Moncrieff: 385-397; Grieve: 283-293
by Dennis Abrams
The changing seascape outside Marcel’s window. “But before all of this I had drawn back my curtains, impatient to know what Sea it was that was playing that morning by the shore, like a Nereid. For none of those Seas ever stayed with us longer than a day. The next day there would be another, which sometimes resembled its predecessor. But I never saw the same one twice.” Waiting for Mme de Villeparisis, “a young page who attracted the eye no less by the unusual and harmonious colouring of his hair than by his plant-like epidermis…To stand by her carriage and to help her ought perhaps to have been part of the young page’s duties. But he knew that a person who brings her own servants to an hotel expects them to wait on her and is not as a rule lavish with her tips…” Apple blossoms. Mme de Villeparisis’ views on art and politics. “We were astonished, my grandmother and I, to find how much more ‘liberal’ she was than even the majority of the middle class…When we heard these advanced opinions — though never so far advanced as to amount to socialism, which Mme de Villeparisis held in abhorrence — expressed so frequently and with so much frankness precisely by one of those people in consideration of whose intelligence our scrupulous and timid impartiality would refuse to condemn outright the ideas of conservatives, we came very near, my grandmother and I, to believing that in the pleasant companion of our drives was to be found the measure and the pattern of truth in all things.” Mme de Villeparisis’ personal intimacy with artists and writers. Glimpses of young girls. “As to the pretty girls who went past, from the day on which I had first known that their cheeks could be kissed, I had become curious about their souls. And the universe had appeared to me more interesting.”
Who wouldn’t love to be the fourth passenger in that carriage, listening to Mme de Villeparisis speak about the writers she had known.
“Mme de Villeparisis, questioned by me about Chateaubriand, about Balzac, about Victor Hugo, each of whom in his day had been the guest of her parents and had been glimpsed by her, smiled at my reverence, told amusing anecdotes about them such as she had been telling us about dukes and statesmen, and severely criticised those writers precisely because they had been lacking in that modesty, that self-effacement, that sober art which is satisfied with a single precise stroke and does not over-emphasise, which avoids above all else that absurdity of grandiloquence, in that aptness, those qualities of moderation, of judgment and simplicty to which she had been taught that real greatness aspired and attained…
‘Like those novels of Stendhal which you seem to admire. You would have given him a great surprise, I assure you, if you had spoken to him in that tone. My father, who used to meet him at M. Merimee’s — now he was a man of talent, if you like — often told me that Beyle (that was his real name) was appallingly vulgar, but quite good company at dinner, and not in the least conceited about his books. Why, you must have seen for yourself how he just shrugged his shoulders at the absurdly extravagant compliments of M. de Balzac. There at least he showed that he knew how to behave like a gentleman.’
She possessed the autographs of all these great men, and seemed, presuming on the personal relations which her family had had with them, to think that her judgment of them must be better founded than that of young people who, like myself, had had no opportunity of meeting them. ‘I think I have a right to speak about them, since they used to come to my father’s house, and as M. Sainte-Beuve, who was a most intelligent man, used to say, in forming an estimate you must take the word of people who saw them close to and were able to judge more exactly their real worth.'”
I find her name-dropping charming, despite the fact that what she says about needing to know the author personally to understand their true worth flies in the face of what we know or at least believe to be true (Bergotte for our prime example). Still, Brian Rogers in his essay “Proust’s Narrator,” from The Cambridge Companion to Proust, had this to say about her, which contains references to some things that will be coming up shortly in our reading.
“Many of the portraits in A la recherche, like the description of places and events, contain coded references to writers the Narrator is reading or has read and to painters and musicians to whom he is drawn. One of the functions of the subterranean language of quotation in the novel is to highlight the influence, good or bad, the predecessors of the future novelist exert on his vocation and, in particular, on the evolution of the style which will express his vision. The venerable Marquise de Villeparisis, for example, is a mirror containing among other things the dangerous reflection of Sainte-Beuve’s criticism and his false conception of art. Her advice to the Narrator during their rides in the countryside around Balbec to be wary of Vigny, Balzac and Musset is a parody of the nineteenth century critic’s Causeries du lundi, while the tone of her rebuke and the inflexions of her voice are a pastiche of Sainte-Beuve’s friend and admirer, Mme de Boigne, whose Memoires Proust had read and criticised in 1907. The verve with which the old lady debunks Chateubriand is a mixture of the anecdotal criticism Proust condemned in his Contre Sainte-Beuve and the spiteful reminiscences of Mme de Boigne. The story the Marquise tells of Chateaubriand’s celebrated evocations of moonlight is the rewriting of the latter’s ironic chronicle of a real social occasion on which the poet gave a reading of Les Abencerages…her intention being like that of Sainte-Beuve and Mme de Boigne, to destroy the reputation of the artist by criticising the man. This aspect of the Narrator’s aesthetic evolution through pastiche and cryptic allusion is still one of the least appreciated or researched features in A la recherche.
Moncrieff: Page 397 “Mme de Villeparisis’s carriage moved fast.” through Page 408 “…which we thought magnificent.”
Grieve: Page 292 “Mme de Villeparisis’s carriage went to quickly…” through Page 299 “and where one rarely saw anyone.”