, for
Saint-Loup, flattered that Gilberte loved him, without daring to say
that he loved Morel, gave her details about the devotion the violinist
pretended to have for him, which he well knew were exaggerated if not
altogether invented seeing that Morel demanded more money of him every
day. Then confiding Gilberte to my care, he left again for Paris. To
anticipate somewhat (for I am still at Tansonville), I had the
opportunity of seeing him once again in society, though at a distance,
when his words, in spite of all this, were so lively and charming that
they enabled me to recapture the past. I was struck to see how much he
was changing. He resembled his mother more and more, but the proud and
well-bred manner he inherited from her and which she possessed to
perfection, had become, owing to his highly accomplished education,
exaggerated and stilted; the penetrating look common to the
Guermantes, gave him, from a peculiar animal-like habit, a
half-unconscious air of inspecting every place he passed through. Even
when motionless, that colouring which was his even more than it was
the other Guermantes', a colouring which seemed to have a whole golden
day's sunshine in it, gave him so strange a plumage, made of him so
rare a creature, so unique, that one wanted to own him for an
ornithological collection; but when, besides, this bird of golden
sunlight put itself in motion, when, for instance, I saw Robert de
Saint-Loup at a party, he had a way of throwing back his head so
joyously and so proudly, under the golden plumage of his slightly
ruffled hair, the movement of his neck was so much more supple, proud
and charming than that of other men, that, between the curiosity and
the half-social, half-zoological admiration he inspired, one asked
oneself whether one had found him in the faubourg Saint-Germain or in
the Jardin des Plantes and whether one was looking at a _grand
seigneur_ crossing a drawing-room or a marvellous bird walking about
in its cage. With a little imagination the warbling no less than the
plumage lent itself to that interpretation. He spoke in what he
believed the _grand-siècle_ style and thus imitated the manners of the
Guermantes, but an indefinable trifle caused them to become those of
M. de Charlus. "I must leave you an instant," he said during that
party, when M. de Marsantes was some distance away, "to pay court to
my niece a moment." As to that love of which he never ceased telling
me, there were others besides Charlie, although he was the only one
that mattered to him. Whatever kind of love a man may have, one is
always wrong about the number of his _liaisons_, because one
interprets friendships as _liaisons_, which is an error of addition,
and also because it is believed that one proved _liaison_ excludes
another, which is a different sort of mistake. Two people may say, "I
know X's mistress," and each be pronouncing a different name, yet
neither be wrong. A woman one loves rarely suffices for all our needs,
so we deceive her with another whom we do not love. As to the kind of
love which Saint-Loup had inherited from M. de Charlus, the husband
who is inclined that way generally makes his wife happy. This is a
general law, to which the Guermantes were exceptions, because those of
them who had that taste wanted people to believe they were
women-lovers and, advertising themselves with one or another, caused
the despair of their wives. The Courvoisiers acted more sensibly. The
young Vicomte de Courvoisier believed himself the only person on earth
and since the beginning of the world to be tempted by one of his own
sex. Imagining that the preference came to him from the devil, he
fought against it and married a charming woman by whom he had several
children. Then one of his cousins taught him that the practice was
fairly common, even went to the length of taking him to places where
he could satisfy it. M. de Courvoisier only loved his wife the more
for this and redoubled his uxorious zeal so that the couple were cited
as the best _ménage_ in Paris. As much could not be said for
Saint-Loup, because Robert, not content with invertion, caused his
wife endless jealousy by running after mistresses without getting any
pleasure from them.

It is possible that Morel, being exceedingly dark, was necessary to
Saint-Loup, as shadow is to sunlight. In this ancient family, one
could well imagine a _grand seigneur_, blonde, golden, intelligent,
dowered with every prestige, acquiring and retaining in the depths of
his being, a secret taste, unknown to everyone, for negroes. Robert,
moreover, never allowed conversation to touch his peculiar kind of
love affair. If I said a word he would answer, with a detachment that
caused his eye-glass to fall, "Oh! I don't know, I haven't an idea
about such things. If you want information about them, my dear fellow,
I advise you to go to someone else. I am a soldier, nothing more. I'm
as indifferent to matters of that kind as I am passionately interested
in the Balkan Wars. Formerly the history of battles interested you. In
those days I told you we should again witness typical battles, even
though the conditions were completely different, such, for instance,
as the great attempt of envelopment by the wing in the Battle of Ulm.
Well, special as those Balkan Wars may be, Lullé Burgas is again Ulm,
envelopment by the wing. Those are matters you can talk to me about.
