Moncrieff: 244-255; Treharne: 177-185
by Dennis Abrams
Mme de Villeparisis’ afternoon reception, and her declining position in society. “Mme de Villeparisis was one of those women who, born of an illustrious house, entering by marriage into another no less illustrious, do not for all that enjoy any great position in the social world, and, apart from a few duchesses who are their nieces or sisters-in-law, perhaps even a crowned head or two, have their drawing-rooms patronised only by third-rate people, drawn from the middle classes or from a nobility either provincial or tainted in some way, whose presence there has long since driven away all such smart and snobbish folk as are not obliged to come to the house by ties of blood or the claims of friendship too old to be ignored.” The long relationship between Mme de Villeparisis and M. de Norpois, which explains why she knew so much about Marcel’s father’s tour of Spain. What had happened to lower her social status? Had their been a scandal? Had her sharp tongue make enemies? Mme de Villeparisis’ Memoirs “on any page an apt epithet.” Being snubbed by Mme Leroi, “who may perhaps have left a card on her when she went to call on the Guermantes, but never set foot in her house for fear of losing caste among all the doctors’ or solicitors’ wives whom she would find there.” Mme de Villeparisis’ ambitions. “…if at some point in her youth Mme de Villeparisis, surfeited with the satisfaction of belonging to the flower of the aristocracy, had somehow amused herself by scandalising the people among whom she lived, and deliberately impairing her own position in society, she had begun to attach importance to that position once she had lost it.” Queen Marie-Amelie had once said to Mme de Villeparisis that “You are just like a daughter to me.” But now, “Remember as she might the words of the Queen, Mme de Villeparisis would have bartered them gladly for the permanent capacity for being invited everywhere which Mme Leroi possessed…” Despite this, the absence of Mme Leroi was not noted by the visitors to her salon, who “never doubted that Mme de Villeparisis’s receptions were, as the readers of her Memoirs today are convinced that they must have been, the most brilliant in Paris.” Her drawing room, hung with yellow silk, Guermantes and Villeparisis portraits “side by side” with those of Queen-Marie Amelie, the Queen of the Belgians, the Prince de Joinville, and the Empress of Austria, “gifts from the sitters themselves.” Mme de Villeparisis, sitting at her desk along with her brushes, “her palette and an unfinished flower-piece in water-colour,” surrounded by flowers, dressed in “an old fashioned bonnet of black lace.” The arrival of Bloch, now a “rising dramatist,” who Mme de Villeparisis wants to “secure the gratuitous services of actors and actresses at her next series of afternoon parties.” Mme de Villeparisis’ lack of interest in the Dreyfus Affair: “It was true that the social kaleidoscope was in the act of turning and that the Dreyfus case was shortly to relegate the Jews to the lowest rung of the social ladder. But for one thing, however fiercely the anti-Dreyfus cyclone might be raging, it is not the first hour of a storm that the waves are at their worst. In the second place, Mme de Villeparisis, leaving a whole section of her family to fulminate against the Jews, had remained entirely aloof from the Affair and never gave it a thought.” Bloch as Jew, and as representative of an artistic, exotic, vision of the Jew.
A couple of things…
1. I was simultaneously enthralled and again, slightly appalled by Proust’s depiction of Bloch:
“Lastly, a young man like Bloch whom no one knew might pass unnoticed, whereas leading Jews who were representative of their side were already threatened. His chin was now decorated with a goatee beard, he wore a pince-nez and a long frock-coat, and carried a glove like a role of papyrus in his hand. The Roumanians, the Egyptians, the Turks may hate the Jews. But in a French drawing-room the differences between those people are not so apparent, and a Jew making his entry as though he were emerging from the desert, his body crouching like a hyena’s, his neck thrust forward, offering profound “salaams,’ completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental. Only it is essential that the Jew in question should not be actually ‘in’ society, otherwise he will readily assume the aspect of a lord and his manners become so Gallicised that on his face, a refractory nose, growing like a nasturtium in unexpected directions, will be more reminiscent of Moliere’s Mascarille than of Solomon. But Bloch, not having been limbered up by the gymnastics of the Faubourg, nor enobled by a crossing with England or Spain, remained for a lover of the exotic as strange and savoury a spectacle, in spite of his European costume, as a Jew in a painting by Decamps.”
How do you interpret this? On the one hand, he seems to place Bloch firmly in the region of every stereotypical vision of the Jew, yet he also says that “we feel, on encountering in a Paris drawing-room Orientals belonging to such and such a group, that we are in the presence of supernatural creatures whom the forces of necromancy must have called into being.”
There is, I think, a definite ambivalence in his picture of Bloch (as there is in his depiction of nearly every character in the book to be fair)…what are your feelings? What do you think Proust is doing here?
And finally, two paragraphs from Sean Wolitz’s study, The Proustian Community, on the importance of the salon to Parisian society.
“The salon was the social institution par excellence in Proust’s society, as well as in the novel. Everyone from the Marquise of the Public Restrooms to the most pretentious duchess operates a salon. Descriptions of salon scenes account for more pages than are devoted to any institution in the work. the salon scenes, which last at most an evening, permit great concentration on individuals and allow further commentary on the past and future and on individuals, groups, and institutions. The salon reception, like a ride in the Bois, or an appearance at the opera, is another prancing ground for vanity.
Proust records the changing relations of man, the passing of time, and the changes in social structure as well as in social customs through his portraits of various salons. Events in the world affect the makeup of the salon as well as its traditions, yet the salon retains a certain structural unity: it is a defined pattern of manners and etiquette. Proust is especially interested in individual mannerisms because they reveal inner thought or lack of it. Though many salons exist on different class levels, the purpose and construction of all of them remain more or less the same, as in a theme and variations. People are brought together from common backgrounds, common points of view or interests. Each salon is a distinct entity with its heroes and enemies, likes and dislikes, realities and pretensions.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 255 “Oh, ministers, my dear sir,”…through Page 280 “…would make him modify a situation or alter an ending.”
Treharne: Page 185 “Good gracious, ministers, my dear sir…” through Page 203 “…or change the ending of his play.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.