Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way II
By Marcel Proust
Public Domain Books
Swann in Love
To admit you to the ’little nucleus,’ the ’little group,’ the ’little clan’ at the Verdurins’, one condition sufficed, but that one was indispensable; you must give tacit adherence to a Creed one of whose articles was that the young pianist, whom Mme. Verdurin had taken under her patronage that year, and of whom she said “Really, it oughtn’t to be allowed, to play Wagner as well as that!” left both Planté and Rubinstein ’sitting’; while Dr. Cottard was a more brilliant diagnostician than Potain. Each ’new recruit’ whom the Verdurins failed to persuade that the evenings spent by other people, in other houses than theirs, were as dull as ditch-water, saw himself banished forthwith. Women being in this respect more rebellious than men, more reluctant to lay aside all worldly curiosity and the desire to find out for themselves whether other drawing-rooms might not sometimes be as entertaining, and the Verdurins feeling, moreover, that this critical spirit and this demon of frivolity might, by their contagion, prove fatal to the orthodoxy of the little church, they had been obliged to expel, one after another, all those of the ’faithful’ who were of the female sex.
Apart from the doctor’s young wife, they were reduced almost exclusively that season (for all that Mme. Verdurin herself was a thoroughly ’good’ woman, and came of a respectable middle-class family, excessively rich and wholly undistinguished, with which she had gradually and of her own accord severed all connection) to a young woman almost of a ’certain class,’ a Mme. de Crécy, whom Mme. Verdurin called by her Christian name, Odette, and pronounced a ’love,’ and to the pianist’s aunt, who looked as though she had, at one period, ’answered the bell’: ladies quite ignorant of the world, who in their social simplicity were so easily led to believe that the Princesse de Sagan and the Duchesse de Guermantes were obliged to pay large sums of money to other poor wretches, in order to have anyone at their dinner-parties, that if somebody had offered to procure them an invitation to the house of either of those great dames, the old doorkeeper and the woman of ’easy virtue’ would have contemptuously declined.
The Verdurins never invited you to dinner; you had your ’place laid’ there. There was never any programme for the evening’s entertainment. The young pianist would play, but only if he felt inclined, for no one was forced to do anything, and, as M. Verdurin used to say: “We’re all friends here. Liberty Hall, you know!”
If the pianist suggested playing the Ride of the Valkyries, or the Prelude to Tristan, Mme. Verdurin would protest, not that the music was displeasing to her, but, on the contrary, that it made too violent an impression. “Then you want me to have one of my headaches? You know quite well, it’s the same every time he plays that. I know what I’m in for. Tomorrow, when I want to get up–nothing doing!” If he was not going to play they talked, and one of the friends–usually the painter who was in favour there that year–would “spin,” as M. Verdurin put it, “a damned funny yarn that made ’em all split with laughter,” and especially Mme. Verdurin, for whom–so strong was her habit of taking literally the figurative accounts of her emotions–Dr. Cottard, who was then just starting in general practice, would “really have to come one day and set her jaw, which she had dislocated with laughing too much.”
Evening dress was barred, because you were all ’good pals,’ and didn’t want to look like the ’boring people’ who were to be avoided like the plague, and only asked to the big evenings, which were given as seldom as possible, and then only if it would amuse the painter or make the musician better known. The rest of the time you were quite happy playing charades and having supper in fancy dress, and there was no need to mingle any strange element with the little ’clan.’
But just as the ’good pals’ came to take a more and more prominent place in Mme. Verdurin’s life, so the ’bores,’ the ’nuisances’ grew to include everybody and everything that kept her friends away from her, that made them sometimes plead ’previous engagements,’ the mother of one, the professional duties of another, the ’little place in the country’ of a third. If Dr. Cottard felt bound to say good night as soon as they rose from table, so as to go back to some patient who was seriously ill; “I don’t know,” Mme. Verdurin would say, “I’m sure it will do him far more good if you don’t go disturbing him again this evening; he will have a good night without you; to-morrow morning you can go round early and you will find him cured.” From the beginning of December it would make her quite ill to think that the ’faithful’ might fail her on Christmas and New Year’s Days. The pianist’s aunt insisted that he must accompany her, on the latter, to a family dinner at her mother’s.
“You don’t suppose she’ll die, your mother,” exclaimed Mme. Verdurin bitterly, “if you don’t have dinner with her on New Year’s Day, like people in the provinces!”
Her uneasiness was kindled again in Holy Week: “Now you, Doctor, you’re a sensible, broad-minded man; you’ll come, of course, on Good Friday, just like any other day?” she said to Cottard in the first year of the little ’nucleus,’ in a loud and confident voice, as though there could be no doubt of his answer. But she trembled as she waited for it, for if he did not come she might find herself condemned to dine alone.
“I shall come on Good Friday–to say good-bye to you, for we are going to spend the holidays in Auvergne.”
“In Auvergne? To be eaten by fleas and all sorts of creatures! A fine lot of good that will do you!” And after a solemn pause: “If you had only told us, we would have tried to get up a party, and all gone there together, comfortably.”
