A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU
These extracts are taken from the second volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, entitled Le côte de Guermantes, which is to be published shortly by Bernard Grasset.
My mother, who sent me
with my grandmother to Balbec, but stayed behind alone in Paris,
understood what despair it would cause me to leave her; so she
decided to say goodbye to us on the platform much earlier rather
than to wait until the time of our departure where, previously
concealed by the comings and goings and preparations which
promised nothing definite, a separation seemed harsh and
impossible to endure when it was too late to avoid, wholly
concentrated in an immense moment of supreme and powerless
lucidity. She would come with us into the station, into that
tragic and marvellous place where I now had to abandon all hope
of returning home, but where a miracle was about to take place
thanks to which those very places in which I would soon be living
would be the very places which as yet had no existence outside my
own imagination. Besides, the thought of Balbec did not seem to
me to be any the less desirable because it had to be bought at a
terrible cost and on the contrary symbolized the reality of the
impression I was going there to seek, an impression which no equivalent spectacle, no stereoscopic image,
which would not have prevented me from returning home to sleep in
my own bed, could have replaced. I already felt that those who love and those who feel pleasure are
not the same, and that whatever it was that I would come to love, that it would never be
attained other than at the end of a painful pursuit in which I would first sacrifice my pleasure to
the paramount good instead of seeking it therein.
Today we would doubtless make such a journey by motor car and we should think this would render it more agreeable and more real, following more closely the various gradations according to which the surface of the earth is diversified. But after all the specific attraction of a journey lies not in our being able to alight at places on the way and to stop as soon as we grow tired, it is in its making the difference between departure and arrival not as imperceptible but as intense as possible, to preserve it in its totality, intact, as it existed in us when our imagination bore us from the place in which we were living to the very heart of a place we longed to see, in a single leap which seemed miraculous to us not so much because it covered a certain distance as because it united two distinct individualities of the world, which took us from one name to another name; a difference that schematized (better than in a real excursion in which, since one can disembark where one chooses, there can scarcely be said to be any point of arrival) by the mysterious operation performed in those peculiar places, railway stations, which scarcely form part of their surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality just as on their sign-boards they bear its name, smoking laboratories, pestiferous caverns through which we gain access to the mystery, vast glass-roofed sheds, like the one I entered that day when I went to find the train to Balbec, and which extended over the eviscerated city one of those immense, bleak and tragic skies, like certain skies, of an almost Parisian modernity, by Mantegna or Veronese, and beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in process, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.
We were informed that Balbec church was in Old Balbec, quite a distance from Balbec-Plage where we were going to stay. It was agreed that I would go and visit it on my own. I was to meet up with my grandmother again in the little local train that went to Balbec-Plage and we would arrive together at the hotel.
The sea that I had imagined coming to expire at the foot of the church, was more than fifteen miles away, and, rising besides its cupola, that steeple which, - because I had read that it was itself a rugged Norman cliff around which the winds howled and the seabirds wheeled, -I had always pictured to myself receiving at its base the last dying foam of the uplifted waves, stood on a square which was the junction of two tramway routes, opposite a café which bore, in letters of gold, the legend "Billiards", against a background of houses with chimneys where no masts of ships were intermingled. And the church - impinging on my attention at the same time as the café, the passing stranger of whom I had had to ask my way, the station to which presently I should have to return - merged with all the rest, seemed an accident, a by-product of this summer afternoon, in which the mellow and distended cupola against the sky was like a fruit of which the same light that bathed the chimneys of the houses ripened the pink, glowing, luscious skin. But I only wished to consider the eternal significance of the carvings when I recognized the Apostles, of which I had seen casts in the Trocadéro museum, and which on either side of the Virgin, before the deep bay of the porch, were awaiting me as though to do me honour. With their benevolent, mild faces and bowed shoulders they seemed to be advancing upon me with an air of welcome, singing the Alleluia of a fine day. But it was evident that their expression was immutable and altered only if we changed our position, as happens when we walk around a dead dog. And I said to myself: "Here it is: this is Balbec Church . This square, which looks as though it were conscious of its glory, is the only place in the world that possesses Balbec Church. All that I have seen so far have been photographs of this church, casts of these Apostles, of the famous Virgin of the Porch in a museum. Now here is the church itself, the statue itself, they, the only ones - this is something far greater."
Perhaps also something less. As a young man on the day of an examination or a duel feels the date that he has been asked, the shot that he has fired, to be very insignificant when he thinks of the reserves of knowledge and of valour that he would like to have displayed, so my mind, which had lifted the Virgin of the Porch far above the reproductions that I had had before my eyes, invulnerable to the vicissitudes which might threaten them, intact even if they were broken, if they were shattered, ideal, endowed with a universal value, was astonished to see the statue which it had carved a thousand times, reduced now to its own stone semblance, occupying, in relation to the reach of my arm, a place in which it had for rivals an election poster and the point of my stick, fettered in the Square, inseparable from the opening of the main street, powerless to hide from the gaze of the café and of the omnibus office, receiving on its face half of the ray of the setting sun - and presently, in a few hours time, of the light of the street lamp - of which the savings bank received the other half, affected just the same by the smells from the pastry cook's oven, subjected to the tyranny of the Particular to such a point that, if I had chosen to scribble my name upon that stone, it was she, the illustrious Virgin whom until then I had endowed with a general existence and an intangible beauty, the Virgin of Balbec, the unique (which meant, alas, the only one), who, on her body coated with the same soot as defiled the neighbouring houses, would have displayed, powerless to rid herself of them, to all the admiring strangers come there to gaze upon her, the marks of my piece of chalk and the letters of my name, and as it was she, the immortal work of art so long desired, as was the church itself, turned into a little old woman in stone whose height I could measure and whose wrinkles I could count. But time was passing, I must return to the station. Casting the blame for my disappointment upon various accidental causes, such as the state of my health, my tiredness, my incapacity for looking at things properly, I endeavoured to console myself with the thought that other towns still remained intact for me, that tomorrow perhaps, I might make my way, as into a shower of pearls, into the cool babbling murmur of Quimperlé, or traversing the roseate glow in which verdant Pont-Aven was bathed; but as for Balbec, no sooner had I set foot in it than it was as though I had broken open a name which ought to have been kept hermetically closed, and into which, seizing at once the opportunity that I had imprudently given them, expelling all the images that had lived in it until then, a tramway, a café, people crossing the square, the branch of the savings bank, irresistibly propelled by some external pressure, by a pneumatic force, had come surging into the interior of those two syllables which, closing over them, now let them frame the porch of the Persian church and would henceforth never cease to contain them.
I met up with my grandmother again in the little train. My deception occupied me steadily less as the place to which my body would have to become accustomed drew nearer. Uppermost in my mind I was trying to form a mental picture of the manager of the hotel at Balbec, for whom I, at that moment did not exist, and I should have liked to be presenting myself to him in more impressive company than that of my grandmother, who would be certain to ask him for a reduction in his terms. He appeared to me to be endowed with an indubitable haughtiness, but its contours were very vague. We were still not at Balbec-Plage; every few minutes the little train brought us to a standstill at one of the stations which came before, stations the mere names of which (Cricqueville, Equemauville, Couliville) seemed to me outlandish, whereas if I had come upon them in a book I should at once have been struck by their affinity to the names of certain places in the neighbourhood of Combray. But to the ear of a musician two themes, substantially composed of the same notes, will present no similarity whatsoever if they differ in the colour of their harmony and orchestration. In the same way, nothing could have reminded me less than these dreary names, redolent of sand, of space so airy and empty, and of salt, of Rousainville, or Martinville, of those names which, because I had heard them pronounced so often by my great-aunt at table, in the dining-room, had acquired a certain sombre charm in which were blended perhaps extracts of the flavour of preserves, the smell of the log fire and of the pages of one of Bergotte's books, or the colour of the sandstone front of the house opposite, and which even today, when they rise like a gaseous bubble from the depths of my memory, preserve their own specific virtue through all the successive layers of different environments which they must traverse before reaching the surface.
