In a Box at the Theatre
Mme de Guermantes said to me: ""You wouldn't care to come to the theatre next Thursday in my cousin's box would you? She told me to bring whoever I wanted. It would be so nice of you to come, Her Highness and myself wouldn't miss it for the world." I went. Alas! since the time when I saw her for the first time all these names had become dead to me and were reflected now only as people, interchangeable one with the other.1 I quickly busied myself merely in the thought of not being late in the low humid corridor where formerly finding myself next to a man who I could not be certain was the Prince de Saxe* nor if he* was going* into the Princesse de Guermantes' box, I had seen looking down like a goddess the figure of an unknown existence. Yet upon entering the Marquise de Tours' box where formerly I had seen against the background shadows* of the box sparkling in the half-light her marvellous silhouette which, like a genie guarding the dark places and defending them against vulgar mortals, and where the freedom of her gestures, her conversation, her gaiety proved that she was quite at home, I had the pleasure of catching sight of, hardly aged, the lovely face that signified it was this very box, which had appeared to me a box just like all the others, that it is her one, it is the mysterious lair and now it is I who am leaning on the dark crags rising up from the depths among those nereids with naked arms and hair threaded with pearls, who am appearing before the people in the orchestra stalls as the favorite of the goddesses. But now I knew that they were not goddesses but women who were no more poetic than any others, that their life was one neither of delights nor mystery, that there was nothing here so different from anywhere else, that this delightful life that I imagined they shared did not exist, that they came here just like me or like anybody else, only less intelligent and more bored, to see a new show, to pass the time, and after saying: "It's very pretty this play" and talking about ladies' outfits and finding them pretty and not mysterious, they would leave because they were tired, without that life of mystery being initiated, without it ever needing to be initiated, still the same as I had perceived. From the box I could distinguish the auditorium stretched out like an immense human tapestry arching towards the performance. They were the same people as in the past, or very nearly. But their enfeebled being seemed more distant behind their more remote appearance, already retreating* into greater feebleness, having great difficulty holding together the features that told who they were. Mme de Chemisey was no longer there, she had died without ever meeting the Princesse de Beauvoir who was in the next box, hardly able to hold up her tiara, weighed down, taking up her fan and gazing at the stage. Everybody was still performing the same gestures, but the wear and tear* on the material* had changed its expression, like those figures on a tapestry where a single pulled thread makes an ever smiling face appear to be weeping. This immense panorama that encircled me was of a generation that had passed and that, still carrying out its little businesses, was no longer aware of the voyage that it was undertaking in comparison to the immutability of time, just as we ourselves are aware of the movement of our victoria or of our motor car but not of the movement that the earth on which we are placed accomplishes around the sun. And yet this entire tapestry had at the same time something of the distant past, crepuscular, ravaged*, and also solemn*, quivering, already half-forgotten*, straining over a difficult endeavour*. I did not recognize a gentleman with a white moustache and a grave and sombre expression in Princesse de B's box. He was sitting obliquely behind her looking out over the auditorium. In order to greet a neighbouring lady he half raised himself up in a gracious and polite bow. Then I recognized him as the young Saint-Preux, so gracious, so florid, so chubby. At the exit all those people that gave the appearance of going to attend some pleasure, all had the appearance of fleeing, of rapidly retreating back into their shadows. The Duchesse de [...] went by, sullen, weary, surrendering her hand to the hands held out to her, and fled with her bust thrust out towards her carriage, without [illegible], between the tall Porgès* footmen. "Tell me," I asked, Mme de Guermantes, "you can't by any chance remember one evening you were here. In a word, when you would come into the box with that assured expression and you would give your hand with a look, wait, make your expression a little more severe, yes, like that, oh, no, if you start laughing it's not the same, to the Duc de Vauban*, what is it you wanted to say, what was in your mind at that particular moment, that I wanted to carry off and to love. What was it, what were you thinking about at that moment?" She began to laugh. "Oh, don't laugh."
"What's he saying?" said the Princesse de Guermantes inquisitively, because she was thoroughly bored, thinking that as she hardly knew me that I might be a bore, or somebody of intelligence. "He's making me laugh. He's saying the most ridiculous things to me, and at the same time he's telling me not to laugh. I have to tell him what I was thinking about one evening when they were performing P ten years ago when I was saying hello to Valbon*, and what was I thinking when I looked so serious, and can I remember."
"Well I can tell you," said the Princesse de Guermantes, "she was looking bored because it was so tiresome for her to spend an evening with Valbon*. He was a good talker and a man with a certain merit* but he was the most boring man we have ever known with his empty phrases and his puns.
"Oh, he was certainly that. Nobody has ever bored me to such an extent as that bawdy windbag," the Duchesse added. I looked at her sorrowfully as I saw beneath the mysterious appearance that I was in love with were hiding those same feelings common to everybody, the most banal ideas. "So you think the Duchesse takes more pleasure in my company than d'Albon's2," I asked the Princesse de Guermantes.
"Listen to me, you are a young fool to ask such a question," interrupted Mme de Guermantes. "I tell you that I hold Albon up as everything that is most boring and you can quite well see that I find you... Ask Giselle3 what we were saying just yesterday." The Princesse related a remark that would have touched me although I was quite conscious* that what was least bad in me remained* unknown and incomprehensible to these* two ladies. "I won't ask anything more about it," I said. "But anyway let's come back to d'Albon, because I recall a memory from that evening when I saw you saying hello to him; is it true that you would have sacrificed an evening you were going to spend with him to spend it with me?"
