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 window-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 sufficiently 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 judged 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 Albertine. 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, verticillated 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 beech trees 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 Leonardo-like 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 middle-classness 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.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59