But I know no more about the sort of thing you are alluding to than I
do about Sanscrit." On the other hand, when he had gone, Gilberte
referred voluntarily to the subjects Robert thus disdained when we
talked together. Certainly not in connection with her husband, for she
was unaware, or pretended to be unaware, of everything. But she
enlarged willingly upon them when they concerned other people, whether
because she saw in their case a sort of indirect excuse for Robert or
whether, divided like his uncle between a severe silence on these
subjects and an urge to pour himself out and to slander, he had been
able to instruct her very thoroughly about them. Amongst those alluded
to, no one was less spared than M. de Charlus; doubtless this was
because Robert, without talking to Gilberte about Morel, could not
help repeating to her in one form or another what had been told him by
the violinist who pursued his former benefactor with his hatred. These
conversations which Gilberte affected, permitted me to ask her if in
similar fashion Albertine, whose name I had for the first time heard
on her lips when the two were school friends, had the same tastes.
Gilberte refused to give me this information. For that matter, it had
for a long time ceased to afford me the slightest interest. Yet I
continued to concern myself mechanically about it, just like an old
man who has lost his memory now and then wants news of his dead son.

Another day I returned to the charge and asked Gilberte again if
Albertine loved women. "Oh, not at all," she answered. "But you
formerly said that she was very bad form." "I said that? You must be
mistaken. In any case, if I did say it--but you are mistaken--I was on
the contrary speaking of little love affairs with boys and, at that
age, those don't go very far."

Did Gilberte say this to hide that she herself, according to
Albertine, loved women and had made proposals to her, or (for others
are often better informed about our life than we think) did Gilberte
know that I had loved and been jealous of Albertine and (others being
apt to know more of the truth than we believe, exaggerating it and so
erring by excessive suppositions, while we were hoping they were
mistaken through lack of any supposition at all) did she imagine that
I was so still, and was she, out of kindness, blind-folding me which
one is always ready to do to jealous people? In any case, Gilberte's
words, since the "bad form" of former days leading to the certificate
of moral life and habits of to-day, followed an inverse course to the
affirmations of Albertine, who had almost come to avowing
half-relationship with Gilberte herself. Albertine had astonished me
in this, as had also what Andrée told me, for, respecting the whole of
that little band, I had at first, before knowing its perversity,
convinced myself that my suspicions were unjustified, as happens so
often when one discovers an innocent girl, almost ignorant of the
realities of life, in a milieu which one had wrongly supposed the most
depraved. Afterwards I retraced my steps in the contrary sense,
accepting my original suspicions as true. And perhaps Albertine told
me all this so as to appear more experienced than she was and to
astonish me with the prestige of her perversity in Paris, as at first
by the prestige of her virtue at Balbec. So, quite simply, when I
spoke to her about women who loved women, she answered as she did, in
order not to seem to be unaware of what I meant, as in a conversation
one assumes an understanding air when somebody talks of Fourrier or of
Tobolsk without even knowing what these names mean. She had perhaps
associated with the friend of Mlle Vinteuil and with Andrée, isolated
from them by an air-tight partition and, while they believed she was
not one of them, she only informed herself afterwards (as a woman who
marries a man of letters seeks to cultivate herself) in order to
please me, by enabling herself to answer my questions, until she
realised that the questions were inspired by jealousy when, unless
Gilberte was lying to me, she reversed the engine. The idea came to
me, that it was because Robert had learnt from her in the course of a
flirtation of the kind that interested him, that she, Gilberte, did
not dislike women, that he married her, hoping for pleasures which he
ought not to have looked for at home since he obtained them elsewhere.
None of these hypotheses were absurd, for in the case of women such as
Odette's daughter or of the girls of the little band there is such a
diversity, such an accumulation of alternating tastes, that if they
are not simultaneous, they pass easily from a _liaison_ with a woman
to a passion for a man, so much so that it becomes difficult to define
their real and dominant taste. Thus Albertine had sought to please me
in order to make me marry her but she had abandoned the project
herself because of my undecided and worrying disposition. It was in
this too simple form that I j udged my affair with Albertine at a time
when I only saw it from the outside.

What is curious and what I am unable wholly to grasp, is that about
that period all those who had loved Albertine, all those who would
have been able to make her do what they wanted, asked, entreated, I
would even say, implored me, failing my friendship, at least, to have
some sort of relations with them. It would have been no longer
necessary to offer money to Mme Bontemps to send me Alber-tine. This
return of life, coming when it was no longer any use, profoundly
saddened me, not on account of Albertine whom I would have received
without pleasure if she had been brought to me, not only from Touraine
but from the other world, but because of a young woman whom I loved
and whom I could not manage to see. I said to myself that if she died
or if I did not love her any more, all those who would have been able
to bring her to me would have fallen at my feet. Meanwhile, I
attempted in vain to work upon them, not being cured by experience
which ought to have taught me, if it ever taught anyone anything, that
to love is a bad fate like that in fairy stories, against which
nothing avails until the enchantment has ceased.

"I've just reached a point," Gilberte continued, "in the book which I
have here where it speaks of these things. It's an old Balzac I'm
raking over to be on equal terms with my uncles, _La Fille aux yeux
d'Or_, but it's incredible, a beautiful nightmare. Maybe a woman can
be controlled in that way by another woman, but never by a man." "You
are mistaken, I knew a woman who was loved by a man who veritably
succeeded in isolating her; she could never see anyone and only went
out with trusted servants." "Indeed! How that must have horrified you
who are so kind. Just recently Robert and I were saying you ought to
get married, your wife would cure you and make you happy." "No, I've
got too bad a disposition." "What nonsense." "I assure you I have. For
that matter I have been engaged, but I could not marry."