And so, too, if one of the ’faithful’ had a friend, or one of the ladies a young man, who was liable, now and then, to make them miss an evening, the Verdurins, who were not in the least afraid of a woman’s having a lover, provided that she had him in their company, loved him in their company and did not prefer him to their company, would say: “Very well, then, bring your friend along.” And he would be put to the test, to see whether he was willing to have no secrets from Mme. Verdurin, whether he was susceptible of being enrolled in the ’little clan.’ If he failed to pass, the faithful one who had introduced him would be taken on one side, and would be tactfully assisted to quarrel with the friend or mistress. But if the test proved satisfactory, the newcomer would in turn be numbered among the ’faithful.’ And so when, in the course of this same year, the courtesan told M. Verdurin that she had made the acquaintance of such a charming gentleman, M. Swann, and hinted that he would very much like to be allowed to come, M. Verdurin carried the request at once to his wife. He never formed an opinion on any subject until she had formed hers, his special duty being to carry out her wishes and those of the ’faithful’ generally, which he did with boundless ingenuity.
“My dear, Mme. de Crécy has something to say to you. She would like to bring one of her friends here, a M. Swann. What do you say?”
“Why, as if anybody could refuse anything to a little piece of perfection like that. Be quiet; no one asked your opinion. I tell you that you are a piece of perfection.”
“Just as you like,” replied Odette, in an affected tone, and then went on: “You know I’m not fishing for compliments.”
“Very well; bring your friend, if he’s nice.”
Now there was no connection whatsoever between the ’little nucleus’ and the society which Swann frequented, and a purely worldly man would have thought it hardly worth his while, when occupying so exceptional a position in the world, to seek an introduction to the Verdurins. But Swann was so ardent a lover that, once he had got to know almost all the women of the aristocracy, once they had taught him all that there was to learn, he had ceased to regard those naturalisation papers, almost a patent of nobility, which the Faubourg Saint-Germain had bestowed upon him, save as a sort of negotiable bond, a letter of credit with no intrinsic value, which allowed him to improvise a status for himself in some little hole in the country, or in some obscure quarter of Paris, where the good-looking daughter of a local squire or solicitor had taken his fancy. For at such times desire, or love itself, would revive in him a feeling of vanity from which he was now quite free in his everyday life, although it was, no doubt, the same feeling which had originally prompted him towards that career as a man of fashion in which he had squandered his intellectual gifts upon frivolous amusements, and had made use of his erudition in matters of art only to advise society ladies what pictures to buy and how to decorate their houses; and this vanity it was which made him eager to shine, in the sight of any fair unknown who had captivated him for the moment, with a brilliance which the name of Swann by itself did not emit. And he was most eager when the fair unknown was in humble circumstances. Just as it is not by other men of intelligence that an intelligent man is afraid of being thought a fool, so it is not by the great gentleman but by boors and ’bounders’ that a man of fashion is afraid of finding his social value underrated. Three-fourths of the mental ingenuity displayed, of the social falsehoods scattered broadcast ever since the world began by people whose importance they have served only to diminish, have been aimed at inferiors. And Swann, who behaved quite simply and was at his ease when with a duchess, would tremble^ for fear of being despised, and would instantly begin to pose, were he to meet her grace’s maid.
Unlike so many people, who, either from lack of energy or else from a resigned sense of the obligation laid upon them by their social grandeur to remain moored like houseboats to a certain point on the bank of the stream of life, abstain from the pleasures which are offered to them above and below that point, that degree in life in which they will remain fixed until the day of their death, and are content, in the end, to describe as pleasures, for want of any better, those mediocre distractions, that just not intolerable tedium which is enclosed there with them; Swann would endeavour not to find charm and beauty in the women with whom he must pass time, but to pass his time among women whom he had already found to be beautiful and charming. And these were, as often as not, women whose beauty was of a distinctly ’common’ type, for the physical qualities which attracted him instinctively, and without reason, were the direct opposite of those that he admired in the women painted or sculptured by his favourite masters. Depth of character, or a melancholy expression on a woman’s face would freeze his senses, which would, however, immediately melt at the sight of healthy, abundant, rosy human flesh.
If on his travels he met a family whom it would have been more correct for him to make no attempt to know, but among whom a woman caught his eye, adorned with a special charm that was new to him, to remain on his ’high horse’ and to cheat the desire that she had kindled in him, to substitute a pleasure different from that which he might have tasted in her company by writing to invite one of his former mistresses to come and join him, would have seemed to him as cowardly an abdication in the face of life, as stupid a renunciation of a new form of happiness as if, instead of visiting the country where he was, he had shut himself up in his own rooms and looked at ’views’ of Paris. He did not immure himself in the solid structure of his social relations, but had made of them, so as to be able to set it up afresh upon new foundations wherever a woman might take his fancy, one of those collapsible tents which explorers carry about with them. Any part of it which was not portable or could not be adapted to some fresh pleasure he would discard as valueless, however enviable it might appear to others. How often had his credit with a duchess, built up of the yearly accumulation of her desire to do him some favour for which she had never found an opportunity, been squandered in a moment by his calling upon her, in an indiscreetly worded message, for a recommendation by telegraph which would put him in touch at once with one of her agents whose daughter he had noticed in the country, just as a starving man might barter a diamond for a crust of bread. Indeed, when it was too late, he would laugh at himself for it, for there was in his nature, redeemed by many rare refinements, an element of clownishness. Then he belonged to that class of intelligent men who have led a life of idleness, and who seek consolation and, perhaps, an excuse in the idea, which their idleness offers to their intelligence, of objects as worthy of their interest as any that could be attained by art or learning, the idea that ’Life’ contains situations more interesting and more romantic than all the romances ever written. So, at least, he would assure and had no difficulty in persuading the more subtle among his friends in the fashionable world, notably the Baron de Charlus, whom he liked to amuse with stories of the startling adventures that had befallen him, such as when he had met a woman in the train, and had taken her home with him, before discovering that she was the sister of a reigning monarch, in whose hands were gathered, at that moment, all the threads of European politics, of which he found himself kept informed in the most delightful fashion, or when, in the complexity of circumstances, it depended upon the choice which the Conclave was about to make whether he might or might not become the lover of somebody’s cook.
