A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU
In the courtyard of the property where we had rented an apartment, M. and Mme de Guermantes had a home comprising a mansion about which I quickly learned all the news, thanks to Françoise. For the Guermantes, to whom she regularly alluded as the people below, or downstairs, were her constant preoccupation, from the first thing in the morning when, as she did Mamma's hair, casting a forbidden, irresistible, furtive glance down into the courtyard, she would say: "Look at that, now, a pair of holy Sisters; they'll be for downstairs, surely" or "Oh! just look at the fine pheasants in the kitchen window, no need to ask where they've come from, the Duke must have been out hunting", until last thing at night when, upon hearing the sound of a piano, or a few notes of a song, she drew the following conclusion: "They're having company down below, gay doings, I'll be bound!"
But the moment in the life of the Guermantes which excited the keenest interest in Françoise, gave her the most complete satisfaction, and at the same time the sharpest annoyance, was that at which, the carriage gates having been flung open, Mme de Guermantes stepped into her barouche. It was generally a little while after our servants had finished celebrating that sort of solemn passover which none might disturb, called their luncheon, during which they were so far "taboo" that my father himself would not have taken the liberty of ringing for them, knowing moreover that none of them would have paid any more attention to the fifth ring than to the first, and that he would thus have committed this impropriety to no purpose, though not without detriment to himself. For Françoise (who, being a very old woman, lost no opportunity of standing upon her dignity) would not have failed to present to him, for the rest of the day, with a face covered with the tiny red cuneiform hieroglyphs by which she made visible - though by no means legible - to the outer world the long book of magic spells that held her grievances and the underlying causes of her displeasure.
The last rites of the sacred feast now accomplished, Françoise, who was at one and the same time, as in the primitive church, the celebrant and one of the faithful, poured herself a final glass, undid the napkin from her throat, folded it after wiping from her lips the vestiges of watered wine and coffee, slipped it into its ring, turned a doleful eye to thank "her" young footman (who, to show his zeal in her service, was saying: "Come, Madame, a few more grapes") and went straight across to open the window, under the pretext that it was too hot to breathe in "this wretched kitchen". Dexterously casting, as she turned the latch and let in the fresh air, a glance of studied indifference into the courtyard below, she furtively ascertained that the Duchess was not yet ready to start, and gazed for a moment with impassioned and scornful eyes at the waiting carriage. Then, this moment of attention once paid to the things of the earth, she lifted her eyes to the heavens, whose purity she had already divined from the sweetness of the air that had just come through the window and looked on the corner of the roof at the place where the pigeons, just like the ones that decorated the rooftop of her kitchen, in Combray, came to build their nests over the chimney of my bedroom and which, each spring, I recognized, suddenly hatched, in the early morning cooing, like a softened, transposed and mauve cock crow.
"Ah! Combray! Combray!" cried Françoise, "when will I see you again, poor old place? When will I spend the whole sainted day among your hawthorns, under our own poor lilac trees listening to the redthroats, instead of listening to that wretched bell from our young master who has me running up and down that confounded corridor all day. Ah, poor Combray! maybe I'll only see you when I'm dead, when they drop me like a stone into a hole in the ground. And I'll never smell your lovely all white hawthorns again. But in the sleep of death I think I'll still be hearing those three peals of the bell which have already driven me to damnation in this world."
But she was interrupted by the calls of Jupien, the waistcoat-maker, the same who had so pleased my grandmother once, long ago, on the day she had gone to pay a call on Mme de Villeparisis, and now occupied no less high a place in Françoise's affections, and who, having raised his head when he heard our window open, had already been trying for some time to attract his neighbour's attention, in order to bid her good day. The coquetry of the young girl that Françoise had once been softened and refined for a moment the querulous face of our old cook, dulled by age, ill-temper and the heat of the kitchen stove, and it was with a charming blend of reserve, familiarity and modesty that she bestowed a gracious salutation on the waistcoat-maker, but without making any audible response, for if she infringed Mamma's injunctions by looking into the courtyard, she would never have dared to go so far as talking from the window. She pointed to the waiting carriage, as if to say: "A fine pair, eh!" but really she knew that he would be bound to answer her by putting his hand to his mouth and saying: "You could have one too if you liked, as good as they have and better, I dare say, only you don't care for that sort of thing."
And Françoise, after a modest, evasive and delighted signal that might have meant: "Tastes differ, you know, simplicity's the rule in this house," shut the window again in case Mamma should come in. The "you" who might have had more horses than the Guermantes if they had wanted were ourselves, but Jupien was right in saying "you" since - like those plants that an animal to which they are wholly attached keeps alive with food which it catches, eats and digests for them and of which it offers them the ultimate and easily assimilable residue, - Françoise lived with us in a symbiotic relationship; it was we who, with our virtues, our wealth, our style of living, must take on ourselves the task of concocting those little sops to her vanity out of which was formed - with the addition of the right to practise freely the cult of the midday luncheon according to the traditional custom, the little gulp of air at the window when the meal was finished, a certain amount of loitering in the street when she went out to do her shopping, and a day off on Sunday when she went to visit her nephew - the little bit of contentment that was indispensable to her existence. So too had our departure from a home we had lived in for a long time (and "where we were so well thought of by everybody"), our removal to a new house where on the first few days, our not being known to the concierge, Françoise had momentarily ceased to receive those marks of consideration necessary to her good moral nutrition, had thrown her into a state of decline during which time she made her lamentations heard continuously. "It's the ennui of it all!" she would say when asked about her low spirits, and she attached to the word ennui the powerful sense the word has in Corneille's tragedies, or in the letters of soldiers driven to suicide in their yearning for their fiancées, or for their native villages, by their "ennui". But she quickly got over hers, because Jupien ("Very good class, those Jupiens, very decent people, you can see it written on their faces.") procured for her a pleasure no less keen and more refined than she should have felt if we had bought a carriage, knowing immediately that it should be understood and made known throughout the house that if we did not keep a carriage it was because we had no wish to do so.
And when a tradesman or servant came to our door with some parcel, while seeming to pay no attention to him and merely pointing vaguely to an empty chair, while she continued with her work, Françoise so skillfully put to the best advantage the few moments that he spent in the kitchen while he waited for Mamma's answer, that it was very seldom that he went away without having ineradicably engraved on his mind the conviction that, "if we did not have it, it was because we did not want it". If she made such a point of other people knowing that we were rich, it was not because wealth with nothing else besides, wealth without virtue, was in her eyes the supreme good. But virtue without wealth was not her ideal either. Wealth was, according to Françoise, a necessary condition failing which virtue would lack both merit and charm. Françoise distinguished so little between them that she had come in time to invest each with the other's attributes, to expect some material comfort from virtue, to discover something edifying in wealth.
As soon as she had shut the window again she began with many groans and sighs to put the kitchen table straight.
"There's some Guermantes who stay in the Rue de la Chaise," began my father's valet. "I had a friend who used to work there; he was their second coachman. And I know a fellow, not my old pal but his brother-in-law, who did his time in the Army with one of the Baron de Guermantes's grooms."
"The Duchess must be allianced with that lot," replied Françoise. "It's the same kindred, anyway. Ay, they're a great family, the Guermantes!" she added, founding the greatness of the family at once on the number of its branches and the brilliance of its connections, as Pascal founds the truth of Religion on Reason and on the authority of the Scriptures. For since she had only the single word "great" to express both meanings, it seemed to her that they formed a single idea, and so her vocabulary in places showed an error that projected out from the darkness into her thinking.
"I must ask their butler if it's them that have their château ten leagues from Combray, but he's quite the Lord that one, a real pedant, who never says anything, you'd think they'd cut out his tongue. Well, if I owned the Guermantes château you wouldn't see me in Paris much. I'm sure a family who've got something to go on with, like Monsieur and Madame here, must have some queer ideas to stay on in this wretched town when they're free to go to Combray any time. Why do they put off retiring when they've got everything they want? Why wait until they're dead? Ah, if only I had a crust of bread to eat and wood to keep me warm in winter, I'd have been back home long since in my brother's poor old house in Combray. Down there at least you feel you're alive, you don't have all these houses stuck up in front of you, and it's so quiet at night you can hear the frogs singing more than ten leagues off."
"That must be really nice, Madame," exclaimed the young footman with enthusiasm, as though this last attraction had been as peculiar to Combray as the gondola is to Venice.