I did not want to borrow _La Fille aux yeux d'Or_ from Gilberte
because she was reading it, but on the last evening that I stayed with
her, she lent me a book which produced a lively and mingled impression
upon me. It was a volume of the unpublished diary of the Goncourts. I
was sad that last evening, in going up to my room, to think that I had
never gone back one single time to see the Church of Combray which
seemed to be awaiting me in the midst of greenery framed in the
violet-hued window. I said to myself, "Well, it must be another year,
if I do not die between this and then," seeing no other obstacle but
my death and not imagining that of the church, which, it seemed to me,
must last long after my death as it had lasted long before' my birth.
When, before blowing out my candle, I read the passage which I
transcribe further on, my lack of aptitude for writing--presaged
formerly during my walks on the Guermantes side, confirmed during the
visit of which this was the last evening, those eyes of departure,
when the routine of habits which are about to end is ceasing and
one begins to judge oneself--seemed to me less regrettable; it was as
though literature revealed no profound truth while at the same time it
seemed sad that it was not what I believed it. The infirm state which
was to confine me in a sanatorium seemed less regrettable to me if the
beautiful things of which books speak were no more beautiful than
those I had seen. But, by a strange contradiction, now that this book
spoke of them, I longed to see them. Here are the pages which I read
until fatigue closed my eyes.


"The day before yesterday, who should drop in here, to take me to
dinner with him but Verdurin, the former critic of the _Revue_, author
of that book on Whistler in which truly the doings, the artistic
atmosphere of that highly original American are often rendered with
great delicacy by that lover of all the refinements, of all the
prettinesses of the thing painted which Verdurin is. And while I dress
myself to follow him, every now and then, he gives vent to a regular
recitation, like the frightened spelling out of a confession by
Fromentin on his renunciation of writing immediately after his
marriage with 'Madeleine', a renunciation which was said to be due to
his habit of taking morphine, the result of which, according to
Verdurin, was that the majority of the habitués of his wife's salon,
not even knowing that her husband had ever written, spoke to him of
Charles Blanc, St. Victor, St. Beuve, and Burty, to whom they
believed him completely inferior. 'You Goncourt, you well know, and
Gautier knew also that my "Salons" was a very different thing from
those pitiable "Maîtres d'autrefois" believed to be masterpieces in my
wife's family.' Then, by twilight, while the towers of the Trocadero
were lit up with the last gleams of the setting sun which made them
look just like those covered with currant jelly of the old-style
confectioners, the conversation continues in the carriage on our way
to the Quai Conti where their mansion is, which its owner claims to be
the ancient palace of the Ambassadors of Venice and where there is
said to be a smoking-room of which Verdurin talks as though it were
the drawing-room, transported just as it was in the fashion of the
_Thousand and One Nights_, of a celebrated Palazzo, of which I forget
the name, a Palazzo with a well-head representing the crowning of the
Virgin which Verdurin asserts to be absolutely the finest of
Sansovinos and which is used by their guests to throw their cigar
ashes into. And, _ma foi_, when we arrive, the dull green diffusion
of moonlight, verily like that under which classical painting shelters
Venice and under which the silhouetted cupola of the Institute makes
one think of the Salute in the pictures of Guardi, I have somewhat the
illusion of being beside the Grand Canal, the illusion reinforced by
the construction of the mansion, where from the first floor, one does
not see the quay, and by the effective remark of the master of the
house, who affirms that the name of the rue du Bac--I am hanged if I
had ever thought of it--came from the ferry upon which the religious
of former days, the Miramiones, went to mass at Notre Dame. I took to
reloving the whole quarter where I wandered in my youth when my Aunt
de Courmont lived there on finding almost contiguous to the mansion of
Verdurin, the sign of 'Petit Dunkerque', one of those rare shops
surviving otherwise than vignetted in the chalks and rubbings of
Gabriel de St. Aubin in which that curious eighteenth century
individual came in and seated himself during his moments of idleness
to bargain about pretty little French and foreign 'trifles' and the
newest of everything produced by Art as a bill-head of the 'Petit
Dunkerque' has it, a bill-head of which I believe we alone, Verdurin
and I, possess an example and which is one of those shuttle-cock
masterpieces of ornamented paper upon which, in the reign of Louis XV
accounts were delivered, with its title-head representing a raging sea
swarming with ships, a sea with waves which had the appearance of an
illustration in the _Edition des Fermiers Généraux de l'Huître et des
Plaideurs_. The mistress of the house, who places me beside her, says
amiably that she has decorated her table with nothing but Japanese
chrysanthemums but these chrysanthemums are disposed in vases which
are the rarest works of art, one of them of bronze upon which petals
of red copper seemed to be the living eflorescence of the flower.
