Moncrieff: 371-381; Sturrock: 269-276
by Dennis Abrams
Brichot is anxious to show off his talents before Marcel, the newcomer, “you will find that there is no place where one feels more the donceur de vivre, to quote one of the inventors of dilettantism, of pococurantism [MY NOTE — nonchalance or indifference], of all sorts of ‘isms’ that are in fashion among our little snoblings — I refer to M. le Prince de Talleyrand.” Brichot displays his wit by, when speaking of great noblemen of the past, prefixing their titles with ‘Monsieur,” and “M. le Duc de La Rochefoucauld.” Brichot refers to “Monsieur le Prince de Talleyrand,” as someone to “whom we take off our hats. He is an ancestor.” The Princess Sherbatoff. Cottard is impressed that she is a friend of the Grand Duchess Eudoxie, “who even sees her alone at hours when no one else is admitted,” not realizing that the Grand Duchess will only see her in the early morning, “when Her Imperial Highness was not at home to any of those friends to whom it would have been disagreeable to meet the Princess as it would have been awkward for the Princess to meet them,” so after leaving the Grand Duchess, “like a mancurist,” she would “go to Mme Verdurin, who had just woken up, and stick to her for the rest of the day.” Cottard fancies himself a sort of Chateaubriand while in the city, and a Voltaire in the country. Princess Sherbatoff’s fidelity “…made her more than an ordinary member of the ‘faithful,’ the classic example of the breed, the ideal which Mme Verdurin had long thought unattainable and which now, in her later years, she at length found incarnate in this new feminine recruit.” The three friendships of Princess Sherbatoff: the Grand Duchess, the Verdurins, and the Baroness Portbus (who she only visits in the morning, having no desire to meet her friends). “She would add: ‘I visit only three houses,’ as a dramatist who fears that it may not run to a fourth announces that there will be only three performances of his play.” The wealth of the Princess, who engages an entire box on every first night for the faithful, but always sits in the back. The thirst for novelty caused society people to be curious about the “strange sovereign, who was not without a certain shy, bewitching, faded beauty,” and her need to “feign an intense coldness, in order to keep up the fiction of her loathing of society.” Cottard’s willingness to miss a Wednesday to attend a very important patient, but not when his cook cut open a vein in her arm. “Cottard, already in his dinner jacket to go to the Verdurins’, had shrugged his shoulders when his wife had timidly inquired whether he could not bandage that wound; ‘Of course I can’t, Leontine,’ he had groaned, ‘can’t you see I’ve got my white waistcoat on?'” Cottard’s praise of the Verdurins and their salon over the Guermantes. “They know everybody. Besides, they at least aren’t grand people who’ve come down in the world. They’ve got the goods all right…You mentioned the Duchesse de Guermantes. I’ll tell you the difference. Mme Verdurin is a great lady, the Duchesse de Guermantes is probably a pauper. You see the distinction, of course?” But, as Marcel/the Narrator points out, “Many Cottards who have supposed that they were living in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germain have perhaps had their imaginations beguiled by feudal dreams than the men who really have lived among princes…”
I really enjoyed this section — our first look at the Princess Sherbatoff was highly enjoyable, Cottard and Brichot’s pretensions were nicely skewered, and I particularly loved this passage describing Mme Verdurins’ need to keep her “little clan” to herself.
“However keenly the Mistress might feel the pangs of jealousy, it was without precedent for the most assiduous of her faithful not to have ‘defected’ at least once. The most stay-at-home yielded to the temptation to travel; the most continent fell from virtue; the most robust might catch influenza, the idlest caught for his month’s soldiering, the most indifferent go to close the eyes of a dying mother. And it was in vain that Mme Verdurin told them then, like the Roman Empress, that she was the sole general whom her legion must obey, or like Christ or the Kaiser, that he who loved his father or mother more than her and was not prepared to leave them and follow her was not worthy of her, that instead of wilting in bed or letting themselves be made fools of by whores they would do better to stay with her, their sole remedy and sole delight.”
I’m having a difficult time imagining what the relation between Marcel and Mme de Verdurin is going to be like, and how she is going to appear to him after Mme de Guermantes.