"At any rate you know what time of year it is. It isn't like here where you won't find one wretched buttercup at Easter any more than you would at Christmas, and I don't even have the tiniest angelus when I lift my old bones out of bed. Down there, you can hear every hour. It's only a poor old bell, but you say to yourself: 'My brother will be coming in from the fields now,' and you watch the daylight fade, and you have time to get back before the lamps are lit. But here it's day-time and it's night-time, and you go to bed, and you can't say any more than the dumb beasts what you've been doing."
"They say Méséglise is a fine place too, Madame," broke in the young footman, who found that the conversation was becoming a little too abstract for his liking, and happened to remember having heard us, at table, mention Méséglise.
"Oh! Méséglise is it?" said Françoise with the broad smile which one could always bring to her lips by uttering any of those names - Méséglise, Combray, Roussainville: they were so intimate a part of her life that she felt, on meeting them outside it, on hearing them used in conversation, a hilarity more or less akin to that which a teacher excites in his class by making an allusion to some contemporary personage whose name the pupils had never supposed could possibly drop from the height of the professorial chair. Her pleasure arose also from the feeling that those places meant something to her which they did not to the rest of the world, old companions with whom one has shared many an outing; and she smiled at them as if she found in them something witty, because there was in them a great part of herself.
"Yes, you may well say that, son, it's a pretty enough place is Méséglise," she went on laughing archly, "but how did you ever come to hear tell of Méséglise?"
"How did I hear of Méséglise? But it's a well-known place. People have told me about it, and quite often," he assured her with that criminal inexactitude of the informant who, whenever we attempt to form an impartial estimate of the importance that a thing which matters to us may have for other people, makes it impossible for us to do so.
"Ah! I can promise you it's better down there under the pear trees than standing in front of the kitchen stove all day."
"So it was at Combray itself that you used to be, with a cousin of Madame?" asked the young footman.
"Yes, with Madame Octave - ah, a real saintly woman, my dears, and with a house where there was always more than enough, and always of the very best, where you might turn up five to dinner or six, it was never the meat that was lacking, and the best quality too, and white port, and ruby port, and everything you could want. As his reverence the Curé used to tell us, if there ever was a woman certain of taking her place beside the Lord Almighty it was her. Poor Madame, I can still hear her saying in that faint little voice of hers: 'You know, Françoise, I can eat nothing myself, but I want it all to be just as nice for the others as if I could.'"
She spoke to them of Eulalie too as of a truly good person; since Eulalie's death she had in fact completely forgotten that she had had little love for her when she was alive.
But for the last quarter of an hour Mamma had been saying: "What on earth can they be doing? They've been at table for at least two hours." And she rang timidly three or four times. Françoise, "her" footman and the butler heard the bell ring, not as a summons to themselves, and with no thought of answering it, but rather as the first sounds of the instruments being tuned when the next part of a concert is about to be resumed, and one knows that there will be only a few minutes more of the interval. And so, when the peals were repeated and became more urgent, our servants began to pay attention, and, judging that they had not much time left before they would have to start work again, at a peal somewhat louder than the rest gave a collective sigh and went their several ways, the footman slipping downstairs to smoke a cigarette outside the door, Françoise going up to tidy her attic, while the butler, having supplied himself first with note-paper from my bedroom, polished off the correspondence he had at hand.
Despite the arrogant air of their butler, Françoise had been in a position, from the first, to inform me that the Guermantes occupied their mansion by virtue not of an immemorial right but of a quite recent tenancy, and that the garden over which it looked on the side that I did not know was quite small and just like all the neighbouring gardens; and I realized at last that there were not to be seen there pit and gallows or fortified mill, fish pond, fortified dovecote, manorial bakehouse, tithe-barn or fortress, drawbridge or fixed bridge or even flying or toll bridge, obelisks, wall charters or commemorative cairns. But a friend of my father had rendered a little individuality to this dethroned abode by telling us about Mme de Guermantes one day: "She has the highest position in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, hers is the leading house in the Faubourg Saint-Germain." No doubt the most exclusive salon, the leading house in the Fauboug Saint-Germain was little or nothing compared to those I had successively dreamed about.
Moreover my mind was perplexed by certain difficulties, and the presence of the body of Jesus Christ in the host seemed to me no more obscure a mystery than this leading house in the Faubourg Saint-Germain situated on the right bank and so near that from my bedroom in the morning I could hear its carpets being beaten. But the line of demarcation that separated me from the Faubourg Saint-Germain seemed to me all the more real because it was purely ideal; I sensed that it was already part of the Faubourg Saint-Germain when I saw, spread out on the other side of that Equator, the Guermantes doormat of which my mother had ventured to say, having like myself caught a glimpse of it one day when their door stood open, that it was in a shocking state. Besides, how could their dining-rom, their dim gallery upholstered in red plush, into which I could see sometimes from our kitchen window, have failed to possess in my eyes the mysterious charm of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, to form an essential part of it, to be geographically situated within it, since to have dined in that room was to have gone into the Faubourg Saint-Germain, to have breathed its atmosphere, since the people who, before going to table, sat down beside Mme de Guermantes on the leather-covered sofa in that gallery were all of the Faubourg Saint-Germain? No doubt elsewhere than in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, at certain parties, one might see, now and then, majestically enthroned amid the vulgar herd, one of those men who are no more than names and who alternately assume to the people who do not know them, when they try to picture them to themselves, the aspect of a tournament or of a royal forest. But here, in the leading salon in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, in the dim gallery, there was no one but them. They were the columns, wrought of precious materials, that upheld the temple. Even for small and intimate gatherings it was from among them only that Mme de Guermantes could choose her guests, and in the dinners for twelve, assembled around the lavishly set table, they were like the golden statues of the apostles in the Sainte-Chapelle, symbolic, consecrated pillars before the Lord's Table. As for the tiny strip of garden that stretched between high walls at the back of the house, where in summer Mme de Guermantes had liqueurs and orangeade brought out after dinner, how could I not have felt that to sit there of an evening, between nine and eleven at night, on its iron chairs - endowed with as great a power as the leather sofa - without inhaling at the same time the breezes peculiar to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, was as impossible as to take a siesta in the oasis of Figuig without thereby being necessarily in Africa? And only imagination and belief can differentiate from the rest certain objects, certain people, and create an atmosphere. Alas, those picturesque sites, those natural features, those local curiosities, those works of art of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, doubtless I should never be permitted to set foot among them. And I must content myself with a shiver of excitement as I sighted from the open sea (and without the least hope of ever landing there), like a prominent minaret, like the first palm, like the first signs of some exotic industry or vegetation, the well-trodden doormat of its shore.
But if the Hôtel de Guermantes began for me at its hall-door, its dependencies must be regarded as extending a long way further, in the estimation of the Duke, who, looking on all the tenants as farmers, peasants, appropriators of national assets, whose opinion was of no account, shaved himself every morning in his nightshirt at the window, came down into the courtyard, according to the warmth or coldness of the day, in his shirt-sleeves, in pyjamas, in a plaid jacket of startling colours, of shaggy wool, in little light-coloured overcoats shorter than his jacket, and made one of the grooms lead past him at a trot some horse that he had just bought. Yet the whole quarter - and this over a considerable area - did not appear to the Duke to be anything other than an extension of his own courtyard, a longer track for his horses. After seeing how a new horse trotted by itself he had it harnessed and taken through all the neighbouring streets; the groom ran beside the carriage holding the reins, making it pass to and fro before the Duke, standing on the pavement, erect, immense, in his bright clothing, cigar between his teeth, his head in the air, his monocle quizzical, until the moment when he sprang onto the box, drove the beast up and down to try it, then set off with his new equipage to pick up his mistress in the Champs-Elysées. M. de Guermantes would bid good day in the courtyard to two couples who belonged more or less to his world: the first, some cousins of his who, like working-class parents, were never at home to look after their children, since every morning the wife went off to the Schola to study counterpoint and fugue, and the husband to his studio to carve wooden sculptures and tool leather; and then the Baron and Baronne de Norpois, always dressed in black, she like a pew-opener and he like an undertaker, who emerged several times daily on their way to church.
One day when M. de Guermantes required some information on a matter of which my father had professional knowledge, he introduced himself to him with great courtesy. After that, he had often some neighbourly service to ask of him and, as soon as he saw my father coming downstairs, his mind occupied with his work, and anxious to avoid any interruption, the Duke, leaving his stable-boys, would come up to him in the courtyard, straighten the collar of his great-coat with the obliging deftness inherited from a line of royal valets, take him by the hand, and, holding it in his own, stroking it even, to prove to him, with the shamelessness of a courtesan, that he did not begrudge him the privilege of contact with the noble flesh, would steer him, extremely irked and thinking only how he might escape, through the carriage entrance out into the street.