There is Cottard the doctor, and his wife, the Polish sculptor
Viradobetski, Swann the collector, a Russian _grande dame_, a Princess
with a golden name which escapes me, and Cottard whispers in my ear
that it is she who had shot point blank at the Archduke Rudolf.
According to her I have an absolutely exceptional literary position in
Galicia and in the whole north of Poland, a girl in those parts never
consenting to promise her hand without knowing if her betrothed is an
admirer of La Faustin.

"'You cannot understand, you western people,' exclaims by way of
conclusion the princess who gives me the impression, _ma foi_, of an
altogether superior intelligence, 'that penetration by a writer into
the intimate life of a woman.' A man with shaven chin and lips, with
whiskers like a butler, beginning with that tone of condescension of a
secondary professor preparing first form boys for the
Saint-Charlemagne, that is Brichot, the university don. When my name
was mentioned by Verdurin he did not say a word to show that he knew
our books, which means for me anger, discouragement aroused by this
conspiracy the Sorbonne organises against us, bringing contradiction
and hostile silence even into the charming house where I am being
entertained. We proceed to table and there is then an extraordinary
procession of plates which are simply masterpieces of the art of the
porcelain-maker. The connoisseur, whose attention is delicately
tickled during the dainty repast, listens all the more complacently to
the artistic chatter--while before him pass plates of Yung Tsching
with their nasturtium rims yielding to the bluish centre with its rich
flowering of the water-iris, a really decorative passage with its
dawn-flight of kingfishers and cranes, a dawn with just that matutinal
tone which I gaze at lazily when I awake daily at the Boulevard
Montmorency--Dresden plates more finical in the grace of their
fashioning, whether in the sleepy anemia of their roses turning to
violet in the crushed wine-lees of a tulip or with their rococo design
of carnation and myosotis. Plates of Sevres trellissed by the delicate
vermiculation of their white fluting, ver-ticillated in gold or bound
upon the creamy plane of their _pâte tendre_ by the gay relief of a
golden ribbon, finally a whole service of silver on which are
displayed those Lucinian myrtles which Dubarry would recognise. And
what is perhaps equally rare is the really altogether remarkable
quality of the things which are served in it, food delicately
manipulated, a stew such as the Parisians, one can shout that aloud,
never have at their grandest dinners and which reminds me of certain
_cordons bleus_ of Jean d'Heurs. Even the _foie gras_ has no relation
to the tasteless froth which is generally served under that name, and
I do not know many places where a simple potato salad is thus made
with potatoes having the firmness of a Japanese ivory button and the
patina of those little ivory spoons with which the Chinese pour water
on the fish that they have just caught. A rich red bejewelling is
given to the Venetian goblet which stands before me by an amazing
Léoville bought at the sale of M. Montalivet and it is a delight for
the imagination and for the eye, I do not fear to say it, for the
imagination of what one formerly called the jaw, to have served to one
a brill which has nothing in common with that kind of stale brill
served on the most luxurious tables which has received on its back the
imprint of its bones during the delay of the journey, a brill not
accompanied by that sticky glue generally called _sauce blanche_ by so
many of the chefs in great houses, but by a veritable _sauce blanche_
made out of butter at five francs the pound; to see this brill in a
wonderful Tching Hon dish graced by the purple rays of a setting sun
on a sea which an amusing band of lobsters is navigating, their rough
tentacles so realistically pictured that they seem to have been
modelled upon the living carapace, a dish of which the handle is a
little Chinaman catching with his line a fish which makes the silvery
azure of his stomach an enchantment of mother o' pearl. As I speak to
Verdurin of the delicate satisfaction it must be for him to have this
refined repast amidst a collection which no prince possesses at the
present time, the mistress of the house throws me the melancholy
remark: 'One sees how little you know him,' and she speaks of her
husband as a whimsical oddity, indifferent to all these beauties, 'an
oddity' she repeats, 'that's the word, who has more gusto for a bottle
of cider drunk in the rough coolness of a Norman farm.' And the
charming woman, in a tone which is really in love with the colours of
the country, speaks to us with overflowing enthusiasm of that Normandy
where they have lived, a Normandy which must be like an enormous
English park, with the fragrance of its high woodlands _à la_
Lawrence, with its velvet cryptomeria in their enamelled borders of
pink hortensia, with its natural lawns diversified by sulphur-coloured
roses falling over a rustic gateway flanked by two intertwined
pear-trees resembling with its free-falling and flowering branches the
highly ornamental insignia of a bronze applique by Gauthier, a
Normandy which must be absolutely unsuspected by Parisians on holiday,
protected as it is by the barrier of each of its enclosures, barriers
which the Verdurins confess to me they did not commit the crime of
removing. At the close of day, as the riot of colour was sleepily
extinguished and light only came from the sea curdled almost to a
skim-milk blue. 'Ah! Not the sea you know--' protests my hostess
energetically in answer to my remark that Flaubert had taken my
brother and me to Trouville, 'That is nothing, absolutely nothing. You
must come with me, without that you will never know'--they would go
back through real forests of pink-tulle flowers of the rhododendrons,
intoxicated with the scent of the gardens, which gave her husband
abominable attacks of asthma. 'Yes,' she insisted, 'it is true, real
crises of asthma.' Afterwards, the following summer, they returned,
housing a whole colony of artists in an admirable dwelling of the
Middle Ages, an ancient cloister leased by them for nothing, and _ma
foi_, listening to this woman who after moving in so many
distinguished circles, had yet kept some of that freedom of speech of
a woman of the people, a speech which shows you things with the colour
imagination gives to them, my mouth watered at the thought of the life
which she confessed to living down there, each one working in his cell
or in the salon which was so large that it had two fireplaces.