It was not only the brilliant phalanx of virtuous dowagers, generals and academicians, to whom he was bound by such close ties, that Swann compelled with so much cynicism to serve him as panders. All his friends were accustomed to receive, from time to time, letters which called on them for a word of recommendation or introduction, with a diplomatic adroitness which, persisting throughout all his successive ’affairs’ and using different pretexts, revealed more glaringly than the clumsiest indiscretion, a permanent trait in his character and an unvarying quest. I used often to recall to myself when, many years later, I began to take an interest in his character because of the similarities which, in wholly different respects, it offered to my own, how, when he used to write to my grandfather (though not at the time we are now considering, for it was about the date of my own birth that Swann’s great ’affair’ began, and made a long interruption in his amatory practices) the latter, recognising his friend’s handwriting on the envelope, would exclaim: “Here is Swann asking for something; on guard!” And, either from distrust or from the unconscious spirit of devilry which urges us to offer a thing only to those who do not want it, my grandparents would meet with an obstinate refusal the most easily satisfied of his prayers, as when he begged them for an introduction to a girl who dined with us every Sunday, and whom they were obliged, whenever Swann mentioned her, to pretend that they no longer saw, although they would be wondering, all through the week, whom they could invite to meet her, and often failed, in the end, to find anyone, sooner than make a sign to him who would so gladly have accepted.
Occasionally a couple of my grandparents’ acquaintance, who had been complaining for some time that they never saw Swann now, would announce with satisfaction, and perhaps with a slight inclination to make my grandparents envious of them, that he had suddenly become as charming as he could possibly be, and was never out of their house. My grandfather would not care to shatter their pleasant illusion, but would look at my grandmother, as he hummed the air of:
What is this mystery? I cannot understand it;
Vision fugitive...; In matters such as this ’Tis best to close one’s eyes.
A few months later, if my grandfather asked Swann’s new friend “What about Swann? Do you still see as much of him as ever?” the other’s face would lengthen: “Never mention his name to me again!”
“But I thought that you were such friends...”
He had been intimate in this way for several months with some cousins of my grandmother, dining almost every evening at their house. Suddenly, and without any warning, he ceased to appear. They supposed him to be ill, and the lady of the house was going to send to inquire for him when, in her kitchen, she found a letter in his hand, which her cook had left by accident in the housekeeping book. In this he announced that he was leaving Paris and would not be able to come to the house again. The cook had been his mistress, and at the moment of breaking off relations she was the only one of the household whom he had thought it necessary to inform.
But when his mistress for the time being was a woman in society, or at least one whose birth was not so lowly, nor her position so irregular that he was unable to arrange for her reception in ’society,’ then for her sake he would return to it, but only to the particular orbit in which she moved or into which he had drawn her. “No good depending on Swann for this evening,” people would say; “don’t you remember, it’s his American’s night at the Opera?” He would secure invitations for her to the most exclusive drawing-rooms, to those houses where he himself went regularly, for weekly dinners or for poker; every evening, after a slight ’wave’ imparted to his stiffly brushed red locks had tempered with a certain softness the ardour of his bold green eyes, he would select a flower for his buttonhole and set out to meet his mistress at the house of one or other of the women of his circle; and then, thinking of the affection and admiration which the fashionable folk, whom he always treated exactly as he pleased, would, when he met them there, lavish upon him in the presence of the woman whom he loved, he would find a fresh charm in that worldly existence of which he had grown weary, but whose substance, pervaded and warmly coloured by the flickering light which he had slipped into its midst, seemed to him beautiful and rare, now that he had incorporated in it a fresh love.
But while each of these attachments, each of these flirtations had been the realisation, more or less complete, of a dream born of the sight of a face or a form which Swann had spontaneously, and without effort on his part, found charming, it was quite another matter when, one day at the theatre, he was introduced to Odette de Crécy by an old friend of his own, who had spoken of her to him as a ravishing creature with whom he might very possibly come to an understanding; but had made her out to be harder of conquest than she actually was, so as to appear to be conferring a special favour by the introduction. She had struck Swann not, certainly, as being devoid of beauty, but as endowed with a style of beauty which left him indifferent, which aroused in him no desire, which gave him, indeed, a sort of physical repulsion; as one of those women of whom every man can name some, and each will name different examples, who are the converse of the type which our senses demand. To give him any pleasure her profile was too sharp, her skin too delicate, her cheek-bones too prominent, her features too tightly drawn. Her eyes were fine, but so large that they seemed to be bending beneath their own weight, strained the rest of her face and always made her appear unwell or in an ill humour. Some time after this introduction at the theatre she had written to ask Swann whether she might see his collections, which would interest her so much, she, “an ignorant woman with a taste for beautiful things," saying that she would know him better when once she had seen him in his ’home,’ where she imagined him to be “so comfortable with his tea and his books"; although she had not concealed her surprise at his being in that part of the town, which must be so depressing, and was “not nearly smart enough for such a very smart man.” And when he allowed her to come she had said to him as she left how sorry she was to have stayed so short a time in a house into which she was so glad to have found her way at last, speaking of him as though he had meant something more to her than the rest of the people she knew, and appearing to unite their two selves with a kind of romantic bond which had made him smile. But at the time of life, tinged already with disenchantment, which Swann was approaching, when a man can content himself with being in love for the pleasure of loving without expecting too much in return, this linking of hearts, if it is no longer, as in early youth, the goal towards which love, of necessity, tends, still is bound to love by so strong an association of ideas that it may well become the cause of love if it presents itself first. In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her. And 50, at an age when it would appear–since one seeks in love before everything else a subjective pleasure–that the taste for feminine beauty must play the larger part in its procreation, love may come into being, love of the most physical order, without any foundation in desire. At this time of life a man has already been wounded more than once by the darts of love; it no longer evolves by itself, obeying its own incomprehensible and fatal laws, before his passive and astonished heart. We come to its aid; we falsify it by memory and by suggestion; recognising one of its symptoms we recall and recreate the rest. Since we possess its hymn, engraved on our hearts in its entirety, there is no need of any woman to repeat the opening lines, potent with the admiration which her beauty inspires, for us to remember all that follows. And if she begin in the middle, where it sings of our existing, henceforward, for one another only, we are well enough attuned to that music to be able to take it up and follow our partner, without hesitation, at the first pause in her voice.
