M. DE CHARLUS DURING THE WAR, HIS OPINIONS, HIS PLEASURES
On one of the first evenings after my return to Paris in 1916, wanting to hear about the only thing that interested me, the war, I went out after dinner to see Mme Verdurin, for she was, together with Mme Bontemps, one of the queens of that Paris of the war which reminded one of the Directory. As the leavening by a small quantity of yeast appears to be a spontaneous germination, young women were running about all day wearing cylindrical turbans on their heads as though they were contemporaries of Mme Tallien, As a proof of public spirit they wore straight Egyptian tunics, dark and very “warlike” above their short skirts, they were shod in sandals, recalling Talma’s buskin or high leggings like those of our beloved combatants. It was, they said, because they did not forget it was their duty to rejoice the eyes of those combatants that they still adorned themselves not only with flou dresses but also with jewels evoking the armies by their decorative theme if indeed their material did not come from the armies and had not been worked by them. Instead of Egyptian ornaments recalling the campaign of Egypt, they wore rings or bracelets made out of fragments of shell or beltings of the “seventy-fives”, cigarette-lighters consisting of two English half-pennies to which a soldier in his dug-out had succeeded in giving a patina so beautiful that the profile of Queen Victoria might have been traced on it by Pisanello. It was again, they said, because they never ceased thinking of their own people, that they hardly wore mourning when one of them fell, the pretext being that he was proud to die, which enabled them to wear a close bonnet of white English crêpe while the invincible certainty of final triumph enabled them to replace the earlier cashmire by satins and silk muslins and even to wear their pearls “while observing that tact and discretion of which it is unnecessary to remind French women.”
The Louvre and all the museums were closed and when one read at the head of an article “Sensational Exhibition” one might be certain it was not an exhibition of pictures but of dresses destined to quicken “those delicate artistic delights of which Parisian women have been too long deprived.” It was thus that elegance and pleasure had regained their hold; fashion, in default of art, sought to excuse itself, just as artists exhibiting at the revolutionary salon in 1793 proclaimed that it would be a mistake if it were regarded as “inappropriate by austere Republicans that we should be engaged in art when coalesced Europe is besieging the territory of liberty.” The dressmakers acted in the same spirit in 1916 and asserted with the self-conscious conceit of the artist, that “to seek what was new, to avoid banality, to prepare for victory, by disengaging a new formula of beauty for the generations after the war, was their absorbing ambition, the chimera they were pursuing as would be discovered by those who came to visit their salons delightfully situated in such and such a street, where the exclusion of the mournful preoccupations of the moment with the restraint imposed by circumstances and the substitution of cheerfulness and brightness was the order of the day. The sorrows of the hour might, it is true, have got the better of feminine» energy if we had not such lofty examples of courage and endurance to meditate. So, thinking of our combatants in the trenches who dream of more comfort and coquetry for the dear one at home, let us unceasingly labour to introduce into the creation of dresses that novelty which responds to the needs of the moment. Fashion, it must be conceded, is especially associated with the English, consequently with allied firms and this year the really smart thing is the robe-tonneau the charming freedom of which gives to all our young women an amusing and distinguished cachet. ‘It will indeed be one of the happiest consequences of this sad war’ the delightful chronicler added
The Sainte-Euverte salon was a back number and the presence there of the greatest artists or the most influential ministers attracted no one. On the other hand, people rushed to hear a word uttered by the Secretary of one Government, by the Under-Secretary of another, at the houses of the new ladies in turbans whose winged and chattering invasions filled Paris. The ladies of the first Directory had a queen who was young and beautiful called Mme Tallien; those of the second had two who were old and ugly and who were called Mme Verdurin and Mme Bontemps. Who reproached Mme Bontemps because her husband had been bitterly criticised by the Echo de Paris for the part he played in the Dreyfus affair? As the whole Chamber had at an earlier period become revisionist, it was necessarily among the old revisionists and the former socialists that the party of social order, of religious toleration and of military efficiency had to be recruited. M. Bontemps would have been detested in former days because the anti-patriots were then given the name of Dreyfusards, but that name had soon been forgotten and had been replaced by that of the adversary of the three-year law. M. Bontemps on the other hand, was one of the authors of that law, therefore he was a patriot. In society namely, anti-patriotism, irreligion, anarchy, etc. Thus M. Bontemps’ Dreyfusism, invisible and contemplative like that of all politicians, was as little observable as the bones under his skin. No one remembered he had been Dreyfusard, for people of fashion are absentminded and forgetful and also because time had passed which they affected to believe longer than it was and it had become fashionable to say that the pre-war period was separated from the war-period by a gulf as deep, implying as much duration, as a geological period; and even Brichot the nationalist in; alluding to the Dreyfus affair spoke of “those pre-historic days”. The truth is that the great change brought about by the war was in inverse ratio to the value of the minds it touched, at all events, up to a certain point; for, quite at the bottom, the utter fools, the voluptuaries, did not bother about whether there was a war or not; while quite at the top, those who create their own world, their own interior life, are little concerned with the importance of events. What profoundly modifies the course of their thought is rather something of no apparent importance which overthrows the order of time and makes them live in another period of their lives. The song of a bird in the Park of Montboissier, or a breeze laden with the scent of mignonette, are obviously matters of less importance than the great events of the Revolution and of the Empire; nevertheless they inspired in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre tombe pages of infinitely greater value