Overlooking the distant sea from the crests of their dunes or already settling down for the night at the foot of hills of a harsh green and a disagreeable shape, like that of the sofa in one's bedroom in an hotel at which one has just arrived, each composed of a cluster of villas whose line was extended to include a tennis court and occasionally a casino over which a flag flapped in the freshening, hollow, uneasy wind, and of little stations which showed me for the first time, through their habitual exteriors, tennis players in white hats, the station-master living there on the spot among his tamarisks and roses, a lady who, following the everyday routine of an existence which I should never know, was calling to her dog which was lingering nearby, before going into her bungalow where the lamp was already lighted and closing the door behind her - and which with these strangely ordinary and disdainfully familiar sights cruelly stung my unconsidered eyes and stabbed my homesick heart. But how much more were my sufferings increased when we had finally landed in the hall of the Grand Hotel at Balbec, as I stood there in front of the monumental staircase of imitation marble, while my grandmother, regardless of the growing hostility and contempt of the strangers among whom we were about to live, discussed "terms" with the manager, a pot-bellied man in a dinner jacket, with a face and a voice alike covered with scars left by the excision of countless pustules from the one, and from the other the diverse accents acquired from an alien ancestry and a cosmopolitan upbringing. While I heard my grandmother ask him in an artificial tone of voice: "And what are ... your charges? ... Oh! far too high for my little budget", waiting on a bench, I took refuge in the innermost depths of my being, strove to migrate to a plane of eternal thoughts, to leave nothing of myself, nothing living on the surface of my body, anaesthetized like those of certain animals, which, by inhibition, feign death when they are wounded, so as not to suffer too keenly in this place, my total unfamiliarity with which was impressed upon me all the more forcibly by the familiarity with it that seemed to be evinced at the same moment by a smartly dressed lady to whom the manager showed his respect by taking liberties with her little dog, the young "blood" with a feather in his hat who came in whistling and asking for his letters, all these people for whom climbing those imitation marble stairs meant going home.
My grandmother went out for a walk, I decided to go up and wait for her in our rooms, the manager himself came forward and pressed a button, whereupon a personage whose acquaintance I had not yet made, known as "lift" (and who at the highest point of the hotel, where the lantern would be in a Norman church, was installed like a photographer behind his curtain or even more like an organist in his loft) began to descend towards me with the agility of a domestic, industrious and captive squirrel. Then, gliding upwards again along a steel pillar, he bore me aloft in his wake towards the dome of this temple to commerce. Then so as to dissipate the mortal anguish I felt in traversing in silence the mystery of this chiaroscuro so devoid of poetry, lighted by a single vertical line of little windows which were those of the solitary water-closet on each landing, I addressed a few words to the young organist, artificer of my journey and my partner in captivity, who continued to manipulate the registers of his instrument and to finger the stops. I apologised for taking up so much room, for giving him so much trouble, and asked whether I was not obstructing him in the practice of an art in regard to which, in order to flatter the virtuoso more than displaying curiosity, I confessed my strong attachment. But he made no reply, whether from astonishment at my words, preoccupation with his work, regard for etiquette, hardness of hearing, respect for his position, fear of danger, slowness of understanding, or the manager's orders. There is perhaps nothing which gives us so strong an impression of the reality of the external world - of the objectivity of life - as the difference in the position, relative to ourselves, of even a quite unimportant person before we have met him and after. I was the same man who had come, that afternoon, in the little train from Balbec, I carried in my body the same consciousness. But on that consciousness, in the place where at six o'clock there had been no possibility of forming any idea of the manager, the hotel, his staff, and a vague and timorous anticipation of the moment at which I would reach my destination, at this same place were to be found now the pustules excised from the face of the manager, his action in ringing for the lift, the lift-boy himself, a whole frieze of characters like puppet-show characters issuing from that Pandora's box, undeniable, irremovable and sterile like a complete fait accompli but which at least, by this change which I had done nothing to bring about proved to me that something had happened which was external to myself - and in any case of no significance; I was like the traveller who, having had the sun in his face when he started his journey, concludes that time has passed when he finds the sun behind him. I was half-dead with exhaustion, I was burning with fever, I would have gone to bed, but I had no night things. I should have liked at least to lie down for a little while on the bed, but to what purpose since I should not have been able to procure any rest for that mass of sensations which is for each of us his conscious if not his physical body, and since the unfamiliar objects which encircled that body, forcing it to place its perceptions on the permanent footing of a vigilant defensive, would have kept my sight, my hearing, all my senses in a position as cramped and uncomfortable (even if I had stretched out my legs) as that of Cardinal La Balue in the cage in which he could neither stand nor sit. It is our noticing them that puts things in a room, our growing used to them that takes them away again and clears a space for us. Space there was none for me in my bedroom at Balbec that was mine in name only, because it was full of things which did not know me, which flung back at me the distrustful glance I cast at them, and, without taking any heed of my existence, showed that I was interrupting the humdrum course of theirs. The clock - whereas at home I heard mine tick only a few seconds in a week, when I was coming out of some profound meditation - continued without a moment's interruption to utter, in an unknown tongue, a series of observations which must have been most uncomplimentary to myself, for the violet curtains listened to them without replying, but in an attitude such as people adopt who shrug their shoulders and raise their eyebrows to indicate that the sight of a third person irritates them. I was tormented by the presence of some little bookcases with glass fronts which ran along the walls, but especially by a large cheval-glass which stood across one corner and before the departure of which I felt that there could be no possibility of rest for me there. I kept raising my eyes - which the things in my room in Paris disturbed its expansion no more than did my eyeballs themselves, for they were merely extensions of my organs, an enlargement of myself - towards the high ceiling of this narrow belvedere planted upon the summit of the hotel and that my grandmother had chosen for me; and deep down in that region more intimate than that in which we see and hear, in that region where we experience the quality of smells, almost in the very heart of my innermost self, the scent of flowering grasses next launched its offensive against my last line of trenches, an offensive against which I opposed, not without exhausting myself still further, by the futile and unremitting riposte of an alarmed sniffling. Having no world, no bedroom, no body now that was not menaced by the enemies thronging around me, penetrated to the very bones of my fever, I was alone and I longed to die. Then my grandmother came in, and to the expansion of my constricted heart there opened at once an infinity of space.
I knew, when I was with my grandmother, that however great the misery that was in me, it would be received by her with a pity still more vast; that everything that was mine, my cares, my wishes, would be buttressed by a desire to preserve and enhance my life that was altogether stronger than my own; and my thoughts were continued and extended in her without undergoing the slightest deflection, since they passed from my mind into hers without any change of atmosphere or of personality. And, like the man who tries to fasten his tie in front of a mirror and forgets that the end which he sees reflected is not on the side to which he raises his hand, or like dog that chases along the ground the dancing shadow of an insect in the air, misled by her appearance in the body as we are apt to be in this world where we have no direct perception of people's souls, I threw myself into her arms and pressed my lips to her cheeks as though I were thus gaining access to that immense heart which she opened to me. And when I felt my mouth glued to her cheeks, to her brow, I drew from them something so beneficial, so nourishing, that I remained as motionless, as solemn, as calmly gluttonous as a baby at the breast. And I gazed inexhaustibly at her large face, outlined like a beautiful cloud, glowing and serene, behind which I could discern the radiance of her tender love. "Be sure", she told me, "to knock on the wall if you want anything in the night, my bed is just on the other side, and the partitions are quite thin. Just give me a knock now, as soon as you're in bed, so that we shall know where we are."
And sure enough, that evening I gave three knocks - a signal which, a week later, when I was ill, I repeated every morning for several days, because my grandmother wanted me to have some milk early. Then, when I thought that I could hear her stirring - so that she should not be kept waiting but might, the moment she had brought me the milk, go to sleep again - I would venture three little taps, timidly, faintly, but for all that distinctly, for if I was afraid of disturbing her in case I had been mistaken and she was still asleep, neither did I wish her to lie awake listening for a summons which she had not at once caught and which I should not have the heart to repeat. And scarcely had I given my taps than I heard three others, in a different tone from mine, stamped with a calm authority, repeated twice over so that there should be no mistake, and saying to me plainly: "Don't get agitated, I've heard you, don't fret, I shall be with you in a minute!" and my grandmother would appear. I would explain to her that I had been afraid she would not hear me, or think that it was someone in the room beyond who was tapping; at which she would smile:
"Mistake my poor pet's knocking for anybody else's! Why, your old grandmother could tell it a mile away! Do you suppose there's anybody else in the world who's such a silly-billy, with such febrile knuckles, so torn between the fear of waking me and of not making me understand? Even if it just gave the tiniest scratch, your old grandmother could tell her mouse's sound at once, especially such a poor, miserable mouse as mine is. I could hear it just now, trying to make up its mind, and rustling the bedclothes, and going through all its tricks."