A young lyric poet like Bloch, had he taken a stall in order to see La Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating the neighour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecisions, he makes up his mind to go and talk to just as the three rings, resounding before he has had time to reach her, force him to take flight, like the Hebrew Fathers in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators whom he has forced to rise from their seats. On the other hand, it was because the society people - at this gala performance at the Opéra-Comique for which I had taken a place - sat in their boxes (behind the tiered circle) as in so many little suspended drawing-rooms, the fourth walls of which had been removed, or in so many little cafés to which one might go for refreshment without letting oneself be intimidated by the mirrors in gilt frames or the red plush seats of the establishment, it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art, it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours which seemed to be being paid to them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that they alone would have had the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had had minds. Only the stall seats had been on sale and the Princesse de Parme had distributed all the boxes among her friends.
Perched at some little height above the stalls as I was, at first the boxes appeared only in vague shadows, within which one suddenly caught, like the gleam of a precious stone which one cannot see, the phosphorescence of a pair of famous eyes, or, like a medallion of Henri IV on a dark background, the bent profile of the Duc d'Aumale. But almost everywhere, the white deities who inhabited those sombre abodes had taken refuge against their shadowy walls and remained invisible. Gradually, however, as the performance went on, their vaguely human forms detached themselves languidly one after the other from the depths of the night which they spangled, and, raising themselves towards the light, allowed their half-naked bodies to emerge as far as the vertical surface of half-light where their gleaming faces appeared behind the playful foam of their fluttering feather fans, beneath their purple, pearl-threaded coiffures which seemed to bend with the motion of the waves; beyond lay the orchestra stalls, abode of mortals forever separated from the sombre and transparent realm to which, here and there, in their smooth liquid surface, the limpid, reflecting eyes of the water-goddesses served as frontier. For the folding seats on the shore, the forms of monsters in the stalls were able at most to be depicted therein according to the laws of optics and according to their angle of incidence, as happens with those two sections of external reality to which, knowing that they do not possess any soul, however rudimentary, that can be considered analogous to our own, we should think ourselves insane to address a smile or a glance: namely, minerals and people to whom we have not been introduced. Within the boundaries of their domain, however, the radiant daughters of the sea were constantly turning round to smile up at the bearded tritons who clung to the anfractuous rocks of the ocean depths, or towards some aquatic demi-god whose skull was a polished stone onto which the tide had washed a smooth covering of seaweed, and his gaze a disc of rock crystal. They leaned towards these creatures, offering them bonbons; from time to time the flood parted to admit a new nereid who, belated, smiling, apologetic, had just floated into bloom out of the shadowy depths; then, the act ended, having no further hope of hearing the melodious sounds of earth which had drawn them to the surface, plunging back all at once, the divine sisters vanished into the night. But of all these retreats to the thresholds of which their frivolous desire to behold the works of man brought the curious goddesses who let none approach them, the most famous was the block of semi-darkness known to the world as the box of the Princesse de Guermantes.
Like a great goddess presiding from afar over the frolics of the lesser deities, the Princess had deliberately remained somewhat in the background on a sofa placed sideways in the box, red as a coral reef, besides a large vitreous expanse which was probably a mirror and suggested a section, perpendicular, opaque and liquid, cut by a ray of sunlight in the dazzling crystal of the sea... And when I turned my eyes to their box, far more than on the ceiling of the theatre, painted with lifeless allegories, it was as though I had seen, thanks to a miraculous rending of the customary clouds, the assembly of the Gods in the act of surveying the spectacle of mankind, beneath a crimson canopy, in a clear lighted space, between two pillars of Heaven. While I was gazing on this momentary apotheosis with a perturbation which was partly soothed by the feeling that I myself was unknown to the Immortals, the Duchess who had indeed seen me once with her husband, but she must have forgotten my face and my name, found herself, owing to the position she occupied in the box, gazing down upon the nameless, collective Madrepores of the audience in the stalls in which I happily felt my being was dissolved; but at the moment in which, by virtue of the laws of refraction, the blurred shape of the protozoon devoid of any individual existence which was myself must have come to be reflected in the impassive current of those two blue eyes, I saw a ray illuminate them: the Duchess, goddess turned woman, and appearing at that moment a thousand times more lovely, raised towards me the white-gloved hand which had been resting on the balustrade of the box and waved it in token of friendship; my gaze was caught in the spontaneous incandescence of the flashing eyes of the Princess, who had unwittingly set them ablaze merely by turning her head to see who it might be that her cousin was thus greeting, and the latter, who had recognized me, showered upon me the sparkling and celestial torrent of her smile.
Now, every morning, long before the hour at which she left her house, I went by a long detour to post myself at the corner of the street along which she generally came, and when the moment of her arrival seemed imminent, I strolled back with an air of being absorbed in something else, looking the other way, and raised my eyes to her face as I drew level with her, but as though I had not in the least expected to see her.
But I would not have been able to say what it was that I recognized Mme de Guermantes by, for every day, in the picture she presented as a whole, the face was as different as were the dress and the hat.
Why was it, on any given day, when I saw advancing towards me beneath a mauve hood a sweet, smooth face whose charms were symmetrically arranged about a pair of blue eyes and into which the curve of the nose seemed to have been absorbed, that a delighted sense of shock informed me that I was not going to return home without having caught a glimpse of Mme de Guermantes? Why did I feel the same stir of emotion, affect the same indifference, turn away my eyes with the same abstracted air as on the day before, at the appearance in profile in a side street, beneath a navy-blue toque, of a beak-like nose alongside a red cheek with a piercing eye, recalling some Egyptian divinity? One day I would be pacing up and down the street for hours on end without seeing her when suddenly, inside a dairy shop tucked in between two of the mansions of this aristocratic and working-class quarter, there would emerge the vague and unfamiliar face of a fashionably dressed woman who was asking to see some petits suisses, and before I had had time to distinguish her I would be struck, as by a flash of lightning reaching me sooner than the rest of the image, by the glance of Mme de Guermantes; another time, having failed to meet her and hearing midday strike, I would tell myself that it was not worth my while to wait for her any longer; I would mournfully make my way homewards; and, absorbed in my disappointment, gazing absent-mindedly at a receding carriage, I would suddenly realize that the nod which a lady had given through the carriage window was meant for me, and that this lady, whose features, relaxed and pale, or alternatively tense and vivid, composed beneath a round hat or a towering plume, the face of a stranger whom I supposed that I did not know, was Mme de Guermantes, by whom I let myself be greeted without so much as an acknowledgement. And in view of the succession of different faces that occupied a relative and varying expanse, sometimes narrow, sometimes sometimes large, in her person and attire as a whole, my love was not attached to any particular one of those changeable elements of flesh and fabric which replaced one another as day followed day, and which she could renew and modify almost entirely without tempting my agitation because beneath them, beneath the new collar and the strange cheek, I felt that it was still Mme de Guermantes. What I loved was the invisible person who set all this outward show in motion, the woman whose hostility so distressed me, whose approach threw me into a turmoil, whose life I should have liked to carry off for myself and do away with her friends! Whether she flaunted a blue feather, whether she displayed an inflamed complexion, her actions always held the same importance for me. Even her face that, before going to sleep, I pictured to myself as clear and pale, but more often in the morning when I saw her up close being ruddy and dark, very soon the desire that every evening made me decide not to miss going out the following day was no longer a case of rediscovering a golden face but of seeing once again a blotchy skin.
I should not myself have felt that Mme de Guermantes was irritated at seeing me day after day, had I not learned it indirectly by reading it on the face, stiff with coldness, disapproval and pity, which Françoise wore when she was helping me get ready for these morning walks. The moment I asked her for my outdoor things I saw a contrary wind arise in her worn and shrunken features. She had a power the nature of which I have never been able to fathom, for at once becoming aware of anything unpleasant that might happen to us. Perhaps it was not a supernatural power, but was to be explained by sources of information that were peculiar to herself; as it may happen that the news which often reaches a savage tribe several days before the post has brought it to the European colony has really been transmitted to them not by telepathy but from hill-top to hill-top by a chain of beacon fires. Thus, in the particular instance of my morning walks, possible Mme de Guermantes's servants had heard their mistress say how tired she was of running into me every day without fail wherever she went, and had repeated her remarks to Françoise.