M. Bontemps did not want to hear peace spoken of until Germany had been divided up as it was during the Middle Ages, the doom of the house of Hohenzollern pronounced, and William II sentenced to be shot. In a word, he was what Brichot called a Diehard; this was the finest brevet of citizenship one could give him. Doubtless, for the three first days Mme Bontemps had been somewhat bewildered to find herself among people who asked Mme Verdurin to present her to them, and it was in a slightly acid tone that Mme Verdurin replied: “the Comte, my dear,” when Mme Bontemps said to her, “Was that not the Duc d’Haussonville you just introduced to me?” whether through entire ignorance and failure to associate the name of Haussonville with any sort of tide, or whether, on the contrary, by excess of knowledge and the association of her ideas with the Parti des Ducs of which she had been told M. d’Haussonville was one of the Academic members. After the fourth day she began to be firmly established in the faubourg Saint-Germain. Sometimes she could be observed among the fragments of an obscure society which as little surprised those who knew the egg from which Mme Bontemps had been hatched as the debris of a shell around a chick. But after a fortnight, she shook them off and by the end of the first month, when she said, “I am going to the Lévi’s,” everyone knew, without her being more precise, that she was referring to the Lévis-Mirepoix and not a single duchesse who was there would have gone to bed without having first asked her or Mme Verdurin, at least by telephone, what was in the evening’s communiqué, how things were going with Greece, what offensive was being prepared, in a word, all that the public would only know the following day or later and of which, in this way, they had a sort of dress rehearsal. Mme Verdurin, in conversation, when she communicated news, used “we” in speaking of France: “Now, you see, we exact of the King of Greece that he should retire from the Pelopon-nesse, etc. We shall send him etc.” And in all her discourses occurred constantly caused her less pain, like headaches and nervous asthmas, which lose their strength as one grows older; and the fear of being bored would doubtless have entirely abandoned Mme Verdurin owing to lack of bores, if she had not in some measure replaced them by other recruits amongst the old “faithfuls”. Finally, to have done with the duchesses who now frequented Mme Verdurin, they came there, though they were unaware of it, in search of exactly the same thing as during the Dreyfus period, a fashionable amusement so constituted that its enjoyment satisfied political curiosity and the need of commenting privately upon the incidents read in the newspapers. Mme Verdurin would say, “Come in at five o’clock to talk about the war,” as she would have formerly said “to talk about l’affaire and in the interval you shall hear Morel.” Now Morel had no business to be there for he had not been in any way exempted. He had simply not joined up and was a deserter, but nobody knew it. Another star of the Salon, “Dans-les-choux”, had, in spite of his sporting tastes, got himself exempted. He had become for me so exclusively the author of an admirable work about which I was constantly thinking, that it was only when, by chance, I established a transversal current between two series of souvenirs, that I realised it was he who had brought about Albertine’s departure from my house. And again this transversal current ended, so far as those reminiscent relics of Albertine were concerned, in a channel which was dammed in full flow several years back. For I never thought any more about her. It was a channel unfrequented by memories, a line I no longer needed to follow. On the other hand the works of “Dans-les-choux” were recent and that line of souvenirs was constantly frequented and utilised by my mind
I must add that acquaintance with the husband of Andrée was neither very easy nor very agreeable and that the friendship one offered him was doomed to many disappointments. Indeed he was even then very ill and spared himself fatigues other than those which seemed likely to give him pleasure. He only thus classified meeting people as yet unknown to him whom his vivid imagination represented as being potentially different from the rest. He knew his old friends too well, was aware of what could be expected of them and to him they were no longer worth a dangerous and perhaps fatal fatigue. He was in short a very bad friend. Perhaps, in his taste for new acquaintances, he regained some of the mad daring which he used to display in sport, gambling and the excesses of the table in the old days at Balbec. Each time I saw Mme Verdurin, she wanted to introduce me to Andrée, apparently unable to admit that I had known her long before. As it happened, Andrée rarely came with her husband but she remained my excellent and sincere friend. Faithful to the aesthetic of her husband, who reacted against Russian ballets, she remarked of the Marquis de Polignac, “He has had his house decorated by Bakst. How can one sleep in it? I should prefer Dubufe.”