Odette de Crécy came again to see Swann; her visits grew more frequent, and doubtless each visit revived the sense of disappointment which he felt at the sight of a face whose details he had somewhat forgotten in the interval, not remembering it as either so expressive or, in spite of her youth, so faded; he used to regret, while she was talking to him, that her really considerable beauty was not of the kind which he spontaneously admired. It must be remarked that Odette’s face appeared thinner and more prominent than it actually was, because her forehead and the upper part of her cheeks, a single and almost plane surface, were covered by the masses of hair which women wore at that period, drawn forward in a fringe, raised in crimped waves and falling in stray locks over her ears; while as for her figure, and she was admirably built, it was impossible to make out its continuity (on account of the fashion then prevailing, and in spite of her being one of the best-dressed women in Paris) for the corset, jetting forwards in an arch, as though over an imaginary stomach, and ending in a sharp point, beneath which bulged out the balloon of her double skirts, gave a woman, that year, the appearance of being composed of different sections badly fitted together; to such an extent did the frills, the flounces, the inner bodice follow, in complete independence, controlled only by the fancy of their designer or the rigidity of their material, the line which led them to the knots of ribbon, falls of lace, fringes of vertically hanging jet, or carried them along the bust, but nowhere attached themselves to the living creature, who, according as the architecture of their fripperies drew them towards or away from her own, found herself either strait-laced to suffocation or else completely buried.
But, after Odette had left him, Swann would think with a smile of her telling him how the time would drag until he allowed her to come again; he remembered the anxious, timid way in which she had once begged him that it might not be very long, and the way in which she had looked at him then, fixing upon him her fearful and imploring gaze, which gave her a touching air beneath the bunches of artificial pansies fastened in the front of her round bonnet of white straw, tied with strings of black velvet. “And won’t you,” she had ventured, “come just once and take tea with me?” He had pleaded pressure of work, an essay–which, in reality, he had abandoned years ago–on Vermeer of Delft. “I know that I am quite useless,” she had replied, “a little wild thing like me beside a learned great man like you. I should be like the frog in the fable! And yet I should so much like to learn, to know things, to be initiated. What fun it would be to become a regular bookworm, to bury my nose in a lot of old papers!” she had gone on, with that self-satisfied air which a smart woman adopts when she insists that her one desire is to give herself up, without fear of soiling her fingers, to some unclean task, such as cooking the dinner, with her “hands right in the dish itself.” “You will only laugh at me, but this painter who stops you from seeing me,” she meant Vermeer, “I have never even heard of him; is he alive still? Can I see any of his things in Paris, so as to have some idea of what is going on behind that great brow which works so hard, that head which I feel sure is always puzzling away about things; just to be able to say ’There, that’s what he’s thinking about!’ What a dream it would be to be able to help you with your work.”
He had sought an excuse in his fear of forming new friendships, which he gallantly described as his fear of a hopeless passion. “You are afraid of falling in love? How funny that is, when I go about seeking nothing else, and would give my soul just to find a little love somewhere!” she had said, so naturally and with such an air of conviction that he had been genuinely touched. “Some woman must have made you suffer. And you think that the rest are all like her. She can’t have understood you: you are so utterly different from ordinary men. That’s what I liked about you when I first saw you; I felt at once that you weren’t like everybody else.”
“And then, besides, there’s yourself––” he had continued, “I know what women are; you must have a whole heap of things to do, and never any time to spare.”
“I? Why, I have never anything to do. I am always free, and I always will be free if you want me. At whatever hour of the day or night it may suit you to see me, just send for me, and I shall be only too delighted to come. Will you do that? Do you know what I should really like–to introduce you to Mme. Verdurin, where I go every evening. Just fancy my finding you there, and thinking that it was a little for my sake that you had gone.”
No doubt, in thus remembering their conversations, in thinking about her thus when he was alone, he did no more than call her image into being among those of countless other women in his romantic dreams; but if, thanks to some accidental circumstance (or even perhaps without that assistance, for the circumstance which presents itself at the moment when a mental state, hitherto latent, makes itself felt, may well have had no influence whatsoever upon that state), the image of Odette de Crécy came to absorb the whole of his dreams, if from those dreams the memory of her could no longer be eliminated, then her bodily imperfections would no longer be of the least importance, nor would the conformity of her body, more or less than any other, to the requirements of Swann’s taste; since, having become the body of her whom he loved, it must henceforth be the only one capable of causing him joy or anguish.