But in all probability apprehension, vigilance and cunning had in the end furnished our servant with that kind of intuitive and almost divinatory knowledge about us that the sailor has of the sea, wild game of the huntsman and the invalid of his illness. I never in my life experienced a secret humiliation without having seen beforehand on the face of Françoise the signs of ready-prepared condolences; and if in my anger at the thought of being pitied by her I tried to pretend that on the contrary I had scored a distinct success, my lies broke feebly against the wall of her respectful but obvious disbelief and the consciousness she enjoyed of her own infallibility. For she knew the truth; she refrained from uttering it, and made only a slight movement with her lips as if she still had her mouth full and was finishing a tasty morsel. She refrained from uttering it? So at least I long believed, for at that time I still supposed that it was by means of words that one communicated the truth to others. Indeed the words that people said to me recorded their meaning so unalterably on the sensitive plate of my mind that I could no more believe it possible that someone who had professed to love me did not love me than Françoise herself could have doubted when she read "in the paper" that some priest or gentleman or other was prepared, on receipt of a stamped envelope, to furnish us free of charge with an infallible remedy for every known complaint or with the means to gain a fifty percent yield on all capital. But she was the first person to prove to me by her example (which I was not to understand until long afterwards, when it was given me afresh and more painfully, as will be seen in the last volume of this work, by a person who was more dear to me) that the truth has no need to be uttered to be made apparent, and that one may perhaps gather it with more certainty, without waiting for words and without even taking any account of them, from countless outward signs, even from certain invisible phenomena, analogous in the sphere of human character to what atmospheric changes are in the physical world. I might perhaps have suspected this, since it frequently occurred to me at that time to say things myself in which there was no vestige of truth, while I made the real truth plain by all manner of involuntary confidences expressed by my body and in my actions, which were only too accurately interpreted by Françoise. But to do so I should first have had to be conscious that I myself was occasionally mendacious and deceitful. Now mendacity and deceitfulness were with me - as with everybody else - called into being in so immediate, so contingent a fashion, and in its defense - by some particular interest that my mind, fixed on some lofty ideal, allowed my character to perform in those urgent, sordid tasks in the darkness below.
When Françoise, on an evening, was nice to me, and asked my permission to sit in my room, it seemed to me that her face became transparent and that I could see the kindness and honesty that lay beneath. But Jupien revealed afterwards that she had told him that I was not worth the price of a rope to hang me, and that I had tried to do her every conceivable harm. Is that what she really thought? Had she said it to embroil Jupien with me, possibly so that we should not appoint Julien's daughter as her successor? At any rate I realized the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Françoise loved or hated me. And thus it was she who gave me the idea that another person does not stand motionless and clear before our eyes, with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves, like a garden with all its borders on the other side of a railing, but of that person there can be no such thing as direct, and at best an inductive and also very misleading, knowledge, words and even actions giving us nothing but inadequate and generally contradictory information about this ever mysterious shadow into which we cannot penetrate and where we alternately imagine with just as much likelihood that there shine both hatred and love.
I was genuinely in love with Mme de Guermantes; the greatest happiness that I could have asked of God would have been that He should send down on her every imaginable calamity, and that ruined, despised, stripped of all the privileges that separated her from me, having no longer any home of her own or people who would condescend to speak to her, she would come to me for asylum. I imagined her doing so. How many times did I tell myself this story! In it Mme de Guermantes told me things so tenderly that I could not stop thinking of her gratitude even once I had ceased to read, when I had closed up my interior novel, in other respects made up purely of chance encounters, but sterile and without any truth. In the general judgement that, once the illusion is shattered, I held about Mme de Guermantes's character, I brought into account the sweetness of the words that, in my reverie, I had had her say to me.
I had gone to meet up with Saint-Loup in the town where he was garrisoned. It was in the North, one of those little aristocratic and military towns set in a broad expanse of country over which on fine days there floats in the distance a sort of intermittent haze of sound which indicated the movement of a regiment on manoeuvre just as a screen of poplars indicates, by its twists and turns, the course of a river that we cannot see. And the atmosphere (in its very streets, avenues and squares) has been condensed into a sort of perpetual musical and warlike vibrancy; the most commonplace sound of wagons and tramways is prolonged in vague bugle calls, indefinitely repeated, to the hallucinated ear, by the silence.
A memory, a sorrow, are changeable things. One moment we are more aware of them, but immediately they return they will not leave you for a long time. There were days when I no longer thought about Mme de Guermantes. But on certain evenings as I crossed the town on my way to the restaurant where Saint-Loup was dining, I had hardly started walking when it was as though a part of my chest had been cut open by a skilled anatomist, taken out, and replaced by an equal part of incorporeal suffering, by its equivalent in nostalgia and love. And however neatly the wound may have been stitched together, one lives rather uncomfortably when regret for the loss of another person is substituted for one's vital organs, it seems to be occupying more space than they do, one feels it perpetually, and besides, what an ambiguity it is to be obliged to think a part of one's body. Only it seems that we are worth more, somehow. At the slightest breeze we sigh, with oppression but also with languor. I would look up at the sky. If it was clear I would say to myself: "Perhaps she has gone to the country, she's looking at the same stars, and, for all I know, when I arrive at the restaurant Robert will say to me: 'Good news, my aunt has written to me, she wants to see you, she's coming down here.'"
As I made my way to the restaurant I said to myself: "A fortnight already since I last saw Mme de Guermantes". And immediately it was no longer stars and the breeze alone, but the arithmetical divisions of time that assumed a dolorous and poetic aspect. I told myself: "Perhaps she will not wait any longer to do her penitence. A fortnight, that's a long time." And I never dreamed that she was not waiting, and these fourteen days of separation, that appeared vast through the microscope of my regret that had made me calculate them every ten seconds, were tiny, perhaps a mere nothing, and would remain so, even when ten fortnights were added to them, to Mme de Guermantes who during this whole time had not thought, would not think about me for a single moment. Every day now was like the mobile crest of an indistinct hill, down one side of which I felt myself descending towards forgetfulness, whereas from the other I could, if I were to fall, be swept away by the need to see Mme de Guermantes again. One day I said to myself: "Perhaps there'll be a letter tonight" and on entering the dining-room I found the courage to ask Saint-Loup:
"You don't happen to have any news from Paris?"
"Yes," he replied gloomily, "bad news."
I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that it was only he who had cause for unhappiness, and that the news was from his mistress.
Little by little I learned that a quarrel had broken out between them both, through their letters presumably, unless she had come down to pay him a visit one morning between trains and without my knowing.
In any case it was now through the post that their differences were being continued. She told him that she was going to leave him. He wrote back to her over and over again. It was good to know that she had never confided her thoughts to him, that he did not really know her, that if he could try to infer what it was that she wanted, what she needed, it was purely from her actions and never from her words which were not even sufficiently consistent lies for him to take up the contrary position, despite which he attached extraordinary importance to them. And however convinced he was that he had done everything possible for her, at a moment like this when she was being spiteful towards him, he felt the need to ask her, to beg her to write to him what it was that she had to reproach him for and if indeed she ended up by formulating some kind of reproach, immediately, he set about replying to her in page after page to disprove what she said. Soon however, he stopped writing to his mistress, because he did not want to compromise on certain points and thought he must, whether sincerely or by pretence, accept their separation. Perhaps the distress of leaving his mistress seemed less to him than if he stayed with her in certain circumstances. And even if it was more cruel for him, perhaps he judged this inflexibility as a necessity in order to maintain what respect and love he thought she still had for him.
The idea that he was separated from his mistress escaped from Saint-Loup's mind at every turn in heavy maelstroms, my friend accustomed himself to this oppressive atmosphere, eventually perhaps that is how his life would be. But now and then he was awake to these short respites that sleep provides us with. Then all of a sudden Robert began to understand a change in himself, he began to touch upon, as if for the very first time, the realization that he was now separated from his mistress. It was as if he had discovered this idea, it felt new to him; the three weeks during which he had been aware of it could not be anything but a dream because it was too cruel and too contradictory to the memory of the years gone by for him yet to succeed over three weeks in bearing the pain and admitting the possibility of it. Yet this idea remained deep within him in the same place, he distanced himself from it, came back to it, was suffocated by it, he wanted to escape from his own body, from his own life.
He no longer slept a wink all night. Once, in my room, overcome by exhaustion, he dozed off for a while. But suddenly he began to speak, tried to get up and run to stop something from happening, said: "I hear her, you shan't, you shan't..." He awoke. He had been dreaming, he told me shortly afterwards, that he was in the country with the squadron sergeant-major. He noticed that his host had tried to keep him away from a certain part of the house. He had discovered that the sergeant-major had staying with him an extremely rich and extremely vicious lieutenant whom Robert knew to have a violent passion for his mistress. And suddenly in his dream he had distinctly heard the little cries that his mistress was in the habit of uttering during certain moments of physical sensuality. He had tried to force the sergeant-major to take him to the room in which she was. And the other had held on to him to keep him from going there, while maintaining an air of dignity, affronted by this indiscretion and that Robert told me he could never forget.