Moreover the Verdurins, through that inevitable progress of asstheticism which ends in biting one’s own tail, declared that they could not stand the modern style nor white walls and they only liked old French furniture in a sombre setting
It was very surprising at this period when Mme Verdurin could have whom she pleased at her house, to see her making indirect advances to a person she had completely lost sight of, Odette, One thought the latter could add nothing to the brilliant circle which the little group had become. But a prolonged separation, in soothing rancour, sometimes revives friendship. And the phenomenon which makes the dying utter only names formerly familiar to them and causes old people’s complaisance with childish memories, has its social equivalent. To succeed in the enterprise of bringing Odette back to her, it must be understood that Mme Verdurin did not employ the “ultras” but the less faithful habitués who had kept a foot in each salon. To them she said, “I don’t know why she doesn’t come here any more. Perhaps she has quarrelled with me, I haven’t quarrelled with her. What have I ever done to her? It was at my house she met both her husbands. If she wants to come back, let her know that my doors are open to her.” These words, which might have cost the pride of “the patronne“ a good deal if they had not been dictated by her imagination, were passed on but without success. Mme Verdurin awaited Odette but the latter did not come until certain events which will be seen later brought her there for quite other reasons than those which could have been put forward by the embassy of the faithless, zealous as it was; few successes are easy, many checks are decisive
Things were so much the same, although apparently different, that one came across the former expressions “right thinking” and “ill-thinking” quite naturally. And just as the former communards had been anti-revisionist, so the strongest Dreyfusards wanted everybody to be shot with the full support of the generals just as at the time of the Affaire they had been against Galliffet. Mme Verdurin invited to such parties some rather recent ladies, known for their charitable works, who at first came strikingly dressed, with great pearl necklaces. Odette possessed one as fine as any and formerly had rather overdone exhibiting it but now she was in war dress, and imitating the ladies of the faubourg, she eyed them severely. But women know how to adapt themselves. After wearing them three or four times, these ladies observed that the dresses they considered chic were for that very reason proscribed by the people who were chic and they laid aside their golden gowns and resigned themselves to simplicity
Mme Verdurin said, “It is deplorable, I shall telephone to Bontemps to do what is necessary to-morrow. They have again ‘censored’ the whole end of Norpois’ article simply because he let it be understood that they had ‘limogé‘ Percin.” For all these women got glory out of using the shibboleth current at the moment and believed they were in the fashion, just as a middle-class woman, when M. de Bréauté or M. de Charlus was mentioned, exclaimed: “Who’s that you’re talking about? Babel de Bréauté, Même de Charlus?” For that matter, duchesses got the same pleasure out of saying “limogé“, for like roturiers un peu poètes in that respect, it is the name that matters but they express themselves in accordance with their mental category in which there is a great deal that is middle-class. Those who have minds have no regard for birth
All those telephonings of Mme Verdurin were not without ill-effects. We had forgotten to say that the Verdurin salon though continuing in spirit, had been provisionally transferred to one of the largest hotels in Paris, the lack of coal and light having rendered the Verdurin receptions somewhat difficult in the former very damp abode of the Venetian ambassadors. Nevertheless, the new salon was by no means unpleasant. As in Venice the site selected for its water supply dictates the form the palace shall take, as a bit of garden in Paris delights one more than a park in the country, the narrow dining-room which Mme Verdurin had at the hotel was a sort of lozenge with the radiant white of its screen-like walls against which every Wednesday, and indeed every day, the most various and interesting people and the smartest women in Paris stood out, happy to avail themselves of the luxury of the Verdurins, thanks to their fortune increasing at a time when the richest were restricting their expenditure owing to difficulty in getting their incomes. This somewhat modified style of reception enchanted Brichot who, as the social relations of the Verdurins developed, obtained additional satisfaction from their concentration in a small area, like surprises in a Christmas stocking. On certain days guests were so numerous that the dining-room of the private apartment was too small and dinner had to be served in the enormous dining-room of the hotel below where the “faithful”, while hypocritically pretending to miss the intimacy of the upper floor, were in reality delighted , the only publicity attainable was that primitive and restricted one, worthy of the dark ages prior to the discovery of Gutenberg, of being seen at the table of Mme Verdurin. After dinner, people went up to the Pattonne’s suite and the telephoning began again. Many of the large hotels were at that time full of spies, who daily took note of the news telephoned by M. Bontemps with an indiscretion fortunately counterbalanced by the complete inaccuracy of his information which was always contradicted by the event
Before the hour when afternoon-teas had finished, at the decline of day, one could see from afar in the still, clear sky, little brown spots which, in the twilight, one might have taken for gnats or birds. Just as, when we see a mountain far away which we might take for a cloud, we are impressed because we know it really to be solid, immense and resistant, so I was moved because the brown spots in the sky were neither gnats nor birds but aeroplanes piloted by men who were keeping watch over Paris. It was not the recollection of the aeroplanes I had seen with Albertine in our last walk near Versailles that affected me for the memory of that walk had become indifferent to me
At dinner-time the restaurants were full and if, passing in the street, I saw a poor fellow home on leave, freed for six days from the constant risk of death, fix his eyes an instant upon the brilliantly illuminated windows, I suffered as at the hotel at Balbec when the fishermen looked at us while we dined. But I suffered more because I knew that the misery of a soldier is greater than that of the poor for it unites all the miseries and is still more moving because it is more resigned, more noble, and it was with a philosophical nod of his head, without resentment, that he who was ready to return to the trenches, observing the embusqués elbowing each other to reserve their tables, remarked: “One would not say there was a war going on here.”