She would partly open the shutters; and where a wing of the hotel jutted out, the sun would already have settled on the roofs, like a slater who is up in good time, and starts work early and works quietly so as not to rouse the sleeping town whose stillness makes him seem more agile. She would tell me what time it was, what sort of day it would be, that it was not worth my while my getting up and coming to the window, that there was a mist over the sea, whether the baker's shop had opened yet: that whole insignificant introit of a new day which no one attends, a little scrap of life which was for our two selves alone; sweet morning moment which opened like a symphony with the rhythmical dialogue of my three taps, to which the thin wall of my bedroom, steeped in love and joy, grown melodious, incorporeal, singing like the angelic choir, responded with three other taps, eagerly awaited, repeated once and again, in which it contrived to waft to me the soul of my grandmother, whole and perfect, and the promise of her coming, with the swiftness of an annunciation and a musical fidelity. But on this first night after our arrival, when my grandmother had quite left me, I began again to suffer as I had already suffered in Paris, when I began to understand that in leaving for Balbec I was saying goodbye to my own room. Perhaps this fear that I had - and that is shared by so many others - of sleeping in a strange room, perhaps this fear is only the most humble, obscure, organic, almost unconscious form of that great and desperate resistance put up by the things that constitute the better part of our present life against our mentally acknowledging the possibility of a future in which they are to have no part; a resistance which was at the root of the horror that I had been made to feel by the thought that my parents would die some day, that the necessity of life might oblige me to live far from Gilberte, or simply to settle permanently in a place where I should never see any of my old friends; a resistance that was also at the root of the difficulty that I found in imagining my own death, or a survival such as Bergotte used to promise to mankind in his books, a survival in which I should not be allowed to take with me my memories, my frailties, my character, which did not easily resign themselves to the idea of ceasing to be, and desired for me neither extinction nor an eternity in which they would have no part.
When Swann had said to me in Paris one day when I felt particularly unwell: "You ought to go off to one of those glorious islands in the Pacific; you'd never come back again if you did", I should have liked to answer: "But then I shall never see your daughter again, I shall be living among people and things she has never seen". And yet my reason told me: "What difference can that make, since you won't be distressed by it? When M. Swann tells you that you won't come back he means by that that you won't want to come back, and if you don't want to that is because you'll be happier out there." For my reason was aware that Habit - Habit which was even now setting to work to make me like this unfamiliar lodging, to change the position of the mirror, the shade of the curtains, to stop the clock - undertakes as well to make dear to us the companions whom at first we disliked, to give another appearance to their faces, to make the sound of their voices attractive, to modify the inclinations of their hearts. It is true that these new friendships for places and people are based upon forgetfulness of the old; my reason precisely thought that I could envisage without dread the prospect of a life in which I should be for ever separated from people all memory of whom I should lose, and it was by way of consolation that it offered my heart a promise of oblivion which in fact succeeded only by sharpening the edge of its despair. Not that the heart, too, is not bound in time, when separation is complete, to feel the analgesic effect of habit; but until then it will continue to suffer. And our dread of a future in which we must forgo the sight of faces and the sound of voices which we love and from which today we derive our dearest joy, this dread, far from being dissipated, is intensified, if to the pain of such a privation we feel that there will be added what seems to us now in anticipation more painful still: not to feel it as a pain at all, to remain indifferent; for then our old self would have changed, it would then be not merely the charm of our family, our mistress, our friends that had ceased to enclose us; our affection for them would have been so completely eradicated from our hearts, of which today it is so conspicuous an element, that we should be able to enjoy a life apart from them, the very thought of which today makes us recoil in horror; so that it would be in a real sense the death of the self, a death followed, it is true, by resurrection, but in a different self, to the love of which the elements of the old self that are condemned to die cannot bring themselves to aspire. It is they - even the merest of them, even our obscure attachments to the dimensions, to the atmosphere of a bedroom - that take fright and refuse, in acts of rebellion that are nothing but a secret, partial, tangible and true aspect of our resistance to death, of the long, desperate, daily resistance to the fragmentary and continuous death that insinuates itself through the whole course of life, detaching from us at each moment a shred of ourself, dead matter on which new cells will multiply and grow. And for a neurotic nature such as mine - one, that is to say, in which the intermediaries, the nerves, do not perform their functions - fail to arrest on its way to the consciousness, allow indeed to reach it, distinct, exhausting, innumerable and distressing, the plaints of the most humble elements of the self which are about to disappear - the anxiety and alarm which I felt as I lay beneath the strange and too lofty ceiling were but the protest of an affection that survived in me for a ceiling that was familiar and low. Doubtless this affection too would disappear, another having taken its place (when death, and then another life, had, in the guise of Habit, performed their double task); but until its annihilation, every night it would suffer afresh, and on this night especially, confronted with an irreversible future in which there would no longer be any place for it, it rose in revolt, it tortured me with the sound of its lamentations whenever my straining eyes, powerless to turn from what was wounding them, endeavoured to fasten themselves upon that inaccessible ceiling.
But next morning! what a joy it was to me, thinking already of the pleasure of lunch and a walk along the shore, to see in the window, and in all the glass fronts of the bookcases, as in the port holes in a ship's cabin, the open sea, naked, unshadowed, and yet with half of its expanse in shadow, bounded by a thin, fluctuating line, and to follow with my eyes the waves that leapt up one behind another like the jumpers on a trampoline. Every other moment, holding in my hand the stiff, starched towel with the name of the Hotel printed upon it, and with which I was making futile efforts to dry myself, I returned to the window to have another look at that vast, dazzling, mountainous amphitheatre, and at the snowy crests of its emerald waves, here and there polished and translucent, which with a placid violence and a leonine frown, to which the sun added a faceless smile, allowed their crumbling slopes to topple down at last. It was at this window that I was later to take up my position every morning, as at the window of a stage-coach in which one has slept, to see whether, during the night, a longed-for mountain range has come nearer or receded - only here it was those hills of the sea which, before they come dancing back towards us, are apt to withdraw so far that often it was only truly at the end of a long, sandy plain that I could distinguish, far off, their first undulations in a transparent, vaporous, bluish distance, like the glaciers one sees in the background of the Tuscan Primitives. On other mornings it was quite close at hand that the sun laughed upon those waters of a green as tender as that preserved in Alpine pastures (among mountains on which the sun displays itself here and there like a giant who may at any moment come leaping gaily down their craggy sides) less by the moisture of the soil than by the liquid mobility of the light. Moreover, in that breach which the shore and the waves open up in the midst of the rest of the world for the passage or the accumulation of light, it is above all the light, according to the direction from which it comes and along which our eyes follow it, it is the light that displaces and situates the undulations of the sea. Diversity of lighting modifies no less the orientation of a place, erects no less before our eyes new goals which it inspires in us the yearning to attain, than would a distance in space actually traversed in the course of a long journey. When, in the morning, the sun came from behind the hotel, disclosing to me the sands bathed in light as far as the first bastions of the sea, it seemed to be showing me another side of the picture, and to be inviting me to pursue, along the winding path of its rays, a motionless but varied journey amid all the fairest scenes of the diversified landscape of the hours. And on this first morning, it pointed out to me far off, with a jovial finger, those blue peaks of the sea which bear no name on any map, until, dizzy with its sublime excursion over the thundering and chaotic surface of their crests and avalanches, it came to take shelter from the wind in my bedroom, lolling across the unmade bed and scattering its riches over the splashed surface of the basin-stand and into my open trunk, where, by its very splendour and misplaced luxury, it added still further to the general impression of disorder. Alas for that sea-wind, an hour later, in the big dining room - while we were having lunch, and from the leathery gourd of a lemon we sprinkled a few golden drops onto a pair of soles which presently left on our plates the plumes of their picked skeletons, curled like stiff feathers and resonant as citherns, - it seemed to my grandmother a cruel deprivation not to be able to feel its life-giving breath, on account of the glass partition, transparent but closed, which, like the front of a glass case in a museum, separated us from the beach while allowing us to look out upon its whole expanse, and into which the sky fitted so completely that its azure had the effect of being the colour of the windows and its white clouds so many flaws in the glass. Imagining that I was "sitting on the mole" or at rest in the "boudoir" I wondered whether Baudelaire's "suns rays upon the sea" were not - a very different thing from the evening ray, simple and superficial as a tremulous golden shaft - just what at that moment was scorching the sea topaz-yellow, fermenting it, turning it pale and milky like beer, frothy like milk, while now and then there hovered over it great blue shadows which, for his own amusement, some giant seemed to be shifting to and fro by moving a mirror in the sky. But my grandmother, unable to endure the thought that I was losing the benefit of an hour in the open air, surreptitiously opened a pane and at once sent flying menus, newspapers, veils and hats, while she herself, fortified by the celestial draught, remained calm and smiling like Saint Blandina amid the torrent of invective which, increasing my sense of isolation and misery, those contemptuous, dishevelled, furious visitors combined to pour on us. To a certain extent - and this, at Balbec, gave to the population, as a rule monotonously rich and cosmopolitan, of that sort of "grand" hotel a quite distinctive local character - they were composed of eminent persons from the departmental capitals of that region of France, a senior judge from Caen, a leader of the Cherbourg bar, a notary public from Le Mans, who annually, when the holidays came round, starting from the various points over which, throughout the working year, they were scattered like snipers on a battlefield or pieces on a draughts board, concentrated their forces in this hotel. They always took the same rooms, and with their wives who had pretensions to aristocracy, formed a little group which was joined by a leading barrister and a leading doctor from Paris, who on the day of departure would say to the others: "Oh, yes, of course, you don't go by our train. You're privileged, you'll be home in time for lunch."