"It was an idiotic dream," he concluded, still quite out of breath.
All the same I could see that, during the hour that followed, he was more than once on the point of telegraphing his mistress that the reconcilliation was complete. Then the dream began to fade a little from his mind. He heard nothing from her, in vain did he wait at every moment for her letter, his orderly brought him none. Being deprived of any news, Robert fell to forming suppositions. It has been said that silence is strength, in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved. It amplifies the anxiety of the one who is waiting. Nothing encourages us to approach another person so much as what keeps them apart, and what more insurmountable barrier is there than silence? It has also been said that silence is a form of torture - and capable of sending mad those who are condemned to it in prison. But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silent it is to have to endure the silence of the person one loves! Robert said to himself: "What can she be doing, to keep so silent as this? Obviously she's being unfaithful to me with others." He also said to himself: "What have I done that she should be so silent? Perhaps she hates me, and will go on hating me forever." And he reproached himself. Thus silence indeed drove him into a panic, through jealousy and remorse. Besides, more cruel than the silence of prisons, that kind of silence is in itself a prison. It is an intangible enclosure, true, but an impenetrable one, this interposed silence of empty atmosphere through which nevertheless the visual rays of the abandoned lover cannot help but pass. Is there a more terrible form of illumination than that of silence, which shows us not one absent love but a thousand, and shows us each of them indulging in the act of some new betrayal. Sometimes, in a sudden slackening of tension, Robert would imagine that this silence was about to cease, that the letter was on its way. He saw it, it had arrived, he started at every sound, his thirst was already quenched, he murmured: "The letter! The letter!" Then after having glimpsed this phantom oasis of tenderness, he found himself once more trudging along with despair through the real desert of endless silence.
As far as I was concerned, not really knowing anything about it, it seemed impossible to me that Saint-Loup's mistress really was intending to leave him. As for him it was all he could think about it. He suffered in anticipation, without missing a single one, all the griefs and pains of a rupture which at other moments he fancied he might somehow contrive to avoid, like people who put all their affairs in order with a view to a departure which will never take place, and whose minds, no longer certain where they will find themselves living next day, flutter momentarily, disembodied, detached from them, like a heart that is taken out of a dying man and continues to beat. At all events, it was no doubt the hope of an imminent reconcilliation that gave him the courage to persevere in the rupture, as the belief that one may return alive from the battle helps one to face death. And inasmuch as habit is, of all the plants of human growth, the one that has least need of nutritious soil in order to live, and is the first to appear on the most seemingly barren rock, perhaps had he begun by thinking of the rupture as a feint he would in the end have become genuinely accustomed to it. Every morning he came to my room with an abstracted and fixed expression and on those days, one after the other, when he was in so much suffering sketched in my mind, like the splendid unyielding curve of some wrought iron ramp from which Robert was left to plumb this mystery that had always preoccupied him, what his mistress was really thinking, what she really was, but was now become so urgent and painful since what he must decipher was not only what she was thinking, but what she wanted, what she had decided upon, because in the end, and especially what she was with regards to him - the love of his life or his malignant slave - was no longer merely a secret essence on which one may hold forth, but was about to become an effective reality conveyed through actions.
Eventually he received that letter of reconcilliation that, I thought, he had imagined thousands of times over, but which for the first time was not accompanied by the doubt that she would ever come back; such a terrible doubt that it had always obliged Robert to interrupt his thoughts for a moment and in so doing meant that the idea of either a possible reconcilliation or a possibly definitive separation was something that Robert had abandoned entirely one moment and then seized back again, rather than remaining impassive within himself. Nevertheless, returning once more in the sense from the spirit world, since it was an idea, by its ever-present nature, by the prodigious number of times that it presented itself every day to Robert, it retained rather some corporeal, organic life, it had the frequency and the unremitting repetition of the motions of respiration or the beatings of the heart. And perhaps only suffering, since it had given him its rhythm by introducing its intermittences into it, had made him conscious of it just like the vital and deep sensations that we only notice when they become painful.
He received the letter in which his mistress asked him if he would agree to forgive her. As soon as he knew that a separation had been avoided, he saw all the disadvantages of a reconcilliation. Besides, he had already begun to suffer less acutely and had almost accepted a grief that he now told himself in a few months perhaps he would have to feel the sharp bite of again. Yet he did not hesitate for long. And perhaps he hesitated only because he was now certain of being able to get his mistress back; of being able to do so, and therefore of doing so.
I returned to Paris in order to free myself from the phantom, hitherto unsuspected, (that had been evoked for me by my telephone conversation with her) of a grandmother grown old (she who for me had never betrayed any age), resigned to not seeing me, waiting for a letter from me in the empty apartment. Alas, it was this phantom that I saw when, entering the drawing-room without my grandmother having been told of my return, I found her there reading. I was in the room, or rather I was not yet in the room since she was not aware of my presence, and, like a woman whom one surprises at a piece of needlework which she will hurriedly put aside if anyone comes in, she was absorbed in thoughts which she had never allowed to be seen by me. Of myself, thanks to that privilege that lasts less than an instant, at the moment of my arrival, of being suddenly the spectator of one's own absence - there was present only the witness, the observer, in travelling coat and hat, the stranger who does not belong to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places which one will never see again. Alas, what was taking place, mechanically, in my eyes, the moment I caught sight of my grandmother, was indeed a photograph. We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex, flings them back, makes them adhere to the idea that we have always had of them. How, since into the cheeks and the shoulders of my grandmother I had been accustomed to read all the most delicate, the most permanent qualities of her mind, how could I have failed to overlook what had become dulled and changed in her, seeing that in the most trivial spectacles of our daily life, our eyes, charged with thought, neglect, as would a classical tragedy, every image that does not contribute to the action of the play and retain only those that may help to make its purpose intelligible. But if, instead of our eyes, it should happen to be a purely physical object, a photographic plate, that has watched the action, then what we see in the courtyard of the Institute, instead of the dignified emergence of the Academician who is trying to hail a cab, will be his tottering steps, his precautions to avoid falling on his back, the parabola of his fall, as though he were drunk or the ground covered in ice. So it is when some chance trick prevents our intelligence and pious tenderness from coming forward as it usually does to hide from our eyes what we ought never to behold, when it is forestalled by our eyes, and they, arriving first in the field and having it for themselves, set to work mechanically, like some photographic apparatus, and show us, in place of the beloved person who has long since ceased to exist but whose death our tenderness has hitherto kept concealed from us, the new person whom a hundred times daily it has clothed with a loving and mendacious likeness. And - like a sick man who, not having looked at his own reflection for a long time, and regularly composing the features which he never sees in accordance with the ideal image of himself that he carries in his mind, recoils in catching sight in the glass, in the middle of an arid desert of a face, of the sloping pink protuberance of a nose as huge as one of the pyramids of Egypt - I, for whom my grandmother was still myself, I who had never seen her save in my own soul, always in the same place in the past, through the transparency of contiguous memories, suddenly, in our drawing-room which formed part of a new world, that of time, that which is inhabited by strangers of whom we say "He's begun to age a good deal," the characters in a novel whose last few years are lonely and pitiful, for the first time, and for a moment only, since she vanished very quickly, I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, vacant, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old woman whom I did not know.
After leaving Paris, despite the onset of spring, the trees on the boulevard hardly endowed with their first leaves, when the central train set us down, Saint-Loup and myself, in the suburban village where his mistress lived it was marvellous to behold each little garden decked with the huge festal altars of the fruit-trees in blossom. It was like one of those peculiar, poetic, ephemeral, local festivals which people travel long distances to attend on set occasions, but this particular festival was one provided by Nature. The blossom of the cherry tree is stuck so firmly to its branches, like a white sheath, that from a distance, among the other trees that showed as yet scarcely a flower or leaf, one might on this day of sunshine that was still so cold have taken it for snow that had remained clinging there, having melted everywhere else. But the tall pear-trees enveloped each house, each modest courtyard, in a more spacious, more uniform, more fixed whiteness, as if all the dwellings, all the enclosed spaces in the village, were on their way to make their first communion on the same day.