At half-past nine, before people had time to finish their dinner, the lights were suddenly put out on account — of police regulations and at nine-thirty-five there was a renewed hustling of embusqués seizing their overcoats from the hands of the chasseurs of the restaurant where I had dined with Saint-Loup one evening of his leave, in a mysterious interior twilight like that in which magic lantern slides are shown or films at one of those cinemas towards which men and women diners were now hurrying. But after that hour, for those who, like myself, on the evening of which I am speaking, had remained at home for dinner and went out later to see friends, certain quarters of Paris were darker than the Combray of my youth; visits were like those one made to neighbours in the country. Ah! if Albertine had lived, how sweet it would have been, on the evenings when I dined out, to make an appointment with her under the arcades. At first I should have seen nobody, I should have had the emotion of believing she would not come, when all at once I should have seen one of her dear grey dresses in relief against the black wall, her smiling eyes would have perceived me and we should have been able to walk arm-in-arm without anyone recognising or interfering with us and to have gone home together. Alas, I was alone and it was as though I were making a visit to a neighbour in the country, one of those calls such as Swann used to pay us after dinner, without meeting more passers-by in the obscurity of Tansonville as he walked down that little twisting path to the street of St. Esprit, than I encountered this evening in the alley between the rue Clothilde and the rue Bonaparte, now a sinuous, rustic path. And as sections of countryside played upon by rough weather are unspoiled by a change in their setting, on evenings swept by icy winds, I felt myself more vividly on the shore of an angry sea than when I was at that Balbec of which I so often dreamed. And there were other elements which had not before existed in Paris and made one feel as though one had arrived from the train for a holiday in the open country, such as the contrast of light and shade at one’s feet on moonlit evenings. Moonlight produces effects unknown to towns even in full winter; its rays played on the snow of the Boulevard Haussman unswept by workmen as on an Alpine glacier. The outlines of the trees were sharply reflected against the golden-blue snow as delicately as in certain Japanese pictures or in some backgrounds by Raphael. They lengthened on the ground at the foot of the trees as in nature when the setting sun reflects the trees which rise at regular intervals in the fields. But by a refinement of exquisite delicacy, the meadow upon which these shadows of ethereal trees were cast, was a field of Paradise, not green but of a white so brilliant on account of the moon shedding its rays on the jade-coloured snow, that one would have said it was woven of petals from the blossoms of pear-trees. And in the squares the divinities of the public fountains holding a jet of ice in their hands seemed made of a two-fold substance and, as though the artist had married bronze to crystal to produce it. On such rare days all the houses were black; but in spring, braving the police regulation once in a while, a particular house, perhaps only one floor of a particular house, or even only one room on that floor, did not close its shutters and seemed suspended by itself on impalpable shadows like a luminous projection, like an apparition without consistency. And the woman one’s raised eyes perceived, isolated in the golden penumbra of the night in which oneself seemed lost, in which she too seemed abandoned, was endowed with the veiled, mysterious charm of an Eastern vision. At length one passed on and no living thing interrupted the rhythm of monotonous and hygienic tramping in the darkness
I was reflecting that it was a long time since I had seen any of the personages with whom this work has been concerned. In 1914, during the two months I passed in Paris, I had once perceived M. de Charlus and had met Bloch and Saint-Loup, the latter only twice. It was certainly on the second occasion that he seemed to be most himself, and to have overcome that unpleasant lack of sincerity I had noticed at Tansonville to which I referred earlier. On this occasion, I recognised all his lovable qualities of former days. The first time I had seen him was at the beginning of the week that followed the declaration of war and while Bloch displayed extremely chauvinistic sentiments, Saint-Loup alluded to his own failure to join up with an irony that rather shocked me. Saint-Loup was just back from Balbec. “All who don’t go and fight,” he exclaimed with forced gaiety, “whatever reason they give, simply don’t want to be killed, it’s nothing but funk.” And with a more emphatic gesture than when he alluded to others, “And if I don’t rejoin my regiment, it’s for the same reason.” Before that, I had noticed in different people that the affectation of laudable sentiments is not the only disguise of unworthy ones, that a more original way is to exhibit the latter so that, at least, one does not seem to be disguising them. In Saint-Loup this tendency was strengthened by his habit, when he had done something for which he might have been censured, of proclaiming it as though it had been done on purpose, a habit he must have acquired from some professor at the War School with whom he had lived on terms of intimacy and for whom he professed great admiration. So I interpreted this outbreak as the affirmation of sentiments he wanted to exhibit as having inspired his evasion of military service in the war now beginning. “Have you heard,” he asked as he left me, “that my Aunt Oriane is about to sue for divorce? I know nothing about it myself. People have often said it before and I’ve heard it announced so often that I shall wait until the divorce is granted before I believe it. I may add that it isn’t surprising; my uncle is a charming man socially and to his friends and relations and in one way he has more heart than my aunt. She’s a saint, but she takes good care to make him feel it. But he’s an awful husband; he has never ceased being unfaithful to his wife, insulting her, ill-treating her and depriving her of money into the bargain. It would be so natural if she left him that it’s a reason for its being true and also for its not being true just because people keep on saying so. And after all, she has stood it for so long. . . . Of course, I know there are ever so many false reports which are denied and afterwards turn out to be true.” That made me ask him whether, before he married Gilberte, there had ever been any question of his marrying Mlle de Guermantes. He started at this and assured me it was not so, that it was only one of those society rumours born, no one knows how, which disappear as they come, the falsity of which does not make those who believe them more cautious, for no sooner does another rumour of an engagement, of a divorce or of a political nature arise than they give it immediate credence and pass it on. Forty-eight hours had not passed before certain facts proved that my interpretation of Robert’s words was completely wrong when he said, “All those who are not at the front are in a funk.” Saint-Loup had only said this to show off and appear psychologically original while he was uncertain whether his services would be accepted. But at that very moment he was moving heaven and earth to