Everyone came in before luncheon for altogether superior conversation
interspersed with parlour games, reminding me of those evoked by that
masterpiece of Diderot, his letters to Mlle Volland. Then after
luncheon everyone went out, even on days of sunny showers, when the
sparkling of the raindrops luminously filtering through the knots of a
magnificent avenue of centenarian beechtrees which offered in front of
the gates the vista of growth dear to the eighteenth century, and
shrubs bearing drops of rain on their flowering buds suspended on
their boughs, lingering to watch the delicate dabbling of a bullfinch
enamoured of coolness, bathing itself in the tiny nymphembourg basin
shaped like the corolla of a white rose. And as I talk to Mme Verdurin
of the landscapes and of the flowers down there, so delicately
pastelled by Elstir: 'But it is I who made all that known to him,' she
exclaims with an indignant lifting of the head, 'everything, you
understand; wonder-provoking nooks, all his themes; I threw them in
his face when he left us, didn't I, Auguste? All those themes he has
painted. Objects he always knew, to be fair, one must admit that. But
flowers he had never seen; no, he did not know the difference between
a marsh-mallow and a hollyhock. It was I who taught him, you will
hardly believe me, to recognise the jasmine.' And it is, one must
admit, a strange reflection that the painter of flowers, whom the
connoisseurs of to-day cite to us as the greatest, superior even to
Fantin-Latour, would perhaps never have known how to paint jasmine
without the woman who was beside me. 'Yes, upon my word, the jasmine;
all the roses he produced were painted while he was staying with me,
if I did not bring them to him myself. At our house we just called him
"M. Tiche". Ask Cottard or Brichot or any of them if he was ever
treated here as a great man. He would have laughed at it himself. I
taught him how to arrange his flowers; at the beginning he had no idea
of it. He never knew how to make a bouquet. He had no natural taste
for selection. I had to say to him, "No, do not paint that; it is not
worth while, paint this." Oh! If he had listened to us for the
arrangement of his life as he did for the arrangement of his flowers,
and if he had not made that horrible marriage!' And abruptly, with
eyes fevered by their absorption in a reverie of the past, with a
nerve-racked gesture, she stretched forth her arms with a frenzied
cracking of the joints from the silk sleeves of her bodice, and
twisted her body into a suffering pose like some admirable picture
which I believe has never been painted, wherein all the pent-up
revolt, all the enraged susceptibilities of a friend outraged in her
delicacy and in her womanly modesty can be read. Upon that she talks
to us about the admirable portrait which Elstir made for her, a
portrait of the Collard family, a portrait given by her to the
Luxembourg when she quarrelled with the painter, confessing that it
was she who had given him the idea of painting the man in evening
dress in order to obtain that beautiful expanse of linen, and she who
chose the velvet dress of the woman, a dress offering support in the
midst of all the fluttering of the light shades of the curtains, of
the flowers, of the fruit, of the gauze dresses of the little girls
like ballet-dancers' skirts. It was she, too, who gave him the idea of
painting her in the act of arranging her hair, an idea for which the
artist was afterwards honoured, which consisted, in short, in painting
the woman, not as though on show, but surprised in the intimacy of her
everyday life. 'I said to him, "When a woman is doing her hair or
wiping her face, or warming her feet, she knows she is not being seen,
she executes a number of interesting movements, movements of an
altogether Leonardolike grace."' But upon a sign from Verdurin,
indicating that the arousing of this state of indignation was
unhealthy for that highly-strung creature which his wife was, Swann
drew my admiring attention to the necklace of black pearls worn by the
mistress of the house and bought by her quite white at the sale of a
descendant of Mme de La Fayette to whom they had been given by
Henrietta of England, pearls which had become black as the result of a
fire which destroyed part of the house in which the Verdurins were
living in a street the name of which I can no longer remember, a fire
after which the casket containing the pearls was found but they had
become entirely black. 'And I know the portrait of those pearls on
the very shoulders of Mme de La Fayette, yes, exactly so, their
portrait,' insisted Swann in the face of the somewhat wonderstruck
exclamations of the guests. 'Their authentic portrait, in the
collection of the Duc de Guermantes. A collection which has not its
equal in the world,' he asserts and that I ought to go and see it, a
collection inherited by the celebrated Duc who was the favourite
nephew of Mme de Beausergent his aunt, of that Mme de Beausergent who
afterwards became Mme d'Hayfeld, sister of the Marquise de
Villeparisis and of the Princess of Hanover. My brother and I used to
be so fond of him in old days when he was a charming boy called Basin,
