Moncrieff: 39-49; Treharne: 30-38
by Dennis Abrams
Thanks to a friend of his father, Marcel has a ticket for a gala night at the Opera, with an appearance by Berma in an act of Phedre. But, “Truth to tell, I set little store by this opportunity of seeing and hearing Berma which, a few years earlier, had plunged me into such a state of agitation….since my visits to Elstir, it was on to certain tapestries, certain modern paintings that I had transferred the inner faith I had once had in the acting, the tragic art of Berma…” Climbing the grand staircase of the Opera, Marcel seems a man who he mistakenly takes for M. de Charlus. The difference in attitude between a man of the aristocracy and a man of the world of finance. “Where one of the latter would have thought he was giving proof of his exclusiveness by adopting a sharp and haughty tone in speaking to an inferior, the nobleman, affable and mild, gave the impression of considering, of practicing an affectation of humility and patience, a pretence of being just an ordinary member of the audience, as a prerogative of his good breeding.” The gentleman may be the Prince of Saxony, who Marcel knows is a close friend of the Guermantes, thereby sparking his interest. The audience members in the stalls, compared to those in the boxes. A marine analogy is used to describe the aristocratic audience in their boxes. “But in the other boxes, almost everywhere, the white deities who inhabited those sombre abodes had taken refuge against their shadow walls and remained invisible. Gradually, however, as the performance went on, their vaguely human forms detached themselves languidly one after the other from the depths of the night which they embroidered, and, raising themselves toward the light, allowed their half-naked bodies to emerge into the chiaroscuro of the surface where their gleaming faces appeared behind the playful, frothy undulations of their ostrich-feather fans, beneath their hyacinthine, pearl-studded headdresses which seemed to bend with the motion of the waves…Within the boundries of their domain, however, the radiant daughters of the sea were constantly turned to smile up at the bearded tritons who clung to the anfractuosities of the cliff, or towards some aquatic demi-god whose skull was a polished stone on which the tide had washed a smooth covering of seaweed, and his gaze a rock crystal.” “But of all these retreats…the most famous was the cube of semi-darkness known to the world as the stage box of the Princesse de Guermantes.” The comments of Marcel’s neighbor, “‘That’s the Princesse de Guermantes,’ said my neighbour to the gentleman beside her, taking care to begin the word ‘Princesse’ with a string of ‘P’s, to show that the designation was absurd. ‘She hasn’t been sparing with her pearls. I’m sure if I had as many as that I wouldn’t make such a display of them; it doesn’t look at all genteel to my mind.'” For Marcel, every mention of the Princesse brings to mind “certain sixteenth-century” masterpieces. Marcel sees magic in the way the Princesse offer’s crystalized fruits to the guests in her box. The performance of Phedre begins.
An extraordinary scene, the Narrator’s description of the theatre and its audience, with his marine images and view of the aristocrats as the gods and goddesses. For your weekend’s reading, an excerpt from Seth Wolitz’s The Proustian Community
“In the novel, the Princesse de Parme has taken over the theater for her guests, thus transforming it into a salon. But vor Marcel it is essentially an aquarium in which beautiful creatures float back and forth: ‘their brilliant faces appeared beneath the gaily breaking form of the feather fans they unfurled and lightly waved, beneath their hyacinthine locks begemmed with pearls, which the flow of time seemed to have caught and drawn with it.’ this is a poetic description which perfectly corroborates Renoir’s or Degas’ paintings of theater life.
Marcel’s aquarium, rather than being a single large fishbowl, is instead divided among social lines. The balcony and boxes are filled by the Princesse de Parme with guests who are not all members of the highest aristocratic society — witness Mme de Cambremer. But the ‘baignoires’ or boxes around the orchestra do contain the highest society. In the right-hand side box is seated the Princesse de Guermantes and the Duchesse de Guermantes as well as the Prince de Saxe. (Supposedly Comtesse Greffulhe always held this box in the Opera on Monday nights.) The highest member of the aristocracy present is the Duc d’Aumale, the last son of Louis-Phillipe, who is seated like a monarch. Mme d’Ambresac helps him take off his over coat: she ‘was envied by all the rest her being thus honored.’ This little scene reveals how the aristocrats maintained the form of serving the king or a member of the royal family and the ridiculous excitement it caused — not unlike the time Louis XIV stopped to talk with Mme de Sevigne after a Racine play and made the other courtiers jealous. It also shows that the reigning social queens like Oriane de Guermantes, of the purest and highest nobility, have gained their supreme social position in part by their own popularity and in part by the continued absence of the true political and social head of aristocratic society, the Pretender exiled at Twickenham. The Guermantes may be resplendent but the Duc d’Aumale is still ‘Monseigneur’ and they are, so to speak, his vassals. Thus Proust cleverly distinguished the aristocratic hierarchy and the aristocratic hierachy. The Duc d’Aumale is the head of the legitimate aristocracy in France, and the Duchesse de Guermantes is the social head of the aristocracy. However, an Oriane would always need the kind graces of a Duc d’Aumale, whereas he, of royal blood, is socially secure so long as the aristocratic society believes in its myth of aristocratic hierarchy.”
More to come…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 49 “But now my gaze…” through Page 69″…celestial shower of her smile.”
Treharne: Page 38 “But now my eyes were diverted…” through Page 52 “…celestial rain of her smile.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.