be accepted, showing less originality in the sense he had given to that word, but that he was more profoundly French, more in conformity with all that was best in the French of St. André-des-Champs, gentlemen, bourgeois, respectable servants of gentlemen, or those in revolt against gentlemen, two equally French divisions of the same family, a Françoise offshoot and a Sauton offshoot, from which two arrows flew once more to the same target which was the frontier. Bloch was delighted to hear this avowal of cowardice by a Nationalist and when Saint-Loup asked him if he was going to join up, he made a grimace like a high-priest and replied “shortsighted.” But Bloch had completely changed his opinion about the war when he came to see me in despair some days later for, although he was shortsighted, he had been passed for service. I was taking him back to his house when we met Saint-Loup. The latter had an appointment with a former officer, M. de Cambremer, who was to present him to a colonel at the Ministry of War, he told me. “Cambremer is an old acquaintance of yours, you know Cancan as well as I do.” I replied that, as a fact, I did know him and his wife too, but that I did not greatly appreciate them. Yet I was so accustomed, ever since I first made their acquaintance, to consider his wife an unusual person with a thorough knowledge of Schopenhauer who had access to an intellectual milieu closed to her vulgar husband, that I was at first surprised when Saint-Loup remarked: “His wife is an idiot, you can have her; but he’s an excellent fellow, gifted and extremely agreeable,” By the idiocy of the wife, no doubt Saint-Loup meant her mad longing to get into the best society which that society severely condemned and, by the qualities of the husband, those his niece implied when she called him the best of the family. Anyhow, he did not bother himself about duchesses but that sort of intelligence is as far removed from the kind that characterises thinkers as is the intelligence the public respects because it has enabled a rich man “to make his pile.” But the words of Saint-Loup did not displease me since they recalled that pretentiousness is closely allied to stupidity and that simplicity has a subtle but agreeable flavour. It is true I had no occasion to savour that of M. de Cambremer. But that is exactly why one being is so many different beings apart from differences of opinion. I had only known the shell of M. de Cambre-mer and his charm, attested by others, was unknown to me. Bloch left us in front of his door, overflowing with bitterness against Saint-Loup, telling him that those “beautiful red tabs” parading about at Staff Headquarters run no risk and that he, an ordinary second class private had no wish to “get a bullet through his skin for the sake of William.” “It seems that the Emperor William is seriously ill,” Saint-Loup answered. Bloch, like all those people who have something to do with the Stock Exchange, received any sensational news with peculiar credulity added, “it is said even that he is dead.” On the Stock Exchange every, sovereign who is ill, whether Edward VII or William II, is dead; every city on the point of being besieged, is taken. “It is only kept secret,” Bloch went on, “so that German public opinion should not be depressed. But he died last night. My father has it from ‘the best sources’.” “The best sources” were the only ones of which M. Bloch senior took notice, when, through the luck of possessing certain “influential connections” he received the as yet secret news that the Exterior Debt was going to rise or de Beers fall. Moreover, if at that very moment there was a rise in de Beers or there were offers of Exterior Debt, if the market of the first was “firm and active” and that of the second “hesitating and weak”, “the best sources” remained nevertheless “the best sources.” Bloch too announced the death of the Kaiser with a mysteriously important air, but also with rage. He was particularly exasperated to hear Robert say the “Emperor William.” I believe under the knife of the guillotine Saint-Loup and M. de Guermantes would not have spoken of him otherwise. Two men in society who were the only living souls on a desert island where they would not have to give proof of good breeding to anyone, would recognise each other by those marks of breeding just as two Latinists would recognise each other’s qualifications through correct quotations from Virgil. Saint-Loup would never, even under torture, have said other than “Emperor William”; yet the savoir vivre is all the same a bondage for the mind. He who cannot reject it remains a mere man of society. Yet elegant mediocrity is charming — especially for the generosity and unexpressed heroism that go with it — in comparison with the vulgarity of Bloch, at once braggart and mountebank, who shouted at Saint-Loup: “Can’t you say simply ‘William’? That’s it, you’re in a funk, even here you’re ready to crawl on your stomach to him. Pshaw! they’ll make nice soldiers at the front, they’ll lick the boots of the Boches. You red-tabs are fit to parade in a circus, that’s all.”
“That poor Bloch will have it that I can do nothing but parade,” Saint-Loup remarked with a smile when we left our friend. And I felt that parading was not at all what Robert was after, though I did not then realise his intention as I did later when the cavalry being out of action, he applied to serve as an infantry officer, then as a Chasseur á pied and finally when the sequel came which will be read later. But Bloch had no idea of Robert’s patriotism simply because the latter did not express it. Though Bloch made professions of nefarious anti-militarism once he had been passed for service, he had declared the most chauvinistic opinions when he believed he would be exempted for shortsightedness. Saint-Loup would have been incapable of making such declarations, because of a certain moral delicacy which prevents one from expressing the depth of sentiments which are natural to us. My mother would not have hesitated a second to sacrifice her life for my grandmother’s and would have suffered intensely from being unable to do so. Nevertheless I cannot imagine retrospectively a phrase on her lips such as “I would give my life for my mother.” Robert was equally silent about his love for France and in that he seemed to me much more Saint-Loup was trickling down my forehead, she would say, “My word! You’re drenched” as though she were astonished by a strange phenomenon, smiling with that contempt for something indecorous with which she might have remarked, “Why, you’re going out without your collar!” while adopting a concerned tone intended to cause one discomfort. One would have thought I was the only person in the universe who had ever been “drenched”. For, in her humility, in her tender admiration for beings infinitely inferior to her, she adopted their ugly forms of expression. Her daughter complained of her to me, “She’s always got something to say, that I don’t close the doors properly and patatipatali et patatapatala.” Françoise doubtless thought it was only her insufficient education that had deprived her until now of this beautiful expression. And on her lips, on which formerly flowered the purest French, I heard several times a day, “Et patati patall patata patala.” As to that it is curious how little variation there is not only in the expressions but in the thoughts of the same individual. The butler, being accustomed to declare that M. Poincaré had evil motives, not of a venal kind but because he had absolutely willed the war, repeated this seven or eight times a day before the same ever interested audience, without modifying a single word or gesture or intonation. Although it only lasted about two minutes, it was invariable like a performance. His mistakes in French corrupted the language of Françoise quite as much as the mistakes of her daughter