Never had Robert spoken to me so tenderly of his mistress as he did during this journey. I was conscious of what she meant to him, I even told myself that she whose feelings were however usually so sensitive was considering the possibility of making a brilliant marriage, just to have vast sums of money, and that defeated by such wealth, she gave up on the idea of leaving him.
She alone had taken root in him; his future career in the Army, his position in society, his personal fortune, his very family, everything that, of course, he was not at all indifferent to counted for nothing next to the slightest thing that concerned his mistress. She was the one he thought about all the time. Here was the source of all his cares, and from time to time his inexpressible pain. The only thing that had any prestige in his eyes was what concerned her, to the exclusion not only of the Guermantes but of all the kings of the earth. I do not know whether he formulated to himself the notion that she was of a superior essence to the rest of the world, but he had no concern, no anxiety, he could feel no real passion other than for what affected her. Through her he was capable of suffering martyrdom, of experiencing pleasures, perhaps even of committing a crime. There was nothing that interested him, that could excite him other than what his mistress was thinking, than what she was concealing - discernable at most in fleeting changes of expression - in the narrow expanse of her face and behind her privileged brow. If one had asked oneself what was the value he set on her, I doubt whether one could ever have imagined a figure high enough. For in order to hold on to her he had certainly happily sacrificed no matter how much wealth and all that wealth supplies merely, and it can never be enough, to procure, for example, a great position in society. If he did not marry her, it was so as to hold onto her, to keep her every day in expectation of the next. He knew in all reality that she did not love him. There is no doubt that love, the same in all men save a few slight differences, was quite forcing him, at times, since it is one of the most essential of those morbid manifestations of this illness, to believe that his mistress loved him. But in his heart of hearts he felt that her love for him was not inconsistent with her remaining with him only on account of the money he gave her, and and the day when she could expect no more from him she would leave him or at least live the way she pleased.
In order to reach the house where she lived we skirted a small garden, no doubt bare and still uninhabited yesterday like a property that has not yet been hired out, but now overflowing with the new effloresence of branches of cherry and pear; and we could not stop ourselves gazing curiously at these newcomers that embellished it and populated it and where through a grille their pretty white dresses could be seen waiting at the corner of the avenues.
"I'll tell you what, I can see you are so taken with all this, so wait here," Robert told me, "my friend lives quite close, I'll go and fetch her."
While I waited I strolled up and down the road; I passed a few other modest gardens. Here and there, in the open air at the level of one of the small storeys I could see, dangling among the foliage, light and pliant in their fresh mauve dresses, clusters of young lilacs swaying in the breeze without heeding the passer-by who raised his eyes towards their green mezzanine. But it was not my eyes alone that gazed upon them. Because I had recognized in them the violet platoons posted at the entrance to M. Swann's park, behind the little white gateway, for the warm spring afternoons, and, for me, this enchanting rustic tapestry did not belong only to the world that we observe coldly through our eyes. And by bringing forth another that we sense only through vision - the only thing here below that enriches us, that gives us the feeling of interior plenitude and joy - extends itself too into our hearts.
I came back to the pear-trees. Saint-Loup was still not there. Presently while standing before the lilacs I thought of Combray, and here too in this garden were the flowers of Combray - the flowers that made me dream of my childhood and such enchantments that I no longer knew, in this world of mediocrity, that they really did exist, they really were those very flowers - pear, cherry, that I could see attached to the branches above the shade that was so propitious for a siesta, for reading a book, or for fishing.
Suddenly Saint-Loup appeared, accompanied by his mistress, and then, in this woman who was for him the epitome of love, of all the sweet things of life, whose personality, mysteriously enshrined in a human body like the Saint of Saints in the Tabernacle, was the unknown object that occupied incessantly his toiling imagination, despairing of ever really knowing her, here she was, behind the veil of eyes and flesh - in this woman I recognized instantaneously, from the house of ill repute where I had never wanted her, the one I had nicknamed "Rachel when from the Lord" and who used to say to the procuress: "Tomorrow evening, then, if you want me for someone, you'll send round for me won't you?"
The pity that I ought to have felt for Robert was not the feeling that assailed me at that moment. No, if tears came to my eyes, it was more an excess of happiness that gave me the apparition deep inside me of a sort of still confused truth, but which went beyond Robert and his mistress.
I realized then how much we can supply to a little scrap of a woman's face if it is through the help of our imagination that we have first come to know it; and conversely into what coarse, wretched, worthless elements can be diminished for another man, the one who is for us the be all and end all of stylishness, the object of so many of our dreams. I saw that the woman who had been offered to me for twenty francs in the brothel without my thinking she was worth it nor that she was anything but some prostitute who needed to earn the money, could be worth more than millions to Robert, more than the Jockey Club, more than a glorious career, if he had initially sought this woman as a creature difficult to avail himself of, and difficult to hold onto. But what to me in a sense had been offered at the start, that consenting face, had been for Robert an ultimate goal towards which he had made his way through endless hopes, doubts and dreams.
He had agglutinated them for ever, to make something unique, indivisible, indestructibly precious out of that face that to me seemed interchangeable with so many others, and beneath which I would never have had the curiosity to seek out the person, out of those looks, those smiles, those movements of the lips, that for me signalled only a generalized action and a professional habit.
We dream of visiting other planets, other worlds. But these other worlds exist close by us, infinitely different, and yet our neighbours, even making their vast orbs occupy one single place. There was no doubt that it was the same thin, narrow woman's face that we both saw at that moment, Robert and I. But we did not see it in the same world. If he had learned the little she meant to the inhabitants of another world, and that anybody could have had her, he would have suffered cruelly, but she would not have lost her high price to him because it was not in his power to leave the world where he saw her and that placed before her a veil of caresses, to which was added a substructure of suspicions. We had arrived at this place by two different routes that never communicated and outside of which we could never project ourselves. Like a slender leaf that is subject the the colossal pressure of two atmospheres, this face was the meeting point of two infinities.We were not looking at it, Robert and myself, from the same side of the Mystery. And throughout those days when he had suffered so terribly, not knowing if she was going to leave him, those days that had depicted before me like a magnificent, metallic and unyielding arch above which Saint-Loup leaned towards the Unknown, now (and it was entirely probable that throughout those days all this woman wanted to do was to laugh about him, or not to attach herself to him any more, unless some unexpected fortune had turned her head) it seemed to me that ironically I was seeing its inconsistent and exactly inverse shadow.
Robert noticed that I seemed moved. I turned my eyes to the pear and cherry trees in the garden opposite. And their beauty moved me too. By likening the trees I had seen in the garden to charming strangers, had I not made the same mistake as Mary Magdalen when, in another garden, she saw a form, 'supposing him to be the gardener'? Guardians of our memories of the golden age, keepers of the promise that even in reality the splendours of poetry and innocence may be resplendent and be the recompense that we strive to earn, these great white creatures miraculously bowed over the shade, were they not rather angels? We crossed through the village. Its houses were sordid. But by each of the most wretched, of those that looked as though they had been scorched by a shower of brimstone, a mysterious traveller, halting for a day in the accursed city, a resplendent angel, stood erect, stretching over it the dazzling protection of his widespread wings of innocence laden with blossom.
It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognize that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Were we to come upon a brigand at the corner of a wood, we might perhaps succeed in making him sensible if not of our personal plight then at least of his own personal interest. But to ask pity of our own body is like discoursing in front of an octopus, for which our words have as much meaning as the sound of the tides, and with which we should be appalled to find ourselves condemned to live. My grandmother's ailments often escaped her attention, which was always directed towards us. When they gave her too much pain, in an attempt to cure them she tried in vain to understand them. But if the morbid phenomena of which her body was the theatre remained obscure and beyond the reach of her mind, they were clear and intelligible to certain beings belonging to the same natural kingdom as themselves, beings to whom the human mind has learned gradually to have recourse in order to understand what its body is saying to it, as when a foreigner addresses us we try to find someone of his country who will act as interpreter. These can talk to our body, can tell us if its anger is serious or will soon be appeased. Cottard who, against my wishes had been called in to examine my grandmother, ordained - on a day that she was not feeling quite as ill as she had been for the past few weeks - that we should take her temperature. Almost throughout its entire length the tube of the thermometer that we had just been to fetch was empty of mercury. One could scarcely make out the silver salamander, lurking at the bottom of the tiny reservoir. It seemed dead. The little glass pipe was slipped into my grandmother's mouth. We had no need to leave it there for long; the little sorceress had not been slow in casting her horoscope. We found her motionless, perched half-way up her tower and declining to move, showing us with precision the figure that we had asked of her, a figure with which all the most careful thought that my poor grandmother's mind might have devoted to herself would have been incapable of furnishing her: 101°. For the first time we felt some anxiety. We shook the thermometer well, to erase the ominous sign, as though we were able thus to reduce my grandmother's fever simultaneously with the temperature indicated. Alas, it was only too clear that the little soulless sybil had not pronounced judgement arbitrarily, for the next day, scarcely had the thermometer been inserted between my grandmother's lips when almost at once, as though with a single bound, exulting in her certainty and in her intuition of a fact that to us was imperceptible, the little prophetess had come to a halt at the same point, in an implacable immobility, and pointed once again to that figure 101 with the tip of her gleaming wand. She said nothing else, in vain had we longed, wished, prayed, she appeared not to hear us and this was her final threatening word of warning.