It so happened that my grandfather had known–which was more than could be said of any other actual acquaintance–the family of these Verdurins. But he had entirely severed his connection with what he called “young Verdurin,” taking a general view of him as one who had fallen–though without losing hold of his millions–among the riff-raff of Bohemia. One day he received a letter from Swann asking whether my grandfather could put him in touch with the Verdurins. “On guard! on guard!” he exclaimed as he read it, “I am not at all surprised; Swann was bound to finish up like this. A nice lot of people! I cannot do what he asks, because, in the first place, I no longer know the gentleman in question. Besides, there must be a woman in it somewhere, and I don’t mix myself up in such matters. Ah, well, we shall see some fun if Swann begins running after the little Verdurins.”
And on my grandfather’s refusal to act as sponsor, it was Odette herself who had taken Swann to the house.
The Verdurins had had dining with them, on the day when Swann made his first appearance, Dr. and Mme. Cottard, the young pianist and his aunt, and the painter then in favour, while these were joined, in the course of the evening, by several more of the ’faithful.’
Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so in any event he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he never dared to allow this smile a definite expression on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which you might decipher the question that he never dared to ask: “Do you really mean that?” He was no more confident of the manner in which he ought to conduct himself in the street, or indeed in life generally, than he was in a drawing-room; and he might be seen greeting passers-by, carriages, and anything that occurred with a malicious smile which absolved his subsequent behaviour of all impropriety, since it proved, if it should turn out unsuited to the occasion, that he was well aware of that, and that if he had assumed a smile, the jest was a secret of his own.
On all those points, however, where a plain question appeared to him to be permissible, the Doctor was unsparing in his endeavours to cultivate the wilderness of his ignorance and uncertainty and so to complete his education.
So it was that, following the advice given him by a wise mother on his first coming up to the capital from his provincial home, he would never let pass either a figure of speech or a proper name that was new to him without an effort to secure the fullest information upon it.
As regards figures of speech, he was insatiable in his thirst for knowledge, for often imagining them to have a more definite meaning than was actually the case, he would want to know what, exactly, was intended by those which he most frequently heard used: ’devilish pretty,’ ’blue blood,’ ’a cat and dog life,’ ’a day of reckoning,’ ’a queen of fashion, ’to give a free hand,’ ’to be at a deadlock,’ and so forth; and in what particular circumstances he himself might make use of them in conversation. Failing these, he would adorn it with puns and other ’plays upon words’ which he had learned by rote. As for the names of strangers which were uttered in his hearing, he used merely to repeat them to himself in a questioning tone, which, he thought, would suffice to furnish him with explanations for which he would not ostensibly seek.
As the critical faculty, on the universal application of which he prided himself, was, in reality, completely lacking, that refinement of good breeding which consists in assuring some one whom you are obliging in any way, without expecting to be believed, that it is really yourself that is obliged to him, was wasted on Cottard, who took everything that he heard in its literal sense. However blind she may have been to his faults, Mme. Verdurin was genuinely annoyed, though she still continued to regard him as brilliantly clever, when, after she had invited him to see and hear Sarah Bernhardt from a stage box, and had said politely: “It is very good of you to have come, Doctor, especially as I’m sure you must often have heard Sarah Bernhardt; and besides, I’m afraid we’re rather too near the stage,” the Doctor, who had come into the box with a smile which waited before settling upon or vanishing from his face until some one in authority should enlighten him as to the merits of the spectacle, replied: “To be sure, we are far too near the stage, and one is getting sick of Sarah Bernhardt. But you expressed a wish that I should come. For me, your wish is a command. I am only too glad to be able to do you this little service. What would one not do to please you, you are so good.” And he went on, “Sarah Bernhardt; that’s what they call the Voice of God, ain’t it? You see, often, too, that she ’sets the boards on fire.’ That’s an odd expression, ain’t it?” in the hope of an enlightening commentary, which, however, was not forthcoming.
“D’you know,” Mme. Verdurin had said to her husband, “I believe we are going the wrong way to work when we depreciate anything we offer the Doctor. He is a scientist who lives quite apart from our everyday existence; he knows nothing himself of what things are worth, and he accepts everything that we say as gospel.”
“I never dared to mention it,” M. Verdurin had answered, “but I’ve noticed the same thing myself.” And on the following New Year’s Day, instead of sending Dr. Cottard a ruby that cost three thousand francs, and pretending that it was a mere trifle, M. Verdurin bought an artificial stone for three hundred, and let it be understood that it was something almost impossible to match.
When Mme. Verdurin had announced that they were to see M. Swann that evening; “Swann!” the Doctor had exclaimed in a tone rendered brutal by his astonishment, for the smallest piece of news would always take utterly unawares this man who imagined himself to be perpetually in readiness for anything. And seeing that no one answered him, “Swann! Who on earth is Swann?” he shouted, in a frenzy of anxiety which subsided as soon as Mme. Verdurin had explained, “Why, Odette’s friend, whom she told us about.”