She hardly slept, she hardly ate, she had the communiqués read to her, though she did not understand them, by the butler who understood them little better and in whom the desire to torment Françoise was often dominated by a superficial sort of patriotism; he remarked with a sympathetic chuckle when speaking of the Germans, “That will stir them up a bit, our old Joffre is planning a comet to fall on them.” Françoise did not understand what comet he was talking about but felt none the less that this phrase was one of those charming and original extravagances to which a well-bred person must reply, so with good humour and urbanity, shrugging her shoulders with the air of saying “He’s always the same,” she tempered her tears with a smile. At all events she was happy that her new butcher boy who in spite of his calling was somewhat timorous, was too young to join up; otherwise, she would have been capable of going to the Minister of War about him. The butler could not believe the communiqués were other than excellent and that the troops were not approaching Berlin, as he had read, “We have repulsed the enemy with heavy losses on their side,” actions that he celebrated as though they were new victories. For my part, I was horrified by the rapidity with which the theatre of these victories approached Paris and I was astonished that even the butler, who had seen in a communiqué that an action had taken place close to Lens, had not been alarmed by reading in the next day’s paper that the result of this action had turned to our advantage at Jouy-le-Vicomte to which we firmly held the approaches. The butler very well knew the name of Jouy-le-Vicomte which was not far from Combray. But one reads the papers as one wants to with a bandage over one’s eyes without trying to understand the facts, listening to the soothing words of the editor as to the words of one’s mistress. We are beaten and happy because we believe ourselves unbeaten and victorious
I did not stay long in Paris and returned fairly soon to my sanatorium. Though in principle the doctor treated his patients by isolation, I had received on two different occasions letters from Gilberte and from Robert. Gilberte wrote me had not remained at Tansonville, but she did not cease to have at her house a constant coming and going of officers which much exceeded that which reduced Françoise to tears in the streets of Combray and to live, as she said this time with complete truth, the life of the front. Also she was referred to eulogistically in the papers because of her admirable conduct and there was a proposal to give her a decoration. The end of her letter was perfectly accurate: “You have no idea of what this war is, my dear friend, the importance of a road, a bridge or a height. How many times, during these days in this ravaged countryside, have I thought of you, of our walks you made so delightful, while tremendous fights were going on for the capture of a hillock you loved and where so often we had been together. Probably you, like myself, are unable to imagine that obscure Roussainville and tiresome Méséglise, whence our letters were brought and where one went to fetch the doctor when you were ill, are now celebrated places. Well, my dear friend, they have for ever entered into glory in the same way as Austerlitz or Valmy. The Battle of Méséglise lasted more than eight months, the Germans lost more than one hundred thousand men there, they destroyed Méséglise but they have not taken it. The little road you so loved, the one we called the stiff hawthorn climb, where you professed to be in love with me when you were a child, when all the time I was in love with you, I cannot tell you how important that position is. The great wheatfield in which it ended is the famous ‘slope 307’ the name you have so often seen recorded in the communiqués. The French blew up the little bridge over the Vivonne which, you remember, did not bring back your childhood to you as much as you would have liked. The Germans threw others across; during a year and a half, they held one half of Combray and the French the other.” The day following that on which I received this letter, that is to say the evening before the one when, walking in the darkness, I heard the sound of my foot-steps while reflecting on all these memories, Saint-Loup, back from the front and on the point of returning there, had paid me a visit of a few minutes only, the mere announcement of which had greatly stirred me. Françoise at first was going to throw herself upon him, hoping she would be able to get the butcher boy exempted; his class was going to the front in a year’s time. But she restrained herself, realising the uselessness of the effort, since, for some time the timid animal-killer had changed his butcher-shop and, whether the owner of ours feared she would lose our custom, or whether it was simply in good faith, she declared to Françoise that she did not know where this boy “who for that matter would never make a good butcher” was employed. Françoise had looked everywhere for him, but Paris is big, there are a large number of butchers’ shops and however many she went into she never was able to find the timid and blood-stained young man
When Saint-Loup entered my room I had approached him with that diffidence, with that sense of the supernatural one felt about those on leave as we feel in approaching a person attacked by a mortal disease, who nevertheless gets up, dresses himself and walks about. It seemed that there was something almost cruel in these leaves granted to combatants, at the beginning especially, for, those who had not like myself lived far from Paris, had acquired the habit which removes from things frequently experienced the root-deep impression which gives them their real significance. The first time one said to oneself, “They will never go back, they will desert”— and indeed they did not come from places which seemed to us unreal merely because it was only through the papers we had heard of them and where we could not realise they had been taking part in Titanic combats and had come back with only a bruise on the shoulder — they came back to us for a moment from the shores of death itself and would return there, incomprehensible to us, filling us with tenderness, horror and a sentiment of mystery like the dead who appear to us for a second and whom, if we dare to question them, at most reply, “You cannot imagine.” For it is extraordinary, in those who have been resurrected from the front, for, among the living that is what men on leave are, or in the case of the dead whom a hypnotised medium evokes, that the only effect of this contact with the mystery is to increase, were that possible, the insignificance of our intercourse with them. Thus, approaching Robert who had a scar on his forehead more august and mysterious to me than a footprint left upon the earth by a giant, I did not dare ask him a question and he only said a few simple words. And those words were little different from what they would have been before the war, as though people, in spite of the war, continued to be what they were; the tone of intercourse