Then, in an attempt to constrain her to give us a different response, we turned to another creature of the same kingdom, but more potent, a creature not content with questioning the body but capable of commanding it, quinine. We had not brought the thermometer down below 99.5, in the hope that it would not rise any higher. We made my grandmother take the quinine and then put the thermometer back in her mouth. Like an implacable warder to whom one presents a permit signed by a superior whose patronage one enjoys, and who, finding it to be in order replies: "All right, I've nothing to say, if that's how it is you may pass," this time the vigilant wardress did not move. But sullenly she seemed to be saying: "What good will it do you? Since you know quinine, she may give me the order not to go up once, ten times, twenty times. And then she'll grow tired of telling me, I know her, believe me. This won't last for ever. And then where will it have got you?" But, as we waited, like one of the Fates momentarily subdued, it held its silver spindle motionless. Alas! other inferior creatures which man has trained to hunt the mysterious quarry which he himself is incapable of pursuing in the depths of is being, reported with involuntary cruelty to us every day a certain quantity of albumin, not large, but constant enough for it also to appear to be related to some persistent malady which we could not detect.
Dr Boulbon having declared that there was nothing wrong with my grandmother, that she should "take it upon herself" and lead an every day life, I persuaded her, on the entreaties of my mother, to come with me for a first trip outdoors. As we first arrived at the Champs-Elysées I saw her make her way without a word to the little old pavilion, its green trellis at the door, similar to the political offices of old Paris, and inside which the Water Closets had been installed. Françoise would often stop off there, at the time when I used to play with Gilberte. The manageress of the establishment, an old lady in a ginger wig and painted cheeks whom Françoise assured me was a marquise fallen on hard times was at that time in the habit of opening one of the cubicles for me and saying: "Do you want to come in? It's all nice and clean in here, and free of charge for yourself" perhaps like the young ladies at Boissier's or Gouache's when mamma went in to place an order, who would simply offer me one of the sweets they kept on the counter under glass bowls "for nothing", (which caused me nothing but regret in any case, because mamma always forbade me from accepting them); or perhaps less innocently like one of those old flower-ladies who always wanted to give me a rose and cast amorous glances at me. At any event, if the marquise had a taste for very young boys, as she opened the door to those subterranean cubes like Egyptian hypogea where men were crouching like sphinxes, she must have been seeking through her generosity less the hope of corrupting us than the pleasure of being seen as vainly prodigal towards the thing you care about, because I never saw another visitor with her apart from an old park-keeper. It was still the same woman who I recognized when, following my grandmother who had a hand in front of her mouth, probably from a touch of nausea, I climbed the steps to the little rustic theatre, erected in the middle of the gardens. At the entrance, as in those travelling circuses where the clown, dressed for the ring and smothered in flour, stands at the door and takes the ticket-money himself, the "Marquise" was still there taking the money with her huge, irregular snout of a face smeared with cheap paint and her little bonnet of red flowers and black lace surmounting her ginger wig. But I do not think she recognized me. The park-keeper, abandoning the supervision of the greenery, matching the colour of his uniform, was sitting beside her chatting.
"So you're still here," he was saying, "You haven't thought of retiring?"
"And why should I retire, Monsieur? Would you like to tell me where I'd be better off than here, where I'd be more comfy and snug? And then there's all the coming and going, plenty of distraction; my own little Paris I call it! My customers keep me in touch with everything that's going on. I mean, there's one of them went out not five minutes ago, he's a judge, and a high up one at that. Well!" she exclaimed heatedly, as though prepared to maintain the truth of this assertion by violence, had any agent of authority shown signs of challenging its accuracy, "for the last eight years, do you hear me, every day that God made, on the stroke of three he comes here, always polite, never raising his voice, he stays half an hour and more to read his papers and do his little jobs. There was one day he didn't come. I didn't notice it at the time, but that evening, all of a sudden I says to myself: 'Why, that gentleman never came today. Perhaps he's dead!' And that gave me a regular turn, you know, because of course, I get quite fond of people when they behave nicely. And so I was very glad when I saw him come in again next day, and I said to him: 'I hope nothing happened to you yesterday, Monsieur.' And he told me straight that nothing had happened to him, it was his wife that had died, and it had given him such a turn he hadn't been able to come. Well, he looked very sad, of course, but he seemed pleased, all the same, to be back here. You could see that all his little habits had been quite upset. It was just like I'm telling you, Monsieur," she went on in a gentler tone, observing that the guardian of groves and lawns was listening to her good-naturedly and with no thought of contradiction, keeping harmlessly in its scabbard a sword which looked more like a gardening implement or some rustic emblem.
"And besides, I choose my customers, I don't let just anyone into my parlour, as I call it."
Eventually my grandmother emerged, and fearing that she might not seek to atone by a lavish tip for the indiscretion of staying in so long, I beat a retreat so as not to have to share in the scorn which the marquise would no doubt heap on her, and strolled down a path, but slowly, so that my grandmother could easily catch me up and we could continue on together. Which she soon did. I was expecting my grandmother to say: "I'm afraid I've kept you waiting, I hope you'll still be in time for your friends," but she did not utter a single word, so much so that, feeling a little hurt, I was reluctant to speak to her first; finally, looking up at her I noticed that as she walked beside me she kept her face turned the other way. I was afraid she might be feeling sick again. I looked at her more closely and was struck by the unevenness of the way she was walking. Her hat was crooked, her cloak was stained, she had dishevelled and disgruntled appearance, flushed, slightly dazed look of a person who has just been knocked down by a carriage or pulled out of a ditch.
"I was afraid you were feeling sick, grandmamma; are you feeling better now?" I asked her. Doubtless she thought that it would be impossible for her not to make some answer without alarming me.
"I heard the whole of the marquise's conversation with the keeper," she told me. "Could anything have been more typical of the Guermantes, or the Verdurins and their little clan? Goodness me, in what courtly terms those things were put." Such were the remarks she addressed to me, remarks into which she had put all her critical delicacy, her love of quotation, her memory of the classics, more thoroughly even than she would normally have done, and as though to prove that she retained possession of all her faculties. But I guessed rather than heard what she said, so inaudible was the voice in which she mumbled her words, clenching her teeth more than could be accounted for by the fear of vomiting.
"Come," I said lightly enough not to be seen to be taking her illness too seriously, "since you're feeling a little sick we'll go home if you like. I don't want to have to make a grandmother with indigestion walk round the Champs-Elysées."
"I didn't like to suggest it," she replied, "but I think it would be wiser. Poor darling, I'm preventing you from meeting your friends."
I was afraid of her noticing the strange way in which she uttered these words: "Come on," I said to her brusquely, "you mustn't tire yourself talking when your feeling sick, it's silly. At least let's wait till we get back home."
She smiled at me sorrowfully and gripped my hand. She understood that I had already realized that she had just had a slight stroke.
We made our way back along the Avenue Gabriel through the strolling crowds. I found a seat for her and went in search of a cab. She, in whose heart I always placed myself in order to form an opinion of the most insignificant passers-by, she was now closed to me, she herself had become part of the external world, and, more than from any casual passer-by, I was obliged to keep from her what I thought about her condition, and my anxiety. I could not have spoken to her about it with any confidence. She had suddenly returned to me the thoughts, the griefs which, from my earliest childhood, I had entrusted to her for all time. She was not yet dead. But I was already alone. And even those allusions which she had made to the Guermantes, to Molière, to our conversations about the little clan, assumed a baseless, random, fantastical air, because they sprang from this same being who tomorrow perhaps would have ceased to exist, for whom they would no longer have any meaning, from the non-being, incapable of conceiving them, which my grandmother would shortly be.