"Privileged, you say? You who live in the capital, in Paris, while I have to live in a wretched county town of a hundred thousand inhabitants, a hundred and two thousand at the last census it's true, but what is that compared to your two and a half millions?"
They said this with a rustic burring of their 'r's, without acrimony, for they were leading lights each in his own province, who could like others have gone to Paris had they chosen - the senior judge from Caen had several times been offered a seat on the Court of Appeal - but had preferred to stay where they were, from love of their native towns, or of obscurity, or of fame, or because they were reactionaries who enjoyed being on friendly terms with the country houses of the neighbourhood. Besides, several of them were not going back at once to their county towns.
For - inasmuch as the Bay of Balbec was a little world apart in the midst of the great, a basketful of the seasons in which good days and bad, and the successive months, were clustered in a ring, so that not only on days when one could make out Rivebelle, which was a sign of a storm, could one see the sunlight on the houses there while Balbec was plunged into darkness, but later on, when the cold weather of autumn had reached Balbec, one could be certain of finding on that opposite shore two or three supplementary months of warmth - those of the regular visitors to the hotel whose holidays began late or lasted longer gave orders, when the rains and the mists came, for their boxes to be packed and loaded on to a boat, and set sail across the bay to find summer again at Costedor or Rivebelle. This whole little group in the Balbec hotel looked at each new arrival with suspicion, and, while affecting to take not the least interest in him, hastened, all of them, to interrogate their friend the head waiter about him. For it was the same head waiter - Aimé - who returned every year for the season, and kept their tables for them; and their lady-wives, having heard that his wife was "expecting", would sit after meals each working at a separate article of baby clothing, stopping only to put up their lorgnettes and stare at my grandmother and myself because we were eating hard-boiled eggs in salad, which was considered common and was "not done" in the best society of Nantes. They affected an attitude of contemptuous irony with regard to a Frenchman who was called "His Majesty" and who had indeed proclaimed himself king of a small island in the South Seas peopled only by a few savages. He was staying in the hotel with his pretty mistress, whom, as she crossed the beach to bathe, the little boys would greet with: "Long live the Queen!" because she would toss them fifty centimes pieces. The judge and the barrister went so far as to pretend not to see "the imposters" and declared that "it was enough to make you leave France".
On the days when we took long drives in the carriage with Mme de Villeparisis, I had to, on the doctor's orders, stay in bed until lunch and, because of the very bright sunlight, I had to keep those great violet curtains, which had provoked so much hostility towards me on that first night, closed for as long as possible. But in spite of the pins which Françoise attached to them every evening so as to prevent any daylight penetrating through, and which she alone knew how to undo, and despite the sheets and the pieces of cloth which she put up here and there, the red cretonne table cloth, variously adjusting their positions, she never managed to close them completely, so that they allowed a scarlet leaf fall of anemones to shine through onto the carpet, amongst which I was unable to prevent myself from placing my bare feet. And on the wall facing them and so was partially lit, an unattached cylinder of gold rose vertically, gradually shifting its position like the pillar of light that preceded the Hebrews in the desert. I went back to bed, and without stirring relished in my imagination, at one and the same time, the pleasures of games, of bathing, of strolling in the sunshine which the morning seemed to invite, and the joy of it made my heart beat clamorously like a machine working at full speed but fixed, which must discharge its energy on the spot by turning over on itself. Sometimes it would be the hour of the high tide. I could hear from the heights of my belvedere the noise of the gently breaking waves punctuated by the cries of bathers, newspaper vendors and children at play as if they were the mewling cries of seagulls. Then suddenly at ten o'clock the symphony concert would burst into life beneath my windows. In the interludes in the music the watery billows took up the flow and continued the glissando of the music and seemed to envelop the strokes of the violins with its crystal volutes and caused its spray to gush forth over the intermittent echoes of a sub-aquatic music. Then in a silent breach that broke through for an instant, amid the successive arches of the little waves in scrolls of azure, the music rose up once more, like lute playing angels on the frothing blue portico of an Italian cathedral. As the time for lunch approached I would run to my grandmother's room to see if Françoise was about to come and unfasten the curtains and fetch me my things. Her room did not look out directly on the sea, as mine did, but was open to the daylight on three of its sides: onto a strip of the esplanade, a view of the country inland, and onto a small courtyard with its four walls of a Moorish whiteness, above which, enclosed within their square, could be seen the sky in mellow, gliding and superimposed billows, like a swimming pool placed in the middle of a terrace. But this room of my grandmother's was furnished differently from mine, with armchairs embroidered with metallic filigree and pink flowers from which the cool and pleasant odour that greeted one on entering seemed to emanate. And at that hour when the sun's rays, drawn from different exposures and, as it were, from different hours of the day, broke the angles of the wall, changed the shape of the room, projected onto the chest of drawers, side by side with a reflection of the beach, a festal altar as variegated as a bank of field flowers, hung on the fourth wall the folded, quivering, warm wings of a radiance ready at any moment to resume its flight, warmed like a bath a square of provincial carpet before the window overlooking the courtyard which the sun festooned like a climbing vine, and added to the charm and complexity of the room's furniture by seeming to pluck and scatter the petals of the silken flowers on the chairs and to make their silver threads stand out from the fabric, this room in which I lingered for a moment before going to get ready for our drive suggested a prism in which the colours of the light that shone outside were broken up, a hive in which the sweet juices of the day which I was about to taste were distilled, scattered, intoxicating and visible, a garden of hope which dissolved in a quivering haze of silver threads and rose petals. I went back to my room. Françoise came in to give me some daylight as I rose myself up, impatient to know what sort of Sea it was that was playing that morning by the shore, like a Nereid. For none of those Seas ever stayed with us longer than a day. The next day there would be another, which sometimes resembled its predecessor. But I never saw the same one twice.