remains the same, the matter differs and even then —? I gathered that Robert had found resources at the front which had made him little by little forget that Morel had behaved as badly to him as to his uncle. Nevertheless he had preserved a great friendship for him and now and then had a sudden longing to see him again which he kept on postponing. I thought it more considerate towards Gilberte not to inform Robert, if he wanted to find Morel, he had only to go to Mme Verdurin’s. On my remarking to Robert with a sense of humility how little one felt the war in Paris, he said that even there it was sometimes “rather extraordinary”. He was alluding to a raid of zeppelins there had been the evening before and asked me if I had had a good view of it in the same way as he would formerly have referred to a piece of great aesthetic beauty at the theatre. One can imagine that at the front there is a sort of coquetry in saying, “It’s marvellous! What a pink — and that pale green!” when at that instant one can be killed, but it was not that which moved Saint-Loup about an insignificant raid on Paris. When I spoke to him about the beauty of the aeroplanes rising in the night, he replied, “And perhaps the descending ones are still more beautiful. Of course they are marvellous when they soar upwards, when they’re about to form constellation thus obeying laws as precise as those which govern astral constellations, for what is a spectacle to you is the assemblage of squadrons, orders being given to them, their despatch on scout duty, etc. But don’t you prefer the moment when, mingling with the stars, they detach themselves from them to start on a chase or to return after the maroon sounds, when they ‘loop the loop’, even the stars seem to change their position. And aren’t the sirens rather Wagnerian, as they should be, to salute the arrival of the Germans, very like the national hymn, very ‘Wacht am Rhein’ with the Crown Prince and the Princesses in the Imperial box; one wonders whether aviators or Walkyries are up there.” He seemed to get pleasure out of comparing aviators with Walkyries, and explained them on entirely musical principles. “Dame! the music of sirens is like the prancing of horses; we shall have to await the arrival of the Germans to hear Wagner in Paris.” From certain points of view the comparison was not false. The city seemed a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze of light, and in the sky, where one after another, the aviators rose amidst the shrieking wail of the sirens while, with a slower movement, more insidious and therefore more alarming, for it made one think they were seeking ah object still invisible but perhaps close to us, the searchlights swept unceasingly, scenting the enemy, encircling him with their beams until the instant when the pointed planes flashed like arrows in his wake. And in squadron after squadron the aviators darted from the city into the sky like Walkyries. Yet close to the ground, at the base of the houses, some spots were in high light and I told Saint-Loup, if he had been at home the evening before, he would have been able, while he contemplated the apocalypse in the sky, to see on the earth, as in the burial of the Comte d’Orgaz by Greco, where those contrasting planes are parallel, a regular vaudeville played by personages in night-gowns, whose Well-known names ought to have been sent to some successor of that Ferrari whose fashionable notes it had so often amused him and myself to parody. And we should have done so again that day as though there had been no war, although about a very “war-subject”, the dread of zeppelins realised, the Duchesse de Guermantes superb in her night-dress, the Duc de Guermantes indescribable in his pink pyjamas and bath-gown, etc., etc. “I am sure,” he said, “that in all the large hotels one might have seen American Jewesses in their chemises hugging to their bursting breasts pearl necklaces which would buy them a ‘busted’ duke. On such nights, the Hotel Ritz must resemble an exchange and mart emporium.”
I asked Saint-Loup if this war had confirmed our conclusions at Doncières about war in the past. I reminded him of the proposition which he had forgotten, for instance about the parodies of former battles by generals of the future. “The feint,” I said to him, “is no longer possible in these operations where the advance is prepared with such accumulation of artillery and what you have since told me about reconnaissance by aeroplane which obviously you could not have foreseen, prevents the employment of Napoleonic ruses.” “How mistaken you are,” he answered, “obviously this war is new in relation to former wars for it is itself composed of successive wars of which the last is an innovation on the preceding one. It is necessary to adapt oneself to the enemy’s latest formula so as to defend oneself against him; then he starts a fresh innovation and yet, as in other human things, the old tricks always come off. No later than yesterday evening the most intelligent of our military critics wrote: ‘When the Germans wanted to deliver East Prussia they began the operation by a powerful demonstration in the south against Warsaw, sacrificing ten thousand men to deceive the enemy. When at the beginning of 1915 they created the mass manoeuvre of the Arch-Duke Eugène in order to disengage threatened Hungary, they spread the report that this mass was destined for an operation against Serbia. Thus, in 1800 the army which was about to operate against Italy was definitely indicated as a reserve army which was not to cross the Alps but to support the armies engaged in the northern theatres of war. The ruse of Hindenburg attacking Warsaw to mask the real attack on the Mazurian Lakes, imitates the strategy of Napoleon in 1812.’ You see that M. Bidou repeats almost the exact words of which you remind me and which I had forgotten. And as the war is not yet finished, these ruses will be repeated again and again and will succeed because they are never completely exposed and what has done the trick once will do it again because it was a good trick.” And in fact, for a long time after that conversation with Saint-Loup, while the eyes of the Allies were fixed upon Petrograd against which capital it was believed the Germans were marching, they were preparing a most powerful offensive against Italy. Saint-Loup gave me many other examples of military parodies or, if one believes that there is not a military art but a military science, of the application of permanent laws. “I will not say, there would be contradiction in the words,” added Saint-Loup, “that the art of war is a science. And if there is a science of war there is diversity, dispute and contradiction between its professors, diversity partly projected into the category of Time. That is rather reassuring, for, as far as it goes, it indicates that truth rather than error is evolving.” Later he said to me, “See in this war the ideas on the possibility of the break-through, for instance. First it is believed in, then we come back to the doctrine of invulnerability of the fronts, then again to the possible but risky break-through, to the necessity of not making a step forward until the objective has been first destroyed that the capture of certain vital points, certain essential areas, decides the victory. It is moreover a particular turn of his mind. He has shown how, if Russia were blockaded at sea, she would be defeated and that an army enclosed in a sort of vast prison camp is doomed to perish.”
