An Evening Party at the Princess de Guermantes
Several years after I had been absent from Paris for a long time, I found that I had just come back to an invitation from the Prince and Princess de Guermantes to an evening party. I had not seen anybody for a very long time. It seemed to me that it would be a ready opportunity to be reunited with a lot of people that would otherwise take me a great deal of time to go and see individually. I arrived in the midst of rows of carriages just like in former times in the "very fairytale palace". The numerous footmen of the Enchanter and the Fairy flocked around in their beautiful fairy land costumes. I was announced. The over-dressed Princess with the perpetual air of saying "the Prince and I are receiving the best in town", was chatting in a small group, not far from the Prince who it was surprising not to see in the costume of Prince Fridolin and who was trying to dispel through an excessive rotundity an imaginary general timidity. But on this occasion it certainly seemed that they were all if not in costume at least made up, powdered; I could easily recognize everyone but as if in a dream, or at a masked ball. There certainly was Comte de Froidevaux whom I had met when I had gone out with the Comte de Guercy, but this completely dark-haired man had powdered half of his beard and all his hair, so as to make himself unrecognizable. And here the Marquis de Tains, a man with a long blond beard that was finely coated not with powder, but a sort of grey dust, one could say a light silvery beard, which suited him quite well, but for all that made him look different. And young Bétourné, he was very well turned out, he is no longer a child this evening, you would call him a man. I could not see what he had put on his face, but it had lost its youthful freshness, it had given him some sort of wrinkling all around his eyes, he almost seemed to have grown older. Oh, here is Montargis, but what has happened to him, his face has lost all its grace, it is the colour of copper, his features are strongly marked, as if sculpted, he seems solemn, tired, oh, I must tell him how ill he looks. There is a woman approaching me, she wants to say hello to me, good heavens who does she look like, why it is Mme de Forcheville! How stout she is, the poor thing, with grey hair too, but it is not her though: "Hello, you don't recognize me, you took me for my mother", Mlle de Forcheville told me with frank and modest simplicity. I mumbled an excuse. I could not understand what had become of all these people who I could only recognize as if in a dream. But here comes the master of the house. As for him he has whitened his hair and his moustache which made his face look totally different, his straight nose seemed to be too big, his pale skin looked bloodshot, and in place of his air of dryness along with the greatest affability, this change of colouring gave an air of gentleness to the poor Enchanter. But then with a contracting heart I understood, it was a different Enchanter that had arranged these disguises, one that I had not thought of: Time. Since I had removed myself from society, then Paris, all these people had aged and all these figures gave me the impression of a sort of twilight in which it seemed that an interior light had been turned down, they were quite simply the lights of the celebration of my life which were no longer as brilliant as at the beginning. Everything starts to grow dim, to diminish, one day everything will be extinguished. Certainly I had already seen the visible works of the ever-present and invisible labourer, all the energetic work of the Enchanter when I looked at the blistered marble and the disintegrating tapestries in Combray church. But it had performed all that before I even existed. Whereas the white threads that it had blended into M. Froidevaux's black goatee, the moonlight dust that it had sprinkled like salt and pepper into M. de Tains's beard, the imperceptible little pencil lines around the eyebrows that had been traced around the corners of his eyes like wrinkles, in the lower part of the mouth of a man in whom it had withered the childish face of young Bétourné, all this, all this fairy-like vegetation that it had put forth on the unreal hosts of the Fairytale Palace, who gave the appearance of emerging from an unconscious dream, and having the disguised appearance1 of some immaterial and enchanted texture, something like a fabric made of moonlight or silver, all this seemed to me to have been done at my expense, and that it was in my strength and my life force, that the Enchanter had come to seek out his coloured powders and his threads. And yet this work is very amusing; I would never have been able to imagine that a dreamy charm could have been added to young Bétourné's face. And yet he had the air of a fairytale knight with his seriousness and gravity, that one felt he had brought back from a cavalcade in the immaterial world, in Time, while the Enchanter had other sport to be made and was seeking to project a statue of Mme de Forcheville into the person of her daughter that deformed her whole body and made it enormous. And she too, her hair like the threads in a tapestry, like the filigree of the stained-glass windows in Combray sparkling with the silver of their layers, of the silver both poetic and supernatural. Good Lord, there is Mme de Villeparisis! I well knew that the poor lady had been but two steps away from the grave, had been on the point of falling in, but I saw that she had not been able to recover herself completely, she remained projected forwards, broken in two, ready to fall, head fixed before the perceived chasm, and her eyes turning about in every direction, in a confusion of fear on a querulous mouth2 that seemed to grumble and moan at the same time, with that air of ill humour and grief that people have who are over tired when it is time to go to bed because it would tire them too much to stay with us a moment longer. I hardly dared approach her upon seeing the eyes that were looking at me proceed to make their pupils dart in all directions with an expression that was terrified, anxious and testy; but without straightening herself up, her unconscious life remaining leant over the invisible pit, she held out her hand to me. And I saw that she was still the same, her being was no more changed than if her disintegration had been the result of a sprain or sciatica, she herself spoke about it, made allusion to it. And I found her herself once more, once this sinister and distressing twilight was crossed that surrounded her like a halo and is nothing more than the shadow left upon her of the danger that threatened to carry her off and which was a constant threat to her. And after having left her and approached Montargis I said to him: "I was thinking about the evening party here where I came a short time after I first met you. How everybody seems to have changed." "Why, old chap", Montargis replied, "that was in ... Do you know that must have been twenty three