Portrait of Mme ***


   Nicole combines with her Italian grace the mystery of women from the North. She has their blonde tresses, eyes as light as the transparence of the sky in a lake, their stately bearing. But she exhales a knowing indolence and as if ripened by the Tuscan sun which moistens the gaze of women, draws out their arms, lifts up the corners of their mouths, lends rhythm to their gait so as to render all their beauties divinely languorous. And it is not excessive that the charms of two climates and of two races are blended together to compose Nicole's charm, because she is the perfect courtesan, if by that one wanted to say merely that in her the art of pleasing has reached a truly unique degree, which is a product of both natural gifts and applied study, which is natural and refined. Also the tiniest flower held between her breasts or in her hand, the most banal compliment coming from her lips, the most vulgar act, such as offering her arm to go to table, takes on, when it is she who accomplishes it, a grace which has the same power to disconcert as an artistic emotion. All things around her become sweetened into a delicious harmony which is embodied in the folds of her dress. But Nicole shows no concern for the artistic pleasure she procures, and her gaze which seems to permit so many pleasures, hardly knowing on whom she lets it fall, with no other reason no doubt than that at that particular time its fall was beautiful. She concerns herself with nothing but good, loves it enough to do it, loves it too much to content herself with doing it, without trying to understand what - by doing it - she does. One could never say that she has the pedantry of magnanimity, because she has too much sincere taste for that. Let us say that she has erudition, charming erudition which puts nothing into her head or into her mouth but the amiable names of the Virtues. Her charm is sweeter still, as though perfumed with a saintly odour. It is rare to be able to admire that which we love. It is even more exquisite to apprehend in the indolent and rich beauty of Nicole, in her lactea ubertas, in all her fragrant person, the seductions, the fecundity of a great heart.


First appeared in Le Banquet no 6, Nov 1892. Apparently this sketch was based on Mme Guillaume Beer, née Elena Goldschmidt-Franchetti, born in Florence in 1870, known later in literature under the pseudonym Jean Dornis. Reprinted in Cahiers Marcel Proust 3, Textes retrouvés, Gallimard 1971.

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