which as a matter of fact, is the first name of the Duc. Upon that,
Doctor Cottard, with that delicacy which reveals the man of
distinction, returns to the history of the pearls and informs us that
catastrophes of that kind produce in the mind of people distortions
similar to those one remarks in organic matter and relates in really
more philosophical terms than most physicians can command, how the
footman of Mme Verdurin herself, through the horror of this fire where
he nearly perished, had become a different man, his hand-writing
having so changed that on seeing the first letter which his masters,
then in Normandy, received from him, announcing the event, they
believed it was the invention of a practical joker. And not only was
his handwriting different, Cottard asserts that from having been a
completely sober man he had become an abominable drunkard whom Mme
Verdurin had been obliged to discharge. This suggestive dissertation
continued, on a gracious sign from the mistress of the house, from the
dining-room into the Venetian smoking-room where Cottard told me he
had witnessed actual duplications of personality, giving as example
the case of one of his patients whom he amiably offers to bring to see
me, in whose case Cottard has merely to touch his temples to usher him
into a second life, a life in which he remembers nothing of the other,
so much so that, a very honest man in this one, he had actually been
arrested several times for thefts committed in the other during which
he had been nothing less than a disgraceful scamp. Upon which Mme
Verdurin acutely remarks that medicine could furnish subjects truer
than a theatre where the humour of an imbroglio is founded upon
pathological mistakes, which from thread to needle brought Mme Cottard
to relate that a similar notion had been made use of by an amateur who
is the prime favourite at her children's evening parties, the
Scotchman Stevenson, a name which forced from Swann the peremptory
affirmation: 'But Stevenson is a great writer, I can assure you, M. de
Goncourt, a very great one, equal to the greatest.' And upon my
marvelling at the escutcheoned panels of the ceiling in the room where
we are smoking, panels which came from the ancient Palazzo Barberini,
I express my regret at the progressive darkening of a certain vase
through the ashes of our _londrès_, Swann having recounted that
similar stains on the leaves of certain books attest their having
belonged to Napoleon I, books owned, despite his anti-Bonapartist
opinions by the Duc de Guermantes, owing to the fact that the Emperor
chewed tobacco, Cottard, who reveals himself as a man of penetrating
curiosity in all matters, declares that these stains do not come at
all from that: 'Believe me, not at all,' he insists with authority,
'but from his habit of having always near at hand, even on the field
of battle, some pastilles of Spanish liquorice to calm his liver
pains. For he had a disease of the liver and it is of that he died,'
concluded the doctor."


I stopped my reading there for I was leaving the following day,
moreover, it was an hour when the other master claimed me, he under
whose orders we are for half our time. We accomplish the task to which
he obliges us with our eyes closed. Every morning he surrenders us to
our other master knowing that otherwise we should be unable to yield
ourselves to his service. It would be curious, when our spirit has
reopened its eyes, to know what we could have been doing under that
master who clouds the minds of his slaves before putting them to his
immediate business. The most cunning, before their task is finished,
try to peep out surreptitiously. But slumber speedily struggles to
efface the traces of what they long to see. And, after all these
centuries we know little about it. So I closed the Goncourt journal.
Glamour of literature! I wanted to see the Cottards again, to ask them
so many details about Elstir, I wanted to go and see if the "Petit
Dunkerque" shop still existed, to ask permission to visit that mansion
of the Verdurins where I had dined. But I experienced a vague
apprehension. Certainly I did not disguise from myself that I had
never known how to listen nor, when I was with others, to observe; to
my eyes no old woman exhibited a pearl necklace and my ears heard
nothing that was said about it. Nevertheless, I had known these
people in my ordinary life, I had often dined with them; whether it
was the Verdurins, or the Guermantes, or the Cottards, each had seemed
to me as commonplace as did that Basin to my grandmother who little
supposed he was the beloved nephew, the charming young hero, of Mme de
Beausergent. All had seemed to me insipid; I remembered the
numberless vulgarities of which each one was composed.... "_Et que
tout cela fît un astre dans la nuit_!"


I resolved to put aside provisionally the objections against
literature which these pages of Goncourt had aroused in me. Apart from
the peculiarly striking naivete of the memoir-writer, I was able to
reassure myself from different points of view. To begin with, in
regard to myself, the inability to observe and to listen of which the
journal I have quoted had so painfully reminded me was not complete.