years ago." He must have miscalculated, on reckoning it up again I saw that it could not have been more than fifteen, but, on hearing his words and on his telling me that between the present moment and the image that I had of that so present, so recent party, and of a year in which I was really not much more than an adolescent, that party that in my memory seemed to me to be placed alongside this one, on the same plane, without any precise interval of time, which represented everything that had happened to me since I had stopped being a child for several ... years, but that must make it some years, I didn't count, it was on the same plane, three, four years perhaps, when he told me it was twenty three years ago, all of a sudden I felt beneath me those twenty three years descending one beneath the other to a depth as far as the eye can see, and all of that was still me, lived by me, that which I perceived from a distance of twenty three years, it was still me, already so distant, and I felt a sort of fear of not having the strength to remain for very long at such an altitude of life already spent and that I must sustain beneath me, for ever bound to me, me having the perception of my continuity down to that already immense depth of twenty three years, a whole continuity of something living, of something lived that extended downwards, plunged down, extended to a depth of twenty three years after I had ceased to be an adolescent and clung to me, adhered to me. I thought about the fatigue caused in me to have already overseen so much life passed, to maintain my position above, in equilibrium, at an equivalent height. We see only our own bodies because it is not in the category of time that we see ourselves.If not for that we would see ourselves from all the innumerable days that we had lived. We would see ourselves in open space, raised up onto towers of greater or lesser height, moving with us like stilts of unequal length, children almost on the ground, others already at a great height and the elderly on shifting towers that are so high they almost touch the sky and from which we fear they are about to fall at any moment. Towers that have issued from themselves, that remain connected to them, in the obscure and living crystalline gelatine from which they view all that they have lived. But as at sea, as in the air, they do not have any perception of height, they continue to walk to run, without having a clear understanding at what vertiginous height the tower is supporting them, what they see at its base seems to them very near; and if one were suddenly to point the height out to them what terror, what vertigo, what fatigue. Twenty three years, each one so high from the accumulation of their thousands of hours having already issued from me and forming above me a forgotten pillar of living time lived by me. We have no other time than that that we have thus lived and on the day that it collapses we perish with it.3
Additional texts opposite the manuscript pages.
1. Everybody gathered together again in the large room squeezed together one against the other to listen to a comedy and there where this whole human tapestry was held up for all to see composed of more or less the same individuals that I had seen at the theatre the evening of Her Imperial Highness the princess de ..., I felt...
And the Marquise des Tains
2. Mme de Béthune who had for so long preserved in her plain blond hairstyle her noble and severe countenance, had become a nasty old woman under whose white hair the same pale face had taken on a sort of redness, her straight nose a sort of crookedness, her penetrating eyes a sort of frank unpleasantness. And a little omen which up until now had remained unnoticed assumed in her white hair the dominating aspect. Everyone was making the necessary sacrifices to age and that seemed to be the least onerous in order to try to preserve the personality of their charm, not only through dress but by regimen like Mme de Guermantes who sacrificed the freshness of her face for the slenderness of her figure, and who hardly eating, taking constant exercise, going off to Inelstad, sacrificed her cheeks, her face, revoking them for the suppleness of her body. But most were concentrating all their efforts on their faces, holding out for the beauty that was deserting them like a sunflower reaching towards the sun. And in order to gather up the last reflected light, in order to prolong as much as possible the brilliant glare that formerly shone beyond all measure, Mme de Serisaie no longer being able to preserve her slightly roguish air, her proud chin, had widened her face whose polish, smoothness, creamy radiant whiteness had always been apparent, by making it into a kind of round and monumental Monstrance in order to try to yet forestall as much of the reflected light as possible from the disappearing flame. By pushing out her lips, by slightly wrinkling the crow's feet along her nose, by always maintaining a vague, cajoling and disabusing look, Mme de Mercoeur was trying to fix for ever the face of her youth. But when she wanted to smile her badly coordinated muscles gave her the appearance of a person crying.
Like examples of things copied from the unfamiliar, a living person takes after a character from memories (d'Haussonville). Perhaps it is estimable to paint from photographs. Spring by hay-fever, travel by the manic impossibility for me to travel in the day or the morning.
Just like some trees that are still green have a whole streak of reddening leaves that announce the approaching autumn, so in a still blond head of hair was a single white lock positioned as a first assault of old age as if a flash of lightning had traced its outline without touching anything around it.
3. Don't forget Koechlin: I suddenly see, standing amidst a crowd of Gentiles, a Prophet. He is an ancient Levite with a blond beard. He had kept his ruddy face, his clear eyes, his smooth brow, his youthful appearance, his noble gestures, but his immense beard was extremely white. The young Levite had become an ancient prophet.
While thinking about my age, I thought with pleasure that the beautiful and so well-loved young woman who was over there with hair as if smoothed with flux and dripping with pearls was one year older than me and her sister only one year younger. This immense thing that was my age which assumed so much reality for me, so that an age in proximity to my own, was in effect something that in the chasm of time was close to me, close to who I felt myself to be, that stopped me being completely alone. Also the thought of their beauty, their success made them infinitely pleasing to me. I thought with pleasure about the foolish things that the lover of one of them did for her. Because that power could then belong to me, because I was still at a similar age, that these were things of my age and my time.
From Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes; Cahiers du Temps retrouvé, Gallimard 1982.
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