“Ah, good, good; that’s all right, then,” answered the Doctor, at once mollified. As for the painter, he was overjoyed at the prospect of Swann’s appearing at the Verdurins’, because he supposed him to be in love with Odette, and was always ready to assist at lovers’ meetings. “Nothing amuses me more than match-making,” he confided to Cottard; “I have been tremendously successful, even with women!”
In telling the Verdurins that Swann was extremely ’smart,’ Odette had alarmed them with the prospect of another ’bore.’ When he arrived, however, he made an excellent impression, an indirect cause of which, though they did not know it, was his familiarity with the best society. He had, indeed, one of those advantages which men who have lived and moved in the world enjoy over others, even men of intelligence and refinement, who have never gone into society, namely that they no longer see it transfigured by the longing or repulsion with which it fills the imagination, but regard it as quite unimportant. Their good nature, freed from all taint of snobbishness and from the fear of seeming too friendly, grown independent, in fact, has the ease, the grace of movement of a trained gymnast each of whose supple limbs will carry out precisely the movement that is required without any clumsy participation by the rest of his body. The simple and elementary gestures used by a man of the world when he courteously holds out his hand to the unknown youth who is being introduced to him, and when he bows discreetly before the Ambassador to whom he is being introduced, had gradually pervaded, without his being conscious of it, the whole of Swann’s social deportment, so that in the company of people of a lower grade than his own, such as the Verdurins and their friends, he instinctively shewed an assiduity, and made overtures with which, by their account, any of their ’bores’ would have dispensed. He chilled, though for a moment only, on meeting Dr. Cottard; for seeing him close one eye with an ambiguous smile, before they had yet spoken to one another (a grimace which Cottard styled “letting ’em all come”), Swann supposed that the Doctor recognised him from having met him already somewhere, probably in some house of ’ill-fame,’ though these he himself very rarely visited, never having made a habit of indulging in the mercenary sort of love. Regarding such an allusion as in bad taste, especially before Odette, whose opinion of himself it might easily alter for the worse, Swann assumed his most icy manner. But when he learned that the lady next to the Doctor was Mme. Cottard, he decided that so young a husband would not deliberately, in his wife’s hearing, have made any allusion to amusements of that order, and so ceased to interpret the Doctor’s expression in the sense which he had at first suspected. The painter at once invited Swann to visit his studio with Odette, and Swann found him very pleasant. “Perhaps you will be more highly favoured than I have been,” Mme. Verdurin broke in, with mock resentment of the favour, “perhaps you will be allowed to see Cottard’s portrait” (for which she had given the painter a commission). “Take care, Master Biche,” she reminded the painter, whom it was a time-honoured pleasantry to address as ’Master,’ “to catch that nice look in his eyes, that witty little twinkle. You know, what I want to have most of all is his smile; that’s what I’ve asked you to paint–the portrait of his smile.” And since the phrase struck her as noteworthy, she repeated it very loud, so as to make sure that as many as possible of her guests should hear it, and even made use of some indefinite pretext to draw the circle closer before she uttered it again. Swann begged to be introduced to everyone, even to an old friend of the Verdurins, called Saniette, whose shyness, simplicity and good-nature had deprived him of all the consideration due to his skill in palaeography, his large fortune, and the distinguished family to which he belonged. When he spoke, his words came with a confusion which was delightful to hear because one felt that it indicated not so much a defect in his speech as a quality of his soul, as it were a survival from the age of innocence which he had never wholly outgrown. All the cop-sonants which he did not manage to pronounce seemed like harsh utterances of which his gentle lips were incapable. By asking to be made known to M. Saniette, Swann made M. Verdurin reverse the usual form of introduction (saying, in fact, with emphasis on the distinction: “M. Swann, pray let me present to you our friend Saniette”) but he aroused in Saniette himself a warmth of gratitude, which, however, the Verdurins never disclosed to Swann, since Saniette rather annoyed them, and they did not feel bound to provide him with friends. On the other hand the Verdurins were extremely touched by Swann’s next request, for he felt that he must ask to be introduced to the pianist’s aunt. She wore a black dress, as was her invariable custom, for she believed that a woman always looked well in black, and that nothing could be more distinguished; but her face was exceedingly red, as it always was for some time after a meal. She bowed to Swann with deference, but drew herself up again with great dignity. As she was entirely uneducated, and was afraid of making mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, she used purposely to speak in an indistinct and garbling manner, thinking that if she should make a slip it would be so buried in the surrounding confusion that no one could be certain whether she had actually made it or not; with the result that her talk was a sort of continuous, blurred expectoration, out of which would emerge, at rare intervals, those sounds and syllables of which she felt positive. Swann supposed himself entitled to poke a little mild fun at her in conversation with M. Verdurin, who, however, was not at all amused.
“She is such an excellent woman!” he rejoined. “I grant you that she is not exactly brilliant; but I assure you that she can talk most charmingly when you are alone with her.”
“I am sure she can,” Swann hastened to conciliate him. “All I meant was that she hardly struck me as ’distinguished,’” he went on, isolating the epithet in the inverted commas of his tone, “and, after all, that is something of a compliment.”
“Wait a moment,” said M. Verdurin, “now, this will surprise you; she writes quite delightfully. You have never heard her nephew play? It is admirable; eh, Doctor? Would you like me to ask him to play something, M. Swann?”