And finally, from George Painter’s biography of Marcel Proust, a little look at the two women who helped to inspire Mme Verdurin and her salon.
“Of all the literary and artistic bourgeois salons those of Mme Aubernon de Nerville and Mme Lemaire, to both of which Proust gained admission in 1892 or a little before, were supreme in their prestige. A great artist is remembered, a great hostess is forgotten when the last of her guests have died; yet each of these ladies contributed to the immortal Mme Verdurin, and lives still in her.
Mme Lydie Aubernon had been blissfully parted from her husband since 1867, and was in the habit of remarking that she was looking forward to her ‘golden separation.’ M. Georges Aubernon lived with their son, Raoul, at Antibes, and his wife was known as ‘the Widow.’ Until the end of the 1880s she was assisted in the running of her salon by her mother, whose own drawing room had been famous in the 1840s under Louis Phillipe. The two ladies, in allusion to their republican sympathies and to Moliere’s comedy, were called ‘Les Precieuses Radicales‘. But Mme Aubernon showed little positive interest in politics, and used to say: ‘I’m a republican, but only in sheer desperation.’ After old Mme de Nerville died she told Edmond de Goncourt: ‘I miss her often, but only a little at a time’ — a remark also uttered by Swann’s father after the death of his wife. She received at her house in the Avenue de Messine, later in the Rue d’Astorg, where (incongruous conjunction) the Comtesse Greffulhe also lifed, and last at 11 Rue Montchanin. Along with her more brilliant guests she entertained a hard core of mysterious elderly ladies, widows of writers or friends of her dead mother, who sat in the background, like the pianist’s aunt or Princesse Sherbatoff at Mme Verdurin’s, and were known as ‘my sacred monsters.’ One of the monsters was once reproached for frivolity by her son, who felt that her name appeared far too frequently in the society columns of the newspapers. ‘You’re quite right, my dear,’ she said, ‘tomorrow I’ll give up going to funerals.’
Mme Aubernon was a fat, lively little woman, with dimpled arms, and wore loud beribboned dresses and shoes with pompoms. ‘She looked like Queen Pomare on the lavatory seat,’ Montesquiou used to say. She was sixty-seven in 1892, and was not unaware that her beauty had vanished: ‘I realised,’ she said, ‘when men stopped raving about my face and only told me how intelligent I was.’ Her evening receptions on Wednesdays (Mme Verdurin’s day) and Saturdays were preceded by a dinner for twelve persons, neither more nor less, for which the subject of conversation was announced in advance. the guests did not always take the custom as seriously as she wished. ‘What is your opinion of adultery?’ she asked Mme Straus one week, when that happened to be the theme, and Mme Strauss replied: ‘I’m so sorry, I prepared incest by mistake.’ Labiche, when asked what he thought of Shakespeare, enquired: ‘Why, is he marrying someone we know?’ And d’Annunzio, when asked to talk about love, was even less forthcoming: ‘Read my books, madam,’ he said, ‘and let me get on with my food.’ Thinking a change of subject might thaw her guest, Mme Aubernon began to ask after his distinguished contemporaries. ‘Tell me about Fogazzaro,’ she implored. ‘Fogazzaro?’ echoed the poet, ‘he’s at Vicenza’; and the meal finished in frozen silence. When Mme Laure Baigneres was asked the same question: ‘What do you think about love?’ she could only replay, ‘I make it, often, but I never, never talk about it.’ If conversation at the other end of the table became general, Mme Aubernon would ring her famous little bell to secure attention for the speaker of the moment. Once on his very first visit, Labiche was heard to murmor “I…I…’ The widow jingled with her bell and shouted: ‘Monsieur Labiche, you will have your turn in a minute.’ The speaker finished, and she said graciously: ‘You may speak now, Monsieur Labiche.’ But the unhappy dramatist only mumbled: ‘I just wanted to ask for another helping of peas.'”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 381 “At Saint-Pierre-des-Ifs we were joined by a glorious girl…” through Page 414 “…and even to hide herself to swallow her two spoonfuls of aspirin.”
Sturrock: Page 276 “At Saint-Pierre-des-Ifs there got on a splendid girl…” through Page 298 “…and even hid herself in order to swallow her two spoonfuls of aspirin.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.