There was in me a personage who more or less knew how to observe but
he was an intermittent personage who only came to life when some
general essence common to many things which are its nourishment and
its delight, manifested itself. Then the personage remarked and
listened, but only at a certain depth and in such a manner that
observation did not profit. Like a geometrician who in divesting
things of their material qualities, only sees their linear substratum,
what people said escaped me, for that which interested me was not what
they wanted to say but the manner in which they said it in so far as
it revealed their characters or their absurdities. Or rather that was
an object which had always been my particular aim because I derived
specific pleasure from identifying the denominator common to one
person and another. It was only when I perceived it that my
mind--until then dozing even behind the apparent activity of my
conversation the animation of which masked to the outside world a
complete mental torpor--started all at once joyously in chase, but
that which it then pursued--for example the identity of the Verdurin's
salon at diverse places and periods--was situated at half-depth,
beyond actual appearance, in a zone somewhat withdrawn. Also the
obvious transferable charm of people escaped me because I no longer
retained the faculty of confining myself to it, like the surgeon who,
beneath the lustre of a female abdomen, sees the internal disease
which is consuming it. It was all very well for me to go out to
dinner. I did not see the guests because when I thought I was
observing them I was radiographing them. From that it resulted that in
collating all the observations I had been able to make about the
guests in the course of a dinner, the design of the lines traced by me
would form a unity of psychological laws in which the interest
pertaining to the discourse of a particular guest occupied no place
whatever. But were my portraits denuded of all merit because I did
not compose them merely as portraits? If in the domain of painting one
portrait represents truths relative to volume, to light, to movement,
does that necessarily make it inferior to another quite dissimilar
portrait of the same person in which, a thousand details omitted in
the first will be minutely related to each other, a second portrait
from which it would be concluded that the model was beautiful while
that of the first would be considered ugly, which might have a
documentary and even historical importance but might not necessarily
be an artistic truth. Again my frivolity the moment when I was with
others, made me anxious to please and I desired more to amuse people
with my chatter than to learn from listening unless I went out to
interrogate someone upon a point of art or unless some jealous
suspicion preoccupied me. But I was incapable of seeing a thing unless
a desire to do so had been aroused in me by reading; unless it was a
thing of which I wanted a previous sketch to confront later with
reality. Even had that page of the Goncourts not enlightened me, I
knew how often I had been unable to give my attention to things or to
people, whom afterwards, once their image had been presented to me in
solitude by an artist, I would have gone leagues and risked death to
rediscover. Then my imagination started to work, had begun to paint.
And the very thing I had yawned at the year before I desired when I
again contemplated it and with anguish said to myself, "Can I never
see it again? What would I not give for it?" When one reads articles
about people, even about mere society people, qualifying them as "the
last representatives of a society of which there is no other living
witness", doubtless some may exclaim, "to think that he says so much
about so insignificant a person and praises him as he does", but it is
precisely such a man I should have deplored not having known if I had
only read papers and reviews and if I had never seen the man himself
and I was more inclined, in reading such passages in the papers, to
think, "What a pity! And all I cared about then was getting hold of
Gilberte and Albertine and I paid no attention to that gentleman whom
I simply took for a society bore, for a pure façade, a marionnette."
The pages of the Goncourt Journal that I had read made me regret that
attitude. For perhaps I might have concluded from them that life
teaches one to minimise the value of reading and shows us that what
the writer exalts for us is not worth much; but I could equally well
conclude the contrary, that reading enhances the value of life, a
value we have not realised until books make us aware of how great that
value is. Strictly, we can console ourselves for not having much
enjoyed the society of a Vinteuil or of a Bergotte, because the
awkward middleclassness of the one, the unbearable defects of the
other prove nothing against them, since their genius is manifested by
their works; and the same applies to the pretentious vulgarity of an
Elstir in early days. Thus the journal of the Goncourts made me
discover that Elstir was none other than the "M. Tiche" who had once
inflicted upon Swann such exasperating lectures at the Verdurins. But
what man of genius has not adopted the irritating conversational
manner of artists of his own circle before acquiring (as Elstir did,
though it happens rarely) superior taste. Are not the letters of
Balzac, for instance, smeared with vulgar terms which Swann would
rather have died than use? And yet, it is probable that Swann, so
sensitive, so completely exempt from every dislikeable idiosyncrasy,
would have been incapable of writing _Cousine Bette_ and _Le Curé de
Tours_. Therefore, whether or no memoirs are wrong to endow with charm
a society which has displeased us, is a problem of small importance,
since, even if the writer of these memoirs is mistaken, that proves
nothing against the value of a society which produces such genius and
which existed no less in the works of Vinteuil, of Elstir and of
Bergotte.

Quite at the other extremity of experience, when I remarked that the
very curious anecdotes which are the inexhaustible material of the
journal of the Goncourts and a diversion for solitary evenings, had
been related to him by those guests whom in reading his pages we
should have envied him knowing, it was not so very difficult to
explain why they had left no trace of interesting memory in my mind.