We may indeed say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we think of this uncertainty as a vague and remote expanse of time, it does not occur to us that it can have any connection with the day that has already dawned and can mean that death - or its first assault and partial possession of us, after which it will never leave hold of us again - may occur this very afternoon, so far from uncertain, whose time-table, hour by hour, has been settled in advance. We insist upon our daily outing so that in a month's time we will have had the necessary ration of fresh air, we have hesitated over which coat to take, which cabman to make signs to, we are in the cab, the whole day lies before us, short because we want be back in time for the visit of a friend; we hope that it will be as fine again tomorrow; we have no suspicion that death, which has been advancing within us on another plane, shrouded in an impenetrable darkness, has chosen precisely this particular day to make its appearance, in a few minutes' time, more or less at the moment when the carriage reaches the Champs-Eysées. Perhaps those who are habitually haunted by the fear of the utter strangeness of death will find something reassuring in this kind of death - in this kind of first contact with death - because death thus assumes a known, familiar, everyday guise. A good lunch has preceded it, and the same outing that people take who are in perfect health. A drive home in an open carriage hovers over its first attack, and ill as my grandmother was, there were, after all, several people who could testify that at six o'clock, as we came home from the Champs-Elysées, they had greeted her as she drove past, in an open carriage, in perfect weather. Even Legrandin raised his hat to us, stopping to look at us with an air of surprise. I, who was not yet detached from life, asked my grandmother if she had acknowledged his greeting, reminding her of his touchiness. My grandmother, thinking me no doubt very trivial, raised her hand in the air as though to say: "What does it matter? It's of no importance!"
Yes, it might have been said that a few minutes earlier, while I was looking for a cab, my grandmother was resting on a bench in the Avenue Gabriel, and that a little later she had driven past in an open carriage. But would it have been really true? The bench, to stand there in the avenue - although in other respects it may also be subject to certain conditions of equilibrium - has no need of life. But in order for a living being to hold themselves up, even when supported by a bench or in a carriage, there must be a tension of forces which we do not ordinarily perceive, any more than we do atmospheric pressure, because it is exerted on all the senses. But perhaps if a vacuum were created within us and we were left to bear the pressure of the air, we should feel, in the moment that preceded our extinction, the terrible weight which nothing could bring to equilibrium again. Similarly, when the abyss of sickness and death opens up within us, and we have nothing left to oppose the tumult with which the world and our own body rush upon us, then to sustain even the weight of our muscles, even the shudder that pierces us to the marrow, to hold ourselves still, in what we ordinarily regard as no more than the simple negative position of a thing, but which, if we want our head to remain erect and our demeanour calm, demands an expense of vital energy, it becomes the object of a struggle as exhausting, as despairing, as if we were holding on by our little finger to the balustrade of a balcony, high above the void.
And if Legrandin had looked back at us with that air of astonishment, it was because to him, as to the other people who passed us then, in the cab in which my grandmother was apparently sitting on the back seat that could not stop her headlong body, she seemed to be foundering, slithering into the abyss, clinging desperately to the cushions which could scarcely hold back the headlong plunge of her body, her hair dishevelled, her eyes wild, no longer capable of facing the assault of the images that her pupils no longer had the strength to bear. She appeared, although I was beside her, to be plunged in that unknown world in the heart of which she had already received the blows of which she bore the marks when I had looked up at her in the Champs-Elysées, her hat, her face, her coat thrown into disarray by the hand of the invisible angel with whom she had wrestled.
The sun was sinking; it burnished an interminable wall along which our cab had to pass before reaching our street, and against which the shadow of horse and carriage cast by the setting sun stood out in black on a ruddy background, like a funeral chariot on a piece of terracotta from Pompeii. We finally arrived home. I sat my grandmother down at the foot of the staircase in the hall, and went up to warn my mother. I told her that my grandmother had returned home feeling a little unwell, after an attack of dizziness. At my very first words, my mother's face assumed an expression of immeasurable despair and yet already so resigned that I realized that she had been holding it in readiness for years against an uncertain but fatal day. She asked me no questions; it seemed that, just as malevolence likes to exaggerate the suffering of others, she in her loving tenderness did not want to admit that her mother was seriously ill, especially with an illness that might weaken the mind. My mother was trembling, her eyes wept without tears, she ran to give orders for the doctor to be fetched at once, but when Françoise asked who was ill she could not reply, her voice stuck in her throat. She came running downstairs with me, struggling to banish from her face the sob that crumpled it. My grandmother was waiting below on the settee in the hall, but as soon as she heard us coming she drew herself up, rose to her feet, and waved her hand cheerfully at Mamma. I had partially wrapped her head in a white lace shawl, telling her that this was to stop her feeling cold on the stairs. I had hoped that my mother might not immediately notice the alteration in the face, the distortion of the mouth; my precaution proved unnecessary: my mother went up to my grandmother, kissed her hand as though it were that of God, raised her up and supported her to the lift with an infinite care which reflected, together with the fear of being clumsy and hurting her, the humility of one who felt herself unworthy to touch what was for her the most precious thing in the world, but not once did she raise her eyes and look at the sufferer's face. Perhaps this was in order that my grandmother should not be saddened by the thought that the sight of her might have alarmed her daughter. Perhaps from fear of a grief so piercing that she dared not face it. Perhaps from respect, because she did not feel it permissible for her without impiety to notice the trace of any mental enfeeblement on those revered features. Perhaps to be better able to preserve intact in her memory the image of the true face of her mother, radiant with wisdom and goodness. So they went up side by side - Françoise, almost scandalized by their lack of emotion, would have preferred that they should be throwing themselves into each other's arms in floods of tears - my grandmother half-hidden in her shawl, my mother averting her eyes.
... And now my grandmother, realizing that we could no longer understand her, gave up altogether any attempt to speak and lay perfectly still. When she caught sight of me she gave a sort of convulsive start like a person who suddenly finds himself unable to breathe, but could make no intelligible sound. Then, overcome by her sheer powerlessness, she let her head fall back on the pillows, stretched herself out flat on her bed, her face grave, like marble, her hands motionless on the sheet or occupied in some purely mechanical action such as that of wiping her hand with her handkerchief. She made no effort to think. Then came a state of perpetual agitation. She was incessantly trying to get up. But we restrained her from doing so, for fear of her discovering how paralyzed she was. One day when she had been left alone for a moment I found her out of bed, standing in her nightdress trying to open the window. Moved perhaps by one of those presentiments we discern at times in the mystery of our organic life which remains so obscure but in which nevertheless it seems that the future is foreshadowed, she told me that at Balbec one day a widow who had flung herself into the sea had been rescued against her will, that she could think of nothing so cruel as to snatch a desperate woman away from the death that she had deliberately sought and restore her to her living martyrdom. We were just in time to catch my grandmother, she put up an almost savage resistance to my mother, then, overpowered, seated forcibly in her armchair, she ceased to will, to regret, her face resumed its impassivity and she began laboriously to pick off the hairs that had been left on her nightdress by a fur coat which had been thrown over her shoulders after she had given up.
The look in her eyes changed completely, often uneasy, grieving, haggard, it was no longer the look we knew, it was the sullen expression of a senile old woman.
By dint of her repeatedly asking my grandmother whether she should like her to do her hair, Françoise ended up persuading herself that my grandmother had asked her to do so. She armed herself with brushes, combs, eau de Cologne, a gown. She remarked: "It can't hurt Madame Amédée if I just comb her hair, nobody's ever too weak to have their hair combed." In other words, one is never too weak for another person to be able, for her own satisfaction, to comb one's hair. But when I came into the room I saw between the cruel hands of Françoise, as blissfully happy as though she were in the act of restoring my grandmother to health, the aged straggling tresses which scarcely had the strength to withstand the contact of the comb, and that head - for which to hold the pose that it had been put into for a second required a superhuman effort - that was rolling about in a ceaseless whirl of exhaustion and pain. I felt that the moment at which Françoise would have finished her task was approaching, and I dared not hasten it by suggesting to her: "That's enough," for fear of her disobeying me. But I did forcibly intervene when, in order that my grandmother might see whether her hair had been done to her liking, Françoise, with innocent savagery, brought her a mirror. I was glad for the moment that I had managed to snatch it from her in time, before my grandmother, whom we had carefully kept away from mirrors till then, caught even a stray glimpse of a face unlike anything she could have imagined. But alas, when, a moment later, I bent over to kiss that beloved forehead which had been so harshly treated, she looked up at me with a puzzled, distrustful, shocked expression: she had not recognized me.
La Nouvelle Revue Française, 1 July 1914.1
1. Much of this text was eventually incorporated into Le Côté de Guermantes. Where this is the case I have mostly followed Terence Kilmartin's translation.
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