Days of Reading, manuscript passage1

   And while reading the Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne - rather oddly entitled "The Recollections of an Aunt" -, I asked myself what they could possibly have been like, in general, in their own lifetimes, these female authors of Memoirs in which they astound frivolous posterity with the din of their elegance, and I asked myself the same thing about our contemporaries, ladies with whom we dine every evening, who have the chance to provide for generations to come an equally sumptuous image of themselves. Beside this has a practical importance, even and especially for chaste society ladies, and they would admit this if they would like to consider the following few observations and if it is not asking the impossible to wish for a society lady to think seriously for a moment, even about something frivolous. Poets and philosophers have long told us that for all of us whoever we may be, our life is the promise of boundless oblivion that in a few years devours and demolishes all that appeared the most certain to endure in the memory of mankind. But look at what the archaeologists and archivists show us, that, on the contrary, nothing is forgotten, nothing is destroyed, that the most paltry circumstances of life, the most remote from ourselves, has marked its furrow in the immense catacombs of the past where humanity narrates its existence hour by hour; that there is not a piece of ground in Crete, Egypt or Assyria that is not awaiting, since the birth of history, somebody to come and extract its history: the most trifling details, the vainest pleasures in the life of Theseus, Amenhotep or Sargon that, however frivolous they seemed to those who found only amusement in them and judged them to be if not sinful, at least of no interest in themselves, are, today, when such entertainment has vanished after so many centuries, material for the most serious researches of our scholars.
   How did Ashurbanipal go about it when he wished to lay on a hunt in honour of Oummanigâsh, Oumma-nappa, Tarnariton or Koudourron, in the enclosed neighbourhoods of Dur-Sharrukin, the various episodes of battues, spearings, the killing of big game, the luxury of the breakfast served on the hunting ground inside a pavilion, even the exaggeration of the descriptions (Tiglat-phalazar boasted of killing a hundred and twenty lions), the return of the guests, we know all this with the same exactitude as if it concerned the battues at Bois-Boudran or the loosing of the dogs at Vallière. M. Ferrari will not object if I tell him that he is no better informed about the hunts at Esclimont, Courances, Ferrières or Bonelles than M. Maspéro is about those at the Valley of Aion or the pools at Dab; in these last examples there are certain old friends of Sennacherib, experienced horsemen that Ashurbanipal allowed solely for difficult [missing text] and who appear to create a misapprehension in M. de La Force or M.H.C. For the hunts that Nakhtminou laid on at his castle at Aion when he had Psarou as guest, M. Maspéro could even give us the names of the greyhounds that the grooms held on their leashes, Aba'ikaro, Pouhtes, Togrou. And such ancient history is not alone in the privilege of appearing to us in some aspect in the present. Quite close to our time, at the end of the XVIIIth century, the moment the most obscure revolutionary bought, without even choosing them, the poor belongings in the midst of which he lived and which being completely friendless, he was perhaps the only one to see, one of those humble moments that are of interest only to the one who sees them, that he could not hope, I do not even say to make endure beyond him, but simply in his lifetime to have understood and shared with somebody, even this moment survives, and M. Lenôtre would need do nothing but search in his great catalogue of centuries in which it seems that all of the past has its exact and meticulous double. Recent or distant, our virtual contemporary or from earliest history, there is not a detail, not a sign of life, however futile or fragile it may appear, that has been lost. And if the flower of a Theban rose-bush or a honeycomb from a hive in Hymettus were forgotten at the bottom of a hypogeum for hundreds of centuries, the scholar who first opens it up discovers them so fully intact that he is obliged to contest it as thousand year old booty and yet so fresh to the bees of the present, to the bees of today that, in the sunlight on the road, they are mistaken by it and want to tear it away from him.
   In this vast survival of everything that comes to light on the surface of the earth, it is therefore to be believed that snobbism takes its share, and we shall often see once again, just as we have already seen, chaste society ladies surviving within the frivolous Memoirs that they leave us.
   But what existed of their living selves that are represented thus in their Memoirs as "queens of elegance"? How many were? Truly queens of elegance? Of those fashionable women in their salons into which all the most brilliant people of their generation sought to gain access? To tell the truth (with the possible exception of Mme de Boigne) I don't believe a word of it. Furthermore I believed (exception admitted, and especially the foresaid) these Memoirs were and nearly always will be written by the sort of persons, often very well born, but, who knows why, little sought after that ladies of fashion like to call "old cows". The type whose salon gives us the impression from their writings of a precious, inaccessible and closed sanctuary but was in their real life systematically shunned by the elegant persons to whom she vainly held its doors open wide. There are plenty of reasons why. The first is that women of elegance do not know how to write and, if they do know, having neither the time nor the desire to do so, the best ones reproach it in themselves as a want of taste. Others can put plenty of charm into writing on a card: "Think of me next Friday at ten o'clock", but anything longer than that is unknown to them. All the same I imagine that posterity, even where it concerns snobbism, will be more exacting and will not be satisfied with so little; and even simply to leave an impression of frivolity, a great deal of seriousness would have been required, that special seriousness that, in a salon, makes pedantry and cooking so disagreeable. Pure frivolity is powerless to evoke any sort of impression at all, not even of frivolity. A frivolous work of art is still a work of art, and it is still written by an author. It is possible that Mme de Boigne had been an extremely sought after woman in her lifetime, and I admit that the impression of elegance that she gives us about herself in her Memoirs has nothing of a posthumous or literary bluff about it. The fact remains that, to write charming frivolous Memoirs, she first had to write bad serious books that are scarcely read any longer today, and all that did not come about without releasing a fragrance of gravity, of "bookishness", of liberalism, of myth and bitterness that, even in the pages of her Memoirs, does not appear to have been fully appreciated by certain elegant circles of her time. Read the truly beautiful letter she wrote him in Saint-Beuve's Lundis after the death of the Duc Pasquier. Her feat is so remarkable that every mind