In spite of the ingenuousness of Goncourt, who supposed that the
interest of these anecdotes lay in the distinction of the man who told
them, it can very well be that mediocre people might have experienced
during their lives or heard tell of curious things which they related
in their turn. Goncourt knew how to listen as he knew how to observe,
and I do not. Moreover, it was necessary to judge all these happenings
one by one. M. de Guermantes certainly had not given me the
impression of that adorable model of juvenile grace whom my
grandmother so much wanted to know and set before my eyes as
inimitable according to the _Mémoires of Mme de Beausergent_. One must
remember that Basin was at that time seven years old, that the writer
was his aunt and that even husbands who are going to divorce their
wives a few months later are loud in praise of them. One of the most
charming poems of Sainte-Beuve is consecrated to the apparition beside
a fountain of a young child crowned with gifts and graces, the
youthful Mlle de Champlâtreux who was not more than ten years old. In
spite of all the tender veneration felt by that poet of genius, the
Comtesse de Noailles, for her mother-in-law the Duchesse de Noailles,
born Champlâtreux, it is possible, if she were to paint her portrait,
that it would contrast rather piquantly with the one Sainte-Beuve drew
fifty years earlier.

What may perhaps be regarded as more disturbing, is something in
between, personages in whose case what is said implies more than a
memory which is able to retain a curious anecdote yet without one's
having, as in the case of the Vinteuils, the Bergottes, the resource
of judging them by their work; they have not created, they have
only--to our great astonishment, for we found them so
mediocre--inspired. Again it happens that the salon > which, in public
galleries, gives the greatest impression of elegance in great
paintings of the Renaissance and onwards, is that of a little
ridiculous bourgeoise whom after seeing the picture, I might, if I had
not known her, have yearned to approach in the flesh, hoping to learn
from her precious secrets that the painter's art did not reveal to me
in his canvas, though her majestic velvet train and laces formed a
passage of painting comparable to the most splendid of Titians. If
only in bygone days I had understood that it is not the wittiest man,
the best educated, the man with the best social relationships who
becomes a Bergotte but he who knows how to become a mirror and is
thereby enabled to reflect his own life, however commonplace, (though
his contemporaries might consider him less gifted than Swann and less
erudite than Bréauté) and one can say the same, with still more
reason, of an artist's models. The awakening of love of beauty in the
artist who can paint everything may be stimulated, the elegance in
which he could find such beautiful motifs may be supplied, by people
rather richer than himself--at whose houses he would find what he was
not accustomed to in his studio of an unknown genius selling his
canvases for fifty francs; for instance, a drawing-room upholstered in
old silk, many lamps, beautiful flowers and fruit, handsome
dresses--relatively modest folk, (or who would appear that to people
of fashion who are not even aware of the others' existence) who for
that very reason are more in a position to make the acquaintance of an
obscure artist, to appreciate him, to invite him and buy his pictures,
than aristocrats who get themselves painted like a Pope or a Prime
Minister by academic painters. Would not the poetry of an elegant
interior and of the beautiful dresses of our period be discovered by
posterity in the drawing-room of the publisher Charpentier by Renoir
rather than in the portrait of the Princesse de Sagan or of the
Comtesse de La Rochefoucauld by Cotte or Chaplin? The artists who have
given us the most resplendent visions of elegance have collected the
elements at the homes of people who were rarely the leaders of fashion
of their period; for the latter are seldom painted by the unknown
depositary of a beauty they are unable to distinguish on his canvases,
disguised as it is by the interposition of a vulgar burlesque of
superannuated grace which floats before the public eye in the same way
as the subjective visions which an invalid believes are actually
before him. But that these mediocre models whom I had known could have
inspired, advised certain arrangements which had enchanted me, that
the presence of such an one of them in the picture was less that of a
model, than of a friend whom a painter wishes to figure in his canvas,
was like asking oneself whether we regret not having known all these
personages because Balzac painted them in his books or dedicated his
books to them as the homage of his admiration, to whom Sainte-Beuve or
Baudelaire wrote their loveliest verses, still more if all the
Récamiers, all the Pompadours would not have seemed to me
insignificant people, whether owing to a temperamental defect which
made me resent being ill and unable to return and see the people I had
misjudged, or because they might only owe their prestige to the
illusory magic of literature which forced me to change my standard of
values and consoled me for being obliged from one day to the other, on
account of the progress which my illness was making, to break with
society, renounce travel and going to galleries and museums in order
that I could be nursed in a sanatorium. Perhaps, however, this
deceptive side, this artificial illumination, only exists in memoirs
when they are too recent, too close to reputations, whether
intellectual or fashionable, which will quickly vanish, (and if
erudition then tries to react against this burial, will it succeed in
dispelling one out of a thousand of these oblivions which keep on
accumulating?)

These ideas tending some to diminish, others to increase my regret
that I had no gift for literature, no longer occupied my mind during
the long years I spent as an invalid in a sanatorium far from Paris
and I had altogether renounced the project of writing until the
sanatorium was unable to find a medical staff at the beginning of
1916. I then returned, as will be seen, to a very different Paris from
the Paris where I returned in August, 1914, when I underwent medical
examination, after which I went back to the sanatorium.

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