There were some that were of so rare a beauty that my pleasure on catching sight of them was enhanced by surprise, as if present before a miracle. By what privilege, on one morning rather than another, did the window on being uncurtained disclose to my wondering eyes the nymph Glauconome, whose lazy beauty, gently breathing, had the transparency of a vapourous emerald through which I could see teeming the ponderable elements that coloured it? She made the sun join in her play, with a smile attenuated by an invisible haze which was no more than a space kept vacant about the translucent surface, which, thus curtailed, was rendered more striking, like those goddesses whom the sculptor carves in relief upon a block of marble the rest of which he leaves unchiselled. So, in her matchless colour, she invited us over those rough terrestrial roads, from which, in Mme de Villeparisis's barouche, we should glimpse, all day long and without ever reaching it, the coolness of her soft palpitation. But at other times there was not such a great contrast between our rustic excursion and this inaccessible goal, this fluid and mythological proximity. For on such days the sea itself seemed to have a rural quality where the heat had traced over its surface, as if across a field, a dusty, white track behind which the sharp mast of a fishing boat sailed out like the steeple of a village church. A tug-boat of which one can only discern its smoking funnel in the distance, like a remote factory, whilst alone on the horizon a white, humped square, painted no doubt by a sail but which appears to be compact like limestone, makes one think of the corner, bathed in sunshine, of some isolated building, school or hospital. And the clouds and the wind, when they were mingled with the sunshine, completed if not the error of judgement, at least the illusion of one's first sight of them, the suggestion that it awakened in the imagination. For the alternation of clearly defined spaces of colour like those which occur in the countryside at the contiguity of different fields, the network of light or of shade which made uniform all that it held in its nets and suppressed all demarcation between the sea and the sky assimilated so that the undecided eye created, by turns, encroaching one on top of the other, the rugged, yellow irregularities, like a muddiness over the marine surface, the sloping embankments which concealed from view the small boat from which a crew of agile sailors seemed to be harvesting, all that, on account of the stormy days, made of the ocean something as varied, as solid, as uneven, as populous, as civilized as the coach track from which, in Mme de Villeparisis's carriage, we looked out upon it.
But sometimes too, during the following weeks, - in that Balbec that I had so much longed for because I could only imagine it beaten by storms and lost in the mist, - the fine weather was so bright and so settled that when Françoise came to open the window I was certain of finding the same section of sunlight bent around the angle of the wall, and of the same immutable colour but which was no longer stirring like a revelation of the summer, but dull like that of an inert and artificial enamel. And after Françoise had removed her pins from the mouldings of the window-frame, taken down the pieces of cloth, drew open the curtains, the summer's day that she exposed seemed as dead, as immemorial as a magnificent thousand year old mummy which our old servant had done no more than cautiously unwind the linen wrappings, before displaying it to my gaze, embalmed in its robe of gold.
We were taken off in Mme de Villeparisis's carriage. Sometimes, as the carriage laboured up a steep road through ploughed fields, I saw - making the fields more real, extending them far into the past, a few hesitant cornflowers, like those of Combray, that followed in the wake of our carriage. Presently the horses outdistanced them, but a little way on we would glimpse another which while awaiting us had pricked up its blue star in front of us in the grass; others made so bold as to come and plant themselves by the side of the road, and a whole constellation began to take shape, what with my distant memories and these domesticated flowers. We began to go down the hill; and then we would meet, climbing it on foot, on a bicycle, in a cart or carriage, one of those creatures, flowers of a fine day but unlike the flowers of the field, - for each of them conceals within them something that is not to be found in another and that will prevent us from gratifying with any of her peers the desire that she has aroused in us, - a peasant girl driving her cow or reclining on the back of a waggon, a shop-keeper's daughter taking the air, a fashionable young lady erect on the back seat of a landau, facing her parents. Certainly Bloch, in the same way as a great scholar or the founder of a religion, had been the means of opening a new era and had altered the value of life and good fortune on the day when he had told me that the dreams which I had entertained on my solitary walks along the Méseglise way, when I hoped that some peasant girl might pass whom I could take in my arms, were not a mere fantasy which corresponded to nothing outside myself but that all the girls one met, whether villagers or young ladies, dreamed of hardly anything else than love making. And even if I were fated, now that I was ill and did not go out by myself, never to be able to make love to them, I was happy all the same, like a child born in a prison or in a hospital who, having long supposed that the human organism was capable of digesting only dry bread and medications, has learned suddenly that peaches, apricots and grapes are not simply part of the decoration of the country scene but delicious and easily assimilated food. Even if his gaoler or his nurse forbids him from plucking those tempting fruits, still the world seems to him a better place and life more clement. For a desire seems to us more attractive, we repose on it with more confidence, when we know that outside ourselves there is a reality which conforms to it, even if, for us, it is not to be realized. And we think more joyfully of a life that is capable of gratifying it, of a life in which - on condition that we eliminate for a moment from our mind the tiny obstacle, accidental and special, which prevents us personally from doing so - we can imagine ourselves to be assuaging that desire. As to the pretty girls who went past, from the day on which I had first known that their cheeks could be kissed, I had become curious about their souls. And the universe had appeared to me more interesting.
Mme de Villeparisis's carriage moved fast. I scarcely had time to see the girl who was coming in our direction; and yet - since the beauty of human beings is not like the beauty of things, and we feel that it is that of a unique creature, endowed with consciousness and free-will - scarcely had the individuality of the approaching girl, a soul still vague, a will unknown to me, presented a tiny picture of itself, enormously reduced but complete, in the depths of her indifferent eyes, at once - oh that mysterious response of the pollen ready for the pistils - I felt surging through me the embryo, equally vague, equally minute, of the desire not to let this girl pass without forcing her mind to become aware of my person, without preventing her desires from wandering to someone else, without insinuating myself into her dreams and taking possession of her heart. Meanwhile our carriage had moved on, the pretty girl was already behind us and as she had none of those notions of me which constitute a person, her eyes, which had barely seen me, had forgotten me already.
Was it because we had passed her so quickly that I found her so attractive? Had I been free to get down from the carriage, to speak to her, might I perhaps have been disconcerted by some blemish on her skin that I had not been able to distinguish from the carriage? Perhaps a single word which she might have uttered, or a smile would have furnished me with an unexpected key or a clue with which to read the expression on her face, to interpret her bearing, which would at once have become commonplace? It is possible, for I have never in real life met any girls so desirable as on days when I was with some solemn person I could not get away from, despite the myriad pretexts that I invented. In the meantime I told myself that these encounters made me find even more beautiful a world which thus caused to grow along all the country roads flowers at once rare and common, fleeting treasures of the day, windfalls of the drive, of which the contingent circumstances that might not, perhaps, recur had alone prevented me from taking advantage, and which gave a new zest to life.
Perhaps in hoping that, one day, with greater freedom, I should be able to find similar girls on other roads, I was already beginning to falsify and corrupt what is exclusively individual in the desire to live in the company of a woman whom one has found attractive, and by the mere fact that I admitted the possibility of bringing it about artificially, I had implicitly acknowledged its illusoriness.
On one occasion Mme de Villeparisis took us to Carqueville to see the ivy-covered church which she had spoken to us about. Built on top of a hillock it dominated both the village and the river that flowed beneath it and looked down onto its little mediaeval bridge. My grandmother, thinking that I would like to be left alone to study the church at my leisure, suggested to Mme de Villeparisis that they should go on and wait for me at the pastry shop in the village square that was clearly visible from where we were and beneath its mellow patina seemed like another part of the wholly ancient object. It was agreed that I should join them there later. In the mass of greenery in front of which I was standing I was obliged, in order to recognize a church, to make a mental effort which involved my grasping more intensely the idea "church", in fact, as happens to school boys who gather more fully the meaning of a sentence when they are made, by translating or paraphrasing it, to divest it of the forms to which they are accustomed, I was obliged perpetually to refer back to this idea of "church", which as a rule I scarcely needed when I stood beneath steeples that were recognizable in themselves, in order not to forget, here that the arch of this clump of ivy was that of a Gothic window, there that the salience of the leaves was due to the carved relief of a capital. Then came a breath of wind, sending a tremor through the mobile porch, which was traversed by eddies flickering and spreading like light; the leaves unfurled against one another; and, quivering, the arboreal façade bore away with it the undulant, rustling, fugitive pillars.