“I should count myself most fortunate...” Swann was beginning, a trifle pompously, when the Doctor broke in derisively. Having once heard it said, and never having forgotten that in general conversation emphasis and the use of formal expressions were out of date, whenever he heard a solemn word used seriously, as the word ’fortunate’ had been used just now by Swann, he at once assumed that the speaker was being deliberately pedantic. And if, moreover, the same word happened to occur, also, in what he called an old ’tag’ or ’saw,’ however common it might still be in current usage, the Doctor jumped to the conclusion that the whole thing was a joke, and interrupted with the remaining words of the quotation, which he seemed to charge the speaker with having intended to introduce at that point, although in reality it had never entered his mind.
“Most fortunate for France!” he recited wickedly, shooting up both arms with great vigour. M. Verdurin could not help laughing.
“What are all those good people laughing at over there? There’s no sign of brooding melancholy down in your corner,” shouted Mme. Verdurin. “You don’t suppose I find it very amusing to be stuck up here by myself on the stool of repentance,” she went on peevishly, like a spoiled child.
Mme. Verdurin was sitting upon a high Swedish chair of waxed pine-wood, which a violinist from that country had given her, and which she kept in her drawing-room, although in appearance it suggested a school ’form,’ and ’swore,’ as the saying is, at the really good antique furniture which she had besides; but she made a point of keeping on view the presents which her ’faithful’ were in the habit of making her from time to time, so that the donors might have the pleasure of seeing them there when they came to the house. She tried to persuade them to confine their tributes to flowers and sweets, which had at least the merit of mortality; but she was never successful, and the house was gradually filled with a collection of foot-warmers, cushions, clocks, screens, barometers and vases, a constant repetition and a boundless incongruity of useless but indestructible objects.
From this lofty perch she would take her spirited part in the conversation of the ’faithful,’ and would revel in all their fun; but, since the accident to her jaw, she had abandoned the effort involved in real hilarity, and had substituted a kind of symbolical dumb-show which signified, without endangering or even fatiguing her in any way, that she was ’laughing until she cried.’ At the least witticism aimed by any of the circle against a ’bore,’ or against a former member of the circle who was now relegated to the limbo of ’bores’–and to the utter despair of M. Verdurin, who had always made out that he was just as easily amused as his wife, but who, since his laughter was the ’real thing,’ was out of breath in a moment, and so was overtaken and vanquished by her device of a feigned but continuous hilarity–she would utter a shrill cry, shut tight her little bird-like eyes, which were beginning to be clouded over by a cataract, and quickly, as though she had only just time to avoid some indecent sight or to parry a mortal blow, burying her face in her hands, which completely engulfed it, and prevented her from seeing anything at all, she would appear to be struggling to suppress, to eradicate a laugh which, were she to give way to it, must inevitably leave her inanimate. So, stupefied with the gaiety of the ’faithful,’ drunken with comradeship, scandal and asseveration, Mme. Verdurin, perched on her high seat like a cage-bird whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine, would sit aloft and sob with fellow-feeling.
Meanwhile M. Verdurin, after first asking Swann’s permission to light his pipe ("No ceremony here, you understand; we’re all pals!”), went and begged the young musician to sit down at the piano.
“Leave him alone; don’t bother him; he hasn’t come here to be tormented," cried Mme. Verdurin. “I won’t have him tormented.”
“But why on earth should it bother him?” rejoined M. Verdurin. “I’m sure M. Swann has never heard the sonata in F sharp which we discovered; he is going to play us the pianoforte arrangement.”
“No, no, no, not my sonata!” she screamed, “I don’t want to be made to cry until I get a cold in the head, and neuralgia all down my face, like last time; thanks very much, I don’t intend to repeat that performance; you are all very kind and considerate; it is easy to see that none of you will have to stay in bed, for a week.”
This little scene, which was re-enacted as often as the young pianist sat down to play, never failed to delight the audience, as though each of them were witnessing it for the first time, as a proof of the seductive originality of the ’Mistress’ as she was styled, and of the acute sensitiveness of her musical ’ear.’ Those nearest to her would attract the attention of the rest, who were smoking or playing cards at the other end of the room, by their cries of ’Hear, hear!’ which, as in Parliamentary debates, shewed that something worth listening to was being said. And next day they would commiserate with those who had been prevented from coming that evening, and would assure them that the ’little scene’ had never been so amusingly done.
“Well, all right, then,” said M. Verdurin, “he can play just the andante.”
“Just the andante! How you do go on,” cried his wife. “As if it weren’t ’just the andante’ that breaks every bone in my body. The ’Master’ is really too priceless! Just as though, ’in the Ninth,’ he said ’we need only have the finale,’ or ’just the overture’ of the Meistersinger.”
The Doctor, however, urged Mme. Verdurin to let the pianist play, not because he supposed her to be malingering when she spoke of the distressing effects that music always had upon her, for he recognised the existence of certain neurasthenic states–but from his habit, common to many doctors, of at once relaxing the strict letter of a prescription as soon as it appeared to jeopardise, what seemed to him far more important, the success of some social gathering at which he was present, and of which the patient whom he had urged for once to forget her dyspepsia or headache formed an essential factor.
“You won’t be ill this time, you’ll find,” he told her, seeking at the same time to subdue her mind by the magnetism of his gaze. “And, if you are ill, we will cure you.”