accustomed to see in things the indication of something else that seems to be of a totally different order, will immediately imagine the lady capable of writing an equally remarkable letter (and that would be wrong, this is Mme de Boigne) being carelessly "dropped" at the end of a morning party by young women who address her with vague, excessive and distant good mornings, formal good mornings that do not "recognize" her. The balance between good and evil is inflexible and fastidious. And it is not posthumous glory bought at the cost of a few lifelong insults. But the revenge of these lady writers of Memoirs begins with these very Memoirs. Then it is all different, and the lady, whether she is sought after or not in her lifetime, can make us believe whatever she likes. If she tells us that hers was the most elegant salon in Paris, who then will go and check? Imagine what a very small number of brilliant people the lady author had to have been acquainted with for her to give the reader the maximum impression of elegance that that reader is ready to believe. She could have known a hundred times more, and it would have been of no use whatsoever, because she was not able to fit them into her necessarily limited frame. And if she kept the company of a lot of people who were nothing less than elegant, as she would no longer have the space to name them it amounts to the same thing as if she had been "difficult in her choice of connections". In the absurd present-day concept of elegance, no doubt some illustrious friendships are not prejudiced in any way by the elegance of the one who knew how to win them. But it is even more so with posterity. What matter that a diarist is known, what matter that it can be quoted in her Memoirs? Great political figures are useful and, even under a monarchy, it is not the most elegant salons that they usually frequent. [...] Sovereigns? Excellent. And we know they are often very poor relations, unless not having begun to reign until very late as well as having been for many years mere elegant society people (for example the current English sovereigns). Princesses? At this very moment there are four or five of them in France that it is too easy to frequent socially not to make them discredited in the eyes of a snob. [...] "Enough of these Princesses, enough, it doesn't mean a thing", someone recently advised his sister-in-law, someone whom Balzac would have described as "one of the most esteemed men of the Faubourg Saint-Germain". In the present-day notion of elegance an American snob who receives only brilliant people is "more elegant" than a prince who keeps company with no matter whom. It is not what he is, it is the people he sees that is everyone's measure of elegance. We can well believe that posterity will not enter into such follies and you may say that it will be quite correct. [...] As far as I am concerned, when I search through all the women I have known for those who have the good fortune to cut the figure of grand ladies in the eyes of posterity, there are two ladies (and I would astonish a lot of contemporaries it I were to name them) [...] of high birth, but the mysterious decrees of fashion had refused especially to receive the people who were not part of their world, apart from a few exceptions who would be perfectly sufficient to sumptuously furnish their Memoirs. Nothing but that connected with their kinship, of the most illustrious nobility (and very assiduous in their houses, be it through respect for the past, be it through hope in the future, represented in the form of a large inheritance) will give the reader the impression of the most brilliant life and the most aristocratic surroundings. Their two salons into which so many people from society will not set foot, will be declared the most elegant of the XIXth century, first of all by themselves, followed by celebrated writers who will repeat it sincerely because they have been made to believe it so readily. These ladies will be able to talk about all the famous artists, men of politics, great figures from foreign parts, celebrated families and historical names in their Memoirs, and all this will be of interest to posterity, because all of this will connect with what is already familiar to posterity. As they were both very intelligent, as they had a lot of time because they were rarely invited out, and nobody hardly ever came to see them, they could read a lot and write a lot, and the originality of mind that prevented them from succeeding in society will be what makes a success of their Memoirs. Ladies of this type often have a long standing liaison with an elderly statesman who comes to talk politics to them every evening over a game of bezique and have generally been unable to succeed in establishing in the ladies' houses the elegant society that he himself frequents, but from time to time has lured into their homes the most interesting of the grand European personalities of his acquaintance that wish to be agreeable to him, and with whom these ladies would be in the absurd position of discussing the most important affairs, such as would provide them with the most interesting stories to tell our grandchildren and which would be of just as much interest at Mme X's little dinner parties to which during their lifetimes it was their great regret to have never been invited. [...] I can picture, on a visit of one of them to the other, in a melancholy drawing-room in the Faubourg Saint-Germain barely heated by a meagre wood fire, the two "old cows" that I have just been telling you about. Two visitors only, from the not so brilliant bourgeoisie and the not so well known literary world. They look at a portrait on the wall of the great-grandfather, brother of the Grand Duchess of Homburg. And the mistress of the house exercises on them, already quite unconsciously, totally intimidated as they are, the whole rigmarole of her Memoirs: "At that time you see, my dear Monsieur, nobody in society had any wish to mix with ministers, and I can still hear my father, I was still very small, saying to King Charles X: 'I always do what I can to please Your Majesty. But to allow myself to introduce M. Villèle, never.' But a short time afterwards I was looking at some pictures that Mme Adélaïde had sent me for my amusement along with the young princesses, when in comes the King: 'Florimond, I make an appeal to your patriotism', said he to my father, etc." The old and charming mistress of the house was in the full flow of her tale when in hurried a pretty young woman in a tailored costume: "Allow me to present my niece, Princesse de Gênes." The two visitors were no longer in any doubt that they had come to spend the afternoon in the most elegant drawing-room in Paris. They were already "the readers of their Memoirs". They had already become a little part of posterity. Believe me, it will be these two ladies or two of their congeners that will be chosen by posterity. What would you rather have? They will have far more interesting tales to tell us than the ones who do nothing but play golf.

1. Journées de lecture was published in Le Figaro on 20 March 1907, but the editors chose to cut this entire passage. This is taken from the original manuscript. The passage would have been placed immediately before the last two paragraphs of the published piece.


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