"But that often happened," the Princesse told me. "More than once I invited her with d'Albon and she refused, thinking that perhaps you would be coming that evening."
"And I wasn't deluding myself, you fickle man," said the Duchesse. Most certainly the opinion that the Duchesse de Guermantes had of me was both exaggerated and false. But I told myself that it is possible to reconcile the highest nobility, the greatest wealth, the greatest beauty, to have all the advantages that would appear to place you above the rest of the world, by the fact that you are a person who thinks there is something that is above everything else and that makes you hold them cheap, and that is an idea, an opinion, a belief, in the interest or the value of a person or a thing. And it is perhaps, alas, for that that all the advantages we might seek so as to please a woman we are in love with, are immediately reduced to nothing, by the idea that you are impressing her at the same time, that she is superior to them. I looked at the Princesse de Guermantes who was listening to the play, and not finding very much to say to the others, M. de Berneux who had dressed himself up to come and being tired would not be long going home to bed, they were all so little entertained that an insignificant word spoken by M. de Tretor* made them all burst out laughing and I realized that what I had taken for external appearances, the behind the scenes, the supporting props* of the mysterious life that these people had to have and that I was not permitted to see, that flimsy mask, that something that was beneath them through which they condescended before me, on the contrary that was their life, what they themselves considered as their lives, their vocations, their pleasures, their goals, not as a scorned disguise but as something for which they strived, that to which they felt themselves inferior, with which they filled their time without telling themselves that they would do better the next day, that it was their goal, that there were no more secrets to be discovered, no background picture. These fine words of the Princesse de Guermantes were all she had, all she could find to say, she had put on this becoming dress to dine in the restaurant where she no longer spoke and towards ten o'clock they said to themselves "what if we went to the theatre" and then nothing more was said; after an hour they went and that would have been one hour taken out of their lives dedicated to something that formed no part of their lives, that is the way it always was. M. de Bernin who had put in his monocle in place of his pince-nez out of intimacy and made a few mediocre observations."It's well acted, the company are rather good, the seats are a little hard," was not just a way of killing time while he waited to take the stage for his true life, that was his true life, he even began to nod off and soon left so as to be able to have a sleep and start all over again the next day. As luck would have it the observation about the hard seats induced him to say that he must tell Valois (who knew a lot of the managers, the artists organizing theatrical entertainments everywhere) to have the seats changed, Valois' past that they knew amused them greatly, so much so that Mme de Terriane had to hide her wild laughter behind her fan and go to the back of the box so as not to cause a scandal. "Oh yes! I'll have to tell Valois, he'll go mad, his dear theatre, I think I'll speak to Lucie* about it tomorrow. I shall say that we were all very badly seated." During the intermission nobody knew what to say, they passed sweets around. The Princesse de Guermantes made a few observations about the play. As she had a reputation as a woman of intelligence and that within the Guermantes circle it was the latest thing to say that she was stupid, Mme de Guermantes who in any case found everything serious that was said, every lofty remark as idiotic, looked at me from the corner of her eye. This was a starting point for her and the following day she would recount the evening at which I had been present as though it had been a regular evening of their life but one of the best. "You can't imagine how amused we were. Floriane4 wanted him to say some fine words about the play, I could see that he couldn't keep a straight face. He'll have to start again, you could make her go to war over the big subjects." During that intermission I had had the impression that everybody was inclining towards me, I who thought myself unworthy of gaining access into the mystery of their lives, as if I contained within me some mystery that I might reveal to them. But to everything they asked me, fully conscious that they would not understand a single word if I replied seriously, and not even understanding their questions, I felt myself paralyzed as if I was at an examination on things one did not know, and I was ashamed of the stupid things I had said, among three or four things a little less foolish. But these had passed unnoticed or were considered pretentious, whereas they quoted with admiration certain idiotic words I had said, at least they asserted as much because I could not imagine having formulated such things destitute of any meaning. In any case I ceased to protest, because they said it was out of modesty, everyone was admiring the words, an elderly lady had them repeated to her twice so as to remember them, the Marquis de P on the threshold* said to me: "Remind me again what it was that you said that was so amusing, how did it go?" because he did not wish to appear not to be sharing the joke* in front of the others, two duchesses who hardly knew me invited me to dinner saying: "We adore witty people and little stories from the past more than anything, collections of sayings", in the end I was aware that they would carry on talking about it at their various dinners for some time to come, about those [illegible] in which I was trying to imagine the inaccessible mystery, and who had fervently raised themselves up to feast on some stupid words that I had probably never said.
The extraordinary price of new outfits, the importance that was attached to what the men wore, over-dressed women, the inexorable law of not missing an attendance other than through illness, and being intransportable, made more striking what these expensive follies resulted in, the risks to the health*, the obligations they gave themselves, that is to say not to be able to think for oneself, to laugh unaccountably at foolish words and upon leaving to pride themselves for such an excellent evening. It is true... [incomplete]
From Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes; Cahiers du Temps retrouvé, Gallimard 1982.
* Words that are doubtful.
1. Below the text five lines later Proust wrote: "But alas I could no longer contemplate the Duchesse and Princesse de Guermantes as on the day on which the corridor that lead to the box seemed to me more miraculous than the ones in Arabian tales that lead to some treasures..."
2. Proust shows some indecision about the name of the character. We see variously Vallon, or Vallonne, or Vauban.
3. Giselle must be the name of the Princesse.
4. It is clearly the Duchesse speaking. Therefore Floriane must be the Princesse's name and Giselle must be the Duchesse's name in spite of what we have read earlier.
Return to Front Page