As I came away from the church I saw by the old bridge a cluster of girls from the village who, because it was Sunday, were standing about in their best clothes, hailing the boys who went past. One of them, a tall girl not so well dressed as the others but seeming to enjoy some ascendancy over them - for she scarcely answered when they spoke to her - with a more serious and self-willed air, was sitting on the parapet of the bridge with her feet hanging down, and holding on her lap a bowl of fish which she had no doubt just caught. She had a tanned complexion, soft eyes but with a look of contempt for her surroundings, and a nose that was above all small in shape, delicate and charming. My eyes alighted on her skin; and my lips, at a pinch, might have believed that they had followed my eyes. But it was not simply to her body that I should have liked to attain; it was also the person that lived inside it, the consciousness within each of us, and with which there is but one form of contact, namely to gain its attention, but one sort of penetration, to awaken an idea in it.
And this inner being of the handsome fisher-girl seemed to be still closed to me, I was doubtful whether I had entered it, even after I had seen my own image furtively reflected in the twin mirrors of her gaze, following an index of refraction that was as unknown to me as if I had been placed in the field of vision of a doe. But just as it would not have sufficed that my lips should find pleasure in hers without giving pleasure to them too, so I could have wished that the idea of me which was in her and took hold in it should bring me not merely her attention but her admiration, her desire, and should keep me in her memory until the day when I should be able to meet her again. Meanwhile I could see, within a stone's throw, the square in which Mme de Villeparisis's carriage must be waiting for me. I had not a moment to lose; and already I could feel that the girls were beginning to laugh at the sight of me standing there before them. I had a five-franc piece in my pocket. I drew it out, and, before explaining to the girl the errand on which I proposed to send her, in order to have a better chance of her listening to me I held the coin for a moment before her eyes:
"Since you seem to belong to this place," I said to the fisher-girl, "I wonder if you would be so good as to take a message for me! I want to go to a pastry shop, which is apparently in a square, but I don't know where that is, there is a carriage waiting for me. One moment! ... to make quite sure, will you ask if the carriage belongs to the Marquise de Villeparisis? But you can't miss it; it's a carriage and pair."
That was what I wished her to know, so that she should regard me as someone of importance. But when I had uttered the words "Marquise" and "carriage and pair", suddenly a feeling of great appeasement came over me. I felt that she would remember me, and together with my fear of not being able to see her again, a part of my desire to do so evaporated. I felt that I had just touched her person with invisible lips and that I had pleased her. And this forcible appropriation of her mind, this immaterial possession, had robbed her of mystery as much as physical possession would have done.
We returned by a route that crossed through the forest. The invisibility of the numerous birds that took up one another's song close beside us in the trees gave the same peaceful feeling that we have when we close our eyes. Enchained up on my fold-out seat like Prometheus on his rock, I listened to the cries of the Oceanides. And when I happened to see one of the birds as it disappeared from one leaf onto another beneath, there seemed to be so little connection between it and its song that I could not believe that the sound could be coming from this startled, hopping and unseen little body. This road was like many others of the same kind which are to be found in France, climbing on a fairly steep gradient and then gradually descending over a long stretch. At that particular moment, I found no special attraction in it, I was simply glad to be going home. But it became for me later on a frequent source of joy by remaining in my memory as a lodestone to which all the similar roads that I was to take, on walks or on drives, would at once attach themselves without breach of continuity and would be able, thanks to it, to communicate immediately with my heart. For as soon as the carriage or the motor-car turned into one of these roads that seemed to be the continuation of the road along which I was following with Mme de Villeparisis, what I found my present consciousness immediately dwelling upon, as upon the most recent event in my past, would be (all the intervening years being quietly obliterated) the impressions that I had had on those late afternoons, driving in the neighbourhood of Balbec, when the leaves smelled good, the mist was rising from the ground, and beyond the nearby village one could see through the trees the sun setting as though it had been some place further along the road, distant and forested, which we should not have time to reach that evening. Linked up with those I was experiencing now in another place, on a similar road, surrounded by all the incidental sensations of breathing fresh air, of curiosity, indolence, appetite, gaiety which were common to them both, and excluding all others, these impressions would be reinforced, would take on the consistency of a particular type of pleasure, and almost a framework of existence which, as it happened, I rarely had the luck to come across, but in which these awakened memories introduced, amid the reality that my senses could perceive, a large enough element of evoked, dreamed, unseizable reality to make me feel, among these regions through which I was passing, more than an aesthetic feeling, a fleeting but exalted ambition to stay and live there for ever.
I would return to the hotel early on the evenings I was going to dine at the restaurant in Rivebelle with Saint-Loup. On each landing a golden light reflected from the carpet indicated the setting sun and the lavatory window. When we reached the top floor, instead of going to my room I made my way further along the corridor, for at that hour the valet in charge of the landing, despite his horror of draughts, had opened the window at the end which looked out on the hill and the valley inland, but never allowed them to be seen because its panes, which were made of clouded glass, were generally closed. I made a brief halt in front of it, time enough just to pay my devotions to the "view" which for once it revealed beyond the hill immediately behind the hotel, a view that contained only a single house situated at some distance, to which the perspective and the evening light, while preserving its mass, gave a gem-like precision and a velvet casing, as though to one of those architectural works in miniature, tiny temples or chapels wrought in gold and enamel, which serve as reliquaries and are exposed only on rare days for the veneration of the faithful. But this moment of adoration had already lasted too long, for the valet, who carried in one hand a bunch of keys and with the other saluted me by touching his sacristan's skull cap, though without raising it on account of the pure, cool evening air, came and drew together, like those of a shrine, the two sides of the window, and so shut off the minute edifice, the golden relic from my adoring gaze. I went into my room. The sight of a ship receding like a nocturnal traveller gave me the same impression that I had had in the train of being set free from the necessity of sleep and from confinement in a bedroom. Not that I felt myself a prisoner in the room in which I now was, since in another hour I should be leaving it to drive away in a carriage. I threw myself down on the bed. And, just as if I had been lying in a berth on board one of those steamers which I could see quite near me and which at night it would be strange to see stealing slowly through the darkness, like shadowy and silent but unsleeping swans, I was surrounded on all sides by pictures of the sea.
But as often as not they were, indeed, only pictures, and my mind, dwelling at such moments upon the surface of the body which I was about to dress up in order to try to appear as pleasing as possible to the feminine eyes which would scrutinize me in the well-lit restaurant at Rivebelle, was incapable of putting any depth behind the colour of things. And if, beneath my window, the soft, unwearying flights of swifts and swallows had not arisen like a playing fountain, like living fireworks, joining the intervals between their soaring rockets with the motionless white streaming lines of long horizontal wakes, without the charming miracle of this natural and local phenomenon which brought into touch with reality the scenes that I had before my eyes, I might easily have believed that they were no more than a selection, made afresh every day, of paintings which were shown quite arbitrarily in the place in which I happened to be and without having any necessary connection with that place. Nevertheless it gave me pleasure on evenings when a ship, absorbed and liquefied by the horizon, appeared so much the same colour as its background, as in an Impressionist painting, that it seemed to be also of the same substance, as though its hull and the rigging in which it tapered into a slender filigree had simply been cut out from the vaporous blue of the sky. Sometimes the ocean filled almost the whole of my window, raised as it was by a band of sky edged at the top only by a line that was of the same blue as the sea, so that I supposed it to be still sea, and the change in colour due only to some effect of lighting. Another day the sea was painted only in the lower part of the window, all the rest of which was filled with so many clouds, packed one against another in horizontal bands, that its panes seemed, by some premeditation or predilection on the part of the artist, to be presenting a "Cloud Study", while the fronts of the various bookcases showing similar clouds but in another part of the horizon and differently coloured by the light, appeared to be offering as it were the repetition, dear to certain contemporary masters, of one and the same effect caught at different hours but able now in the immobility of art to be seen all together in a single room, drawn in pastel and mounted under glass. And sometimes to a sky and sea uniformly grey a touch of pink would be added with an exquisite delicacy, while a little butterfly that had gone to sleep at the foot of the window seemed to be appending with its wings at the corner of this "Harmony in Grey and Pink" in the Whistler manner the favorite signature of the master. Then even the pink would vanish, there was nothing now left to see. I would get to my feet and, before lying down again, close the inner curtains. Above them I could see from my bed the ray of light that still remained, growing steadily fainter and thinner, but it was without any feeling of sadness, without any regret for its passing, that I thus allowed the hour at which as a rule I was seated at table to die above the curtains, for I knew that this day was of another kind from ordinary days, longer, like those arctic days which night interrupts for a few hours only; I knew that from the chrysalis of this twilight, by a radiant metamorphosis, the dazzling light of the Rivebelle restaurant was preparing to emerge.
