Moncrieff: 49-69; Treharne: 38-52
by Dennis Abrams
“My gaze was diverted from the Princesse de Guermantes’s box by an ill-dressed, plain little woman who came in, her eyes ablaze with indignation…” Marcel/Narrator contemplates the difference between his initial excitement on seeing Berma for the first time, and that night’s performance: “But now, like a hill which from a distance seems azure-clad but as we draw nearer returns to its place in our commonplace vision of things, all this had left the world of the absolute and was no more than a thing like other things, of which I took cognisance because I was there; the actors were people of the same substance as the people I knew, trying to declaim as well as possible these lines of Phedre which themselves no longer formed a sublime and individual essence, distinct from everything else, but were simply more or less effective lines ready to slip back into the vast corpus of Frency poetry, of which they were merely a part.” Marcel is not impressed by the scene’s opening. The little woman sitting next to Marcel, “an actress who had never tasted success,” attacks Berma. “And did you ever see such a get-up? She’s too old; she can’t do it any more; she ought to give it up.” On Berma’s appearance, Marcel finally grasps her talent. “And then, miraculously, like those lessons which we have laboured in vain to learn overnight and find intact, got by heart, on waking up next morning, and like those faces of dead friend which the impassioned efforts of our memory pursue without recapturing and which, when we are no longer thinking of them, are there before our eyes just as they were in life, the talent of Berma, which had evaded me when I sought so greedily to grasp its essence, now, after these years of oblivion, in this hour of indifference, imposed itself on my admiration with the force of self-evidence.” “…it is the really beautiful works that, if we listen to them with sincerity, must disappoint us most keenly, because in the storehouse of our ideas there is none that responds to an individual impression.” Berma performs in a modern play, and Marcel sees the common thread between her art and that of Elstir: “Not that in itself it was not destitute of all literary merit; but Berma was as sublime in it as in Phedre. I realized then that the work of the playwright was for the actress no more than the raw material, more or less irrelevant in itself, for the creation of her masterpiece of interpretation, just as the great painter whom I had met at Balbec, Elstir, had found the inspiration for two pictures of equal merit in a school building devoid of character and a cathedral which was itself a work of art.” The Duchesse de Guermantes enters the box of the Princesse de Guermantes “enveloped in a white chiffon.” A comparison between the styles of the Duchesse and the Princesse. Mme. de Cambremer, who, while not “numbered among the highest aristocratic society,” is at the Opera as a guest of the Princess de Parme “with whom she was in communication with regard to charitable undertakings.” The social aspirations of Mme de Cambremer, who “never took her eyes off the Duchesse and Princesse de Guermantes…Inclusion in the visiting lists of these two great ladies was nevertheless the goal towards which she had been striving for the last ten years with untiring patience. She had calculated that she might possibly reach it in five years more. But, having been smitten by a fatal disease…she was afraid that she might not live so long.” Mme de Cambremer contemplates the nobility of the Duchess, “And she remembered having heard Swann say in that ambiguous jargon which he shared with M. de Charlus: “The Duchess is one of the noblest souls in Paris, the cream of the most refined, the choicest society.” Marcel longs to know what the Duchess and Princesse de Guermantes thought about Berma’s performance. From her box looking down at Marcel, “the Duchess, goddess turned woman, and appearing in that moment a thousand times more lovely, raised towards me the white-gloved hand which had been resting on the balustrade of the box and waved it in token of friendship; my gaze was caught in the spontaneous incandescence of the flashing eyes of the Princess, who had unwittingly set them ablaze merely by turning her head to see who it might be that her cousin was thus greeting; and the latter, who had recognized me, poured upon me the sparkling and celestial shower of her smile.”
What an amazing section for our weekend reading, a feast for Proust lovers. First of all, Marcel’s second look and reevaluation of Berma and her art, which had me nearly breathless with excitement as we follow Marcel’s own excitement, both emotional and intellectual, as he sees in Berma what he didn’t see the first time. I love this passage:
“My impression, to tell the truth, though more agreeable than on the earlier occasion, was not really different. Only, I no longer confronted it with a pre-existent, abstract and false idea of dramatic genius, and I understood now that dramtic genius was precisely this. It had just occurred to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first encounter with Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte in the Champs-Elysees, I had come to her with too strong a desire.”
And, of course, who wouldn’t love the wonderful descriptions of the Duchesse and Princesse in their box, watching down on those below them?
“Perhaps Mme de Guermantes would smile next day when she referred to the headdress, a little too complicated, which the Princess had worn, but certainly she would declare that the latter had been none the less quite lovely and marvellously got up; and the Princess, whose own tastes found something a little cold, a little austere, a little “tailor-made” in her cousin’s way of dressing, would discover in this strict sobriety an exquisite refinement.”
“The costumes of these two ladies seemed to me like the materialisation, snow-white or patterned with colour, of their inner activity, and, like the gestures which I had seen the Princesse de Guermantes make and which, I had no doubt, corresponded to some latent idea, the plumes which swept down from her forehead and her cousin’s dazzling and spangled bodice seemed to have a special meaning, to be to each of these woman an attribute which was hers, and hers alone, the significance of which I should have liked to know…And when I turned my eyes to their box, far more than on the ceiling of the theatre, painted with lifeless allegories, it was though I had seen, thanks to a miraculous break in the customary clouds, the assembly of the Gods in the act of contemplating the spectacle of mankind, beneath a crimson canopy, in a clear lighted space, between two pillars of heaven.”
Amazing, to say the least.
Moncrieff: Page 69 “Now, ever morning, long before the hour at which she left her house…” through Page 82 “…that there burns the flames of hatred and love.”
Treharne: Page 52 “”Now, every morning, well before the time she left the house…” through Page 61 “…as masking the burning flames of hatred and love.”