“Will you, really?” Mme. Verdurin spoke as though, with so great a favour in store for her, there was nothing for it but to capitulate. Perhaps, too, by dint of saying that she was going to be ill, she had worked herself into a state in which she forgot, occasionally, that it was all only a ’little scene,’ and regarded things, quite sincerely, from an invalid’s point of view. For it may often be remarked that invalids grow weary of having the frequency of their attacks depend always on their own prudence in avoiding them, and like to let themselves think that they are free to do everything that they most enjoy doing, although they are always ill after doing it, provided only that they place themselves in the hands of a higher authority which, without putting them to the least inconvenience, can and will, by uttering a word or by administering a tabloid, set them once again upon their feet.
Odette had gone to sit on a tapestry-covered sofa near the piano, saying to Mme. Verdurin, “I have my own little corner, haven’t I?”
And Mme. Verdurin, seeing Swann by himself upon a chair, made him get up. “You’re not at all comfortable there; go along and sit by Odette; you can make room for M. Swann there, can’t you, Odette?”
“What charming Beauvais!” said Swann, stopping to admire the sofa before he sat down on it, and wishing to be polite.
“I am glad you appreciate my sofa,” replied Mme. Verdurin, “and I warn you that if you expect ever to see another like it you may as well abandon the idea at once. They never made any more like it. And these little chairs, too, are perfect marvels. You can look at them in a moment. The emblems in each of the bronze mouldings correspond to the subject of the tapestry on the chair; you know, you combine amusement with instruction when you look at them;–I can promise you a delightful time, I assure you. Just look at the little border around the edges; here, look, the little vine on a red background in this one, the Bear and the Grapes. Isn’t it well drawn? What do you say? I think they knew a thing or two about design! Doesn’t it make your mouth water, this vine? My husband makes out that I am not fond of fruit, because I eat less than he does. But not a bit of it, I am greedier than any of you, but I have no need to fill my mouth with them when I can feed on them with my eyes. What are you all laughing at now, pray? Ask the Doctor; he will tell you that those grapes act on me like a regular purge. Some people go to Fontainebleau for cures; I take my own little Beauvais cure here. But, M. Swann, you mustn’t run away without feeling the little bronze mouldings on the backs. Isn’t it an exquisite surface? No, no, not with your whole hand like that; feel them property!”
“If Mme. Verdurin is going to start playing about with her bronzes,” said the painter, “we shan’t get any music to-night.”
“Be quiet, you wretch! And yet we poor women,” she went on, “are forbidden pleasures far less voluptuous than this. There is no flesh in the world as soft as these. None. When M. Verdurin did me the honour of being madly jealous... come, you might at least be polite. Don’t say that you never have been jealous!”
“But, my dear, I have said absolutely nothing. Look here, Doctor, I call you as a witness; did I utter a word?”
Swann had begun, out of politeness, to finger the bronzes, and did not like to stop.
“Come along; you can caress them later; now it is you that are going to be caressed, caressed in the ear; you’ll like that, I think. Here’s the young gentleman who will take charge of that.”
After the pianist had played, Swann felt and shewed more interest in him than in any of the other guests, for the following reason:
The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the narrow ribbon of the violin-part, delicate, unyielding, substantial and governing the whole, he had suddenly perceived, where it was trying to surge upwards in a flowing tide of sound, the mass of the piano-part, multiform, coherent, level, and breaking everywhere in melody like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. But at a given moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to collect, to treasure in his memory the phrase or harmony–he knew not which–that had just been played, and had opened and expanded his soul, just as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating our nostrils. Perhaps it was owing to his own ignorance of music that he had been able to receive so confused an impression, one of those that are, notwithstanding, our only purely musical impressions, limited in their extent, entirely original, and irreducible into any other kind. An impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, an impression sine materia. Presumably the notes which we hear at such moments tend to spread out before our eyes, over surfaces greater or smaller according to their pitch and volume; to trace arabesque designs, to give us the sensation of breath or tenuity, stability or caprice. But the notes themselves have vanished before these sensations have developed sufficiently to escape submersion under those which the following, or even simultaneous notes have already begun to awaken in us. And this indefinite perception would continue to smother in its molten liquidity the motifs which now and then emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown; recognised only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instil, impossible to describe, to recollect, to name; ineffable;–if our memory, like a labourer who toils at the laying down of firm foundations beneath the tumult of the waves, did not, by fashioning for us facsimiles of those fugitive phrases, enable us to compare and to contrast them with those that follow. And so, hardly had the delicious sensation, which Swann had experienced, died away, before his memory had furnished him with an immediate transcript, summary, it is true, and provisional, but one on which he had kept his eyes fixed while the playing continued, so effectively that, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer uncapturable. He was able to picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical arrangement, its notation, the strength of its expression; he had before him that definite object which was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished, quite clearly, a phrase which emerged for a few moments from the waves of sound. It had at once held out to him an invitation to partake of intimate pleasures, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing but this phrase could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.
With a slow and rhythmical movement it led him here, there, everywhere, towards a state of happiness noble, unintelligible, yet clearly indicated. And then, suddenly having reached a certain point from which he was prepared to follow it, after pausing for a moment, abruptly it changed its direction, and in a fresh movement, more rapid, multiform, melancholy, incessant, sweet, it bore him off with it towards a vista of joys unknown. Then it vanished. He hoped, with a passionate longing, that he might find it again, a third time. And reappear it did, though without speaking to him more clearly, bringing him, indeed, a pleasure less profound. But when he was once more at home he needed it, he was like a man into whose life a woman, whom he has seen for a moment passing by, has brought a new form of beauty, which strengthens and enlarges his own power of perception, without his knowing even whether he is ever to see her again whom he loves already, although he knows nothing of her, not even her name.