But throughout my time at Balbec, in the everyday course of my life, I exercised upon myself a meticulous and constant control, subordinating all pleasure to the goal, which I judged to be of infinitely greater importance, of becoming strong enough to be able to bring into being the work that I had, possibly, within me, but as soon as we arrived at Rivebelle on the other hand, in the excitement of a new pleasure, as if there were no tomorrow, nor any lofty aims to be realized, all that precise machinery of prudent hygiene vanished. A waiter was offering to take my coat, whereupon Saint-Loup asked: "You're sure you won't be cold? Perhaps you'd better hold on to it, it's not very warm in here."
"No, no," I assured him, and perhaps I did not feel cold; but however that might be, I no longer knew the fear of falling ill, the necessity of not dying, the importance of work. I gave up my coat; we entered the dining-room to the sound of some warlike march played by the gypsy band, we advanced between two rows of tables laid for dinner as along an easy path of glory, and, feeling a happy glow imparted to our bodies by the rhythms of the band which conferred on us these military honours, this unmerited triumph, we concealed it beneath a grave and frozen air, beneath a languid, casual gait, so as not to be like those music-hall "swells" who, wedding a ribald verse to a patriotic air, come running onto the stage with the martial countenance of a victorious general.
Even on the journey from Balbec to Rivebelle, the risk of collision with a carriage coming the other way along those lanes where there was barely room for one and it was dark as pitch, the instability of the surface, crumbling in many places, at the cliff's edge, the proximity of its vertical drop to the sea, none of these things exerted on me the slightest stimulus required to introduce any fear of danger into my judgement. But after all, I was doing no more than concentrate in a single evening the carelessness that, for most men, is diluted throughout their whole existence in which every day they face unnecessarily the dangers of a sea-voyage, of a trip in an aeroplane or motor-car, when there is waiting for them at home the person whom their death would shatter, or when the book whose eventual publication is the sole reason for their existence is still stored in the fragile receptacle of their brain. And so too in the Rivebelle restaurant, on evenings when we stayed there after dinner, if anyone had come in with the intention of killing me, since I no longer saw, save in a distance too remote to have any reality, my grandmother, my life to come, the books I might write, since I now clung body and soul to the scent of the woman at the next table, to the politeness of the waiters, to the contours of the waltz that the band was playing, since I was glued to the sensation of the moment, with no extension beyond its limits, nor any object other than not to be separated from it, I should have died in and with that sensation, I should have let myself be slaughtered without offering any resistance, without a movement, a bee drugged with tobacco smoke that had ceased to take any thought for preserving the accumulation of its labours and the hopes of its hive.
One morning as I was passing the Casino
on my way back to the hotel, I had the sensation of being
watched by somebody who was not far off. I turned my head and saw
a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very
black moustache, who, nervously slapping his trousers
with a cane, was staring at me, his eyes dilated with extreme
attentiveness. From time to time these eyes were shot through
with a look of restless activity such as the sight of a person
they do not know excites only in men in whom, for whatever
reason, it inspires thoughts that would not occur to anyone else, a madman, for example, or a spy. He darted a final glance at me
that was at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last
shot which one fires at an enemy as one turns to flee, and, after
first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and
lofty air, with an abrupt revolution of his whole person he
turned towards a playbill in the reading of which he became
absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in
his buttonhole. He drew from his pocket a note-book in which he
appeared to be taking down the title of the performance that was
announced because it was Sunday and there was to be a grand
matinée, looked at his watch two or three times, pulled down
over his eyes a black straw hat the brim of which he extended
with his hand held out over it like an eye-shade, as though to
see whether someone was coming at last, made the perfunctory
gesture of annoyance by which people mean to show that they have
waited long enough, although they never make it when they are
really waiting, then pushing back his hat and exposing a scalp
cropped close except at the sides where he allowed a pair of
waved "pigeon's-wings" to grow quite long, he emitted
the loud panting breath that people exhale not when they are too
hot but when they wish it to be thought that they are too hot. He
gave me the impression of a hotel crook who, having been watching
my grandmother and myself for some days, and planning to rob us,
had just discovered that I had caught him in the act of spying on
me; perhaps he was only seeking by his new attitude to express
indifference and detachment in order to put me off the scent,
but it was with an exaggeration so aggressive that his object
appeared to be - at least as much as the dissipating of the
suspicions he might have aroused in me - to avenge a humiliation
which I must have unwittingly inflicted on him, to give me the
idea not so much that he had not seen me as that I was an object
of too little importance to attract his attention. He threw back
his shoulders with an air of bravado, pursed his lips, twisted
his moustache, and adjusted his face into an expression that was
at once indifferent, harsh, and almost insulting. So much so that
I took him at one moment for a thief and at another for a
madman. And yet his scrupulously ordered attire was far more
sober and far more simple that that of any of the summer visitors
I saw at Balbec, and reassured me as to my own suit, so often
humiliated by the dazzling whiteness of their holiday garb. But
my grandmother was coming towards me, we took a turn together,
and I was waiting for her, an hour later, outside the hotel into
which she had gone to fetch something, when I saw emerge from it
Mme de Villeparisis with Robert de Saint-Loup and the stranger who stared at
me so intently outside the Casino. Swift as a lightning-flash his
look shot through me, just as at the moment when I had first
noticed him, and returned, as though he had not seen me, to
hover, slightly lowered, before his eyes, deadened, like the
neutral look which feigns to see nothing without and is incapable
of reporting anything to the mind within, the look which
expresses merely the satisfaction of feeling round it the eyelids
which it keeps apart with its beatific roundness, the devout and
sanctimonious look that we see on the faces of certain
hypocrites, the smug look on those of certain fools. I saw that
he had changed his clothes. The suit he was wearing was darker
than ever; and no doubt true elegance is less intimidating, lies
nearer to simplicity than false; but that was not all: from close at hand one felt that if colour was almost entirely
absent from these garments it was not because he who had banished
it from them was indifferent to it but rather because for some
reason he forbade himself the enjoyment of it. And the sobriety
which they displayed seemed to be of the kind that comes from
obedience to a rule of diet rather than from lack of appetite. A
dark green thread harmonized, in the stuff of his trousers, with
the stripe on his socks, with a refinement which betrayed the
vivacity of a taste that was everywhere else subdued, to which
this single concession had been made out of tolerance, while a
spot of red on his tie was imperceptible, like a liberty which
one dares not take.
"How are you? Let me introduce my nephew, the Baron de Guermantes," Mme de Villeparisis said to me, while the stranger, without looking at me, muttered a vague "Charmed" which he followed with a "H'm, h'm, h'm," to make his affability seem somehow forced, and crooking his little finger, forefinger and thumb, held out his middle and ring fingers, which I clasped through his suede glove; then, without lifting his eyes to my face, he turned towards Mme de Villeparisis.
"Good gracious, I shall be forgetting my own name next," she exclaimed with a laugh. "Here I am calling you the Baron de Guermantes. Let me introduce the Baron de Charlus. But after all it's not a very serious mistake," she went on, "for you're a thorough Guermantes whatever else you are."
By this time my grandmother had reappeared, and we all set out together. Saint-Loup's uncle declined to honour me not only with a word but with so much as a look in my direction. If he stared people he did not know out of countenance (and during this short excursion he two or three times hurled his terrible and searching scrutiny like a thunderbolt at insignificant people of the most humble extraction who happened to pass), on the other hand he never for a moment, if I was to judge by myself, looked at persons whom he knew - as a detective on a secret mission might except his personal friends from his professional vigilance.
When Mme de Villeparisis, on returning from her walk, invited us to take tea with her nephew later that day, I thought that perhaps she had noticed the impoliteness that he had shown towards me, and she wanted to give him the opportunity to make amends. But when, on entering the little salon in her apartment where she was receiving us, I attempted to greet M. de Charlus, for all that I walked right round him while he was telling a story in a shrill voice to Mme de Villeparisis, I could not succeed in catching his eye; I decided to say "Good evening" to him, and fairly loud, to warn him of my presence, but I realized that he had observed it, for before ever a word had passed my lips, just as I was beginning to bow to him, I saw his two fingers held out for me to shake without his having turned to look at me or paused in his story. He had evidently seen me, without letting it appear that he had, and I noticed then that his eyes, which were never fixed on the person to whom he was speaking, strayed perpetually in all directions, like those of certain frightened animals, or those of street hawkers who, while delivering their patter and displaying their illicit merchandise, keep a sharp look-out, though without turning their heads, on the different points of the horizon from which the police may appear at any moment. No doubt, had it not been for those eyes, M. de Charlus's face would have been similar to those of many good-looking men. But however much M. de Charlus tried to seal hermetically the expression on that face, to which a light coating of powder lent a faintly theatrical aspect, the eyes were like two crevices, two loop-holes which alone he had failed to stop, and through which, according to one's position in relation to him, one suddenly felt oneself in the path of some hidden weapon which seemed to bode no good, even to him who, without being altogether master of it, carried it within himself in a state of precarious equilibrium and always on the verge of explosion; and the circumspect, unceasing and restless expression of those eyes, with all the signs of exhaustion which the heavy pouches beneath them stamped upon his face, however carefully he might compose and regulate it, made one think of some incognito, some disguise assumed by a powerful man in danger, or merely by a dangerous, but tragic individual. I should have liked to divine what was this secret which other men did not carry with them and which had already made his stare seem to me so enigmatic when I had seen him that morning outside the Casino. But with what I now knew of his family I could no longer believe that it was that of a thief, nor after what I had heard of his conversation, of a madman. If he was so cold towards me, while making himself so agreeable to my grandmother, this did not perhaps arise from any personal antipathy towards me, for in general, to the extent that he was kindly disposed towards women, of whose faults he spoke without, as a rule, departing from the utmost tolerance, he displayed towards men, and especially young men, a hatred so violent as to suggest that of certain misogynists for women. Of two or three "gigolos", relatives or intimate friends of Saint-Loup, who happened to mention their names, M. de Charlus remarked with an almost ferocious expression in sharp contrast to his usual coldness: "Young scum!" I gathered that the particular fault which he found in the young men of the day was their effeminacy. "They're nothing but women," he said with scorn. But what life would not have appeared effeminate beside that which he expected a man to lead, and never found energetic or virile enough? (He himself told how when he walked across country, after long hours on the road he would plunge his heated body into frozen streams.) He would not even concede that a man should wear a ring. And I noticed that on the ring finger that he held out to me he wore none. When Mme de Villeparisis asked him to describe to my grandmother some country house in which Mme de Sévigné had stayed, adding that there was something rather "literary" about that person's distress at being parted from "that tiresome Mme de Grignan":
"On the contrary," he retorted, "nothing could be further from the truth. Besides, it was a time in which feelings of that sort were thoroughly understood. The inhabitant of La Fontaine's Monomotapa, running round to see his friend who had appeared to him in a dream looking rather sad, the pigeon finding that the greatest of evils is the absence of the other pigeon, seem to you perhaps, my dear aunt, as exaggerated as Mme de Sévigné's impatience for the moment when she will be alone with her daughter."
"But as soon as she was alone with her she probably had nothing to say to her."
"Most certainly she had: if it was only what she called 'things so slight that nobody else would notice them but you and I'. And even if she had nothing to say to her, at least she was with her. And La Bruyère tells us that this is everything: 'To be with the people one loves, to speak to them, not to speak to them, it is all the same.' - He is right: that is the only true happiness," added M. de Charlus in a mournful voice, "and alas, life is so ill-arranged that one very rarely experiences it. Mme de Sévigné was after all less to be pitied than most of us. She spent a great part of her life with the person she loved."
"You forget that it wasn't love in her case, it was her daughter."
"But what matters in life is not whom or what one loves," he went on, in a more peremptory, almost cutting tone, "it is the fact of loving. What Mme de Sévigné felt for her daughter has a far better claim to rank with the passion that Racine described in Andromaque or Phèdre than the commonplace relations young Sévigné had with his mistresses. It's the same with a mystic's love for his God. The hard and fast lines in which we circumscribe love arise solely from our ignorance of life."
In these reflections upon the sadness of having to live far apart from those one loves M. de Charlus not only revealed a refinement of ideas such as men rarely show and especially clubmen; his voice itself, like certain contralto voices in which the middle register has not been sufficiently trained, so that when they sing it sounds like an alternating duet between a young man and a woman, mounted, when he expressed these delicate sentiments, to its higher notes, took on an unexpected sweetness and seemed to embody choirs of sisters, of mothers, of betrothed maidens, pouring out their fond feelings. But the bevy of young girls whom M. de Charlus in his horror of every kind of effeminacy would have been so distressed to learn that he gave the impression of sheltering thus within his voice did not confine themselves to the interpretation, the modulation of sentimental ditties. Often while M. de Charlus was talking one could hear their laughter, the shrill, fresh laughter of school-girls or coquettes quizzing their companions with all the archness and malice of clever tongues and pretty wits.
Meanwhile my grandmother had been making signs to me to go up to bed, in spite of the appeals of Saint-Loup who, to my utter shame, had alluded in front of M. de Charlus to the depression which often used to come upon me at night before I went to sleep. I was greatly surprised when, having heard a knock at my bedroom door and asked who was there, I heard the voice of M. de Charlus saying drily: "It is Charlus. May I come in Monsieur? Monsieur, my nephew was saying just now that you were apt to be a little upset before going to sleep, and also that you were an admirer of Bergotte's books. As I had one here in my luggage that you probably do not know, I have brought it to you to while away those moments during which you are unhappy."
I thanked M. de Charlus warmly and told him that I had been afraid that what Saint-Loup had told him about my distress at the approach of night could have made me appear in his eyes even more stupid than I was.
"Not at all," he answered in a gentler voice. "You have not, perhaps, any personal merit, so few people have! But for a time at least you have youth, and that is always an attraction. Besides, Monsieur, the greatest folly of all is to mock or to condemn in others what one does not happen to feel oneself. I love the night, and you tell me that you are afraid of it. I love the scent of roses, and I have a friend who it throws into a fever. Do you suppose that for that reason I consider him inferior to me? I try to understand everything and I take care to condemn nothing. In short, you must not be too sorry for yourself; I do not say that these moods of depression are not painful, I know how much one can suffer from things which others would not understand. But at least you have placed your affection wisely in your grandmother. You see a great deal of her. And besides, it is a legitimate affection, I mean one that is repaid. There are so many of which that cannot be said!"
He walked up and down the room, looking at one thing, picking up another. I had the impression that he had something to tell me, and could not find the right words to express it. Several minutes passed in this way, then, in his earlier biting tone of voice, flung at me: "Good night, Monsieur," and left the room. After all the lofty sentiments which I had heard him express, next morning, which was the day of his departure, on the beach as I was on my way down to bathe, when M. de Charlus came across to tell me that my grandmother was waiting for me to join her as soon as I left the water, I was greatly surprised to hear him say, pinching my neck with a familiarity and a laugh that was frankly vulgar: "But he doesn't care a fig for his old grandmother, does he, eh? Little rascal."
"What. Monsieur, I adore her..."
"Monsieur," he said, stepping back a pace, and with a glacial air, "you are still young, you should profit by your youth to learn two things: first, to refrain from expressing sentiments that are too natural not to be taken for granted; and secondly not to rush into speech in reply to things that are said to you before you have penetrated their meaning. If you had taken this precaution a moment ago you would have saved yourself the appearance of speaking at cross-purposes like a deaf man, thereby adding a second absurdity to that of having anchors embroidered on your swimming costume. You make me realize that I was premature in speaking to you last night of the charms of youth, I should have done you a greater service had I pointed out to you its thoughtlessness, its inconsequence, and its want of comprehension. I hope, Monsieur, that this little verbal dousing will be no less salutary to you than your swim. But don't let me keep you standing there, you might catch cold. Good day, Monsieur."
(To be continued.)
La Nouvelle Revue Française, 1 June 1914.1
1. Much of this text was eventually incorporated into À L'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. Where this is the case I have followed Terence Kilmartin's translation.
Return to Front Page