Nevertheless, if the war did not modify the character of Saint-Loup, his intelligence, developed through an evolution in which heredity played a great part, had reached a degree of brilliancy which I had never seen in him before. How far away was the young golden-haired man formerly courted or who aspired to be, by fashionable ladies and the dialectician, the doctrinaire who was always playing with words. To another generation of another branch of his family, much as an actor taking a part formerly played by Bressant or Delaunay, he, blonde, pink and golden was like a successor to M. de Charlus, once dark, now completely white. However much he failed to agree with his uncle about the war, identified as he was with that part of the aristocracy which was for France first and foremost whereas M. de Charlus was fundamentally a defeatist, to those who had not seen the original “creator of the part” he displayed his powers as a controversialist. “It seems that Hindenburg is a revelation,” I said to him. “An old revelation of tit-for-tat or a future one. They ought, instead of playing with the enemy, to let Mangin have his way, beat Austria and Germany to their knees and Européanise Turkey instead of Montenegrinising France.” “But we shall have the help of the United States,” I suggested. “At present all I see is the spectacle of Divided States. Why not make greater concessions to Italy and frighten them with dechristianising France?” “If your Uncle Charlus could hear you!” I said. “Really you would not be sorry to offend the Pope a bit more and he must be in despair about what may happen to the throne of Francis Joseph. For that matter he’s in the tradition of Talleyrand and the Congress of Vienna.” “The era of the Congress of Vienna has gone full circle;” he answered; “one must substitute concrete for secret diplomacy. My uncle is at bottom an impenitent monarchist who would swallow carps like Mme Molé or scarps like Arthur Meyer as long as his carps and scarps were cooked à la Chambord. Through hatred of the tricolour flag I believe he would rather range himself under the red rag, which he would accept in good faith instead of the white standard.” Of course, these were only words and Saint-Loup was far from having the occasionally basic originality of his uncle. But his disposition was as affable and delightful as the other’s was suspicious and jealous and he remained, as at Balbec, charming and pink under his thick golden hair. The only thing in which his uncle would not have surpassed him was in that mental attitude of the faubourg Saint-Germain with which those who believe themselves the most detached from it are saturated and which simultaneously gives them respect for men of intelligence who are not of noble birth and silly self-complacency. It was through this mixture of humility and pride, of acquired curiosity of mind and inborn sense of authority, that M. de Charlus and Saint-Loup by different roads and holding contrary opinions had become to a generation of transition, intellectuals interested in every new idea and talkers whom no interrupter could silence. Thus a rather commonplace individual would, according to his disposition, consider both of them either dazzling or bores
While recalling Saint-Loup’s visit I had made a long-detour on my way to Mme Verdurin’s and I had nearly reached the bridge of the Invalides. The lamps while night still came quickly and above the partly-illumined city, in one whole part of the sky — a sky which ignored summer and winter and did not deign to observe that half-past eight had become half-past nine — it still continued to be daylight. In all that part of the city, dominated by the towers of the Trocadero, the sky had the appearance of an immense turquoise-tinted sea, which, at low-tide, revealed a thin line of black rocks or perhaps only fishermen’s nets aligned next each other and which were tiny clouds. A sea, now the colour of turquoise which was bearing unknowing man with it in the immense revolution of an earth upon which they are mad enough to continue their own revolutions, their vain wars such as this one now drenching France in blood. In fact one became giddy looking at the lazy, beautiful sky which deigned not to change its time-table and prolonged in its blue tones the lengthened day above the lighted city; it was no longer a spreading sea, but a vertical gradation of blue glaciers. And the towers of the Troca-dero seeming so close to those turquoise heights were in reality as far away from them as those twin towers in a town of Switzerland which, from far away, seem to neighbour the mountain-slopes. I retraced my steps but as I left the Bridge of the Invalides behind me there was no more day in the sky, nor scarcely a light in all the city and stumbling here and there against the dust-bins, mistaking my road, I found myself, unexpectedly and after following a labyrinth of obscure streets, upon the Boulevards. There the impression of the East renewed itself and to the evocation of the Paris of the Directoire succeeded that of the Paris of 1815. As then, the disparate procession of uniforms of Allied troops, Africans in baggy red trousers, white-turbaned Hindus, created for me, out of that Paris where I was walking, an exotic imaginary city in an East minutely exact in costume and colour of the skins but arbitrarily chimerical in scenery, just as Carpaccio made of his own city a Jerusalem or a Constantinople by assembling therein a crowd whose marvellous medley of colour was not more varied than this. Walking behind two Zouaves who did not seem to notice him, I perceived a great stout man in a soft, felt hat and a long cloak, to whose mauve coloured face I hesitated to put the name of an actor or of a painter equally well-known for innumerable sodomite scandals. In any case feeling certain I did not know the promenader, I was greatly surprised, when his glance met mine, to notice that he was embarrassed and made as though to stop and speak to me, like one who wants to show you that you are not surprising him in an occupation he would rather have kept secret. For a second I asked myself who was saying good-evening to me. It was M. de Charlus. One could say of him that the evolution of his disease or the revolution of his vice had reached that extreme point where the small primitive personality of the individual, his ancestral qualities, were entirely obscured by the interposition of the defect or generic evil which accompanied them. M. de Charlus had gone as far as it was possible for him to go, or rather, he was so completely marked by what he had become, by habits that were not his alone but also those of many other inverts, that, at first, I had taken him for one of these following the zouaves on the open boulevard; in fact, for another of their kind who was not M. de Charlus, not a grand seigneur, not a man of mind and imagination and who only resembled the baron through that appearance common to them all and to him as well which, until one looked closer, had covered everything. It was thus that, having wanted to go to Mme Verdurin’s, I met M. de Charlus. And certainly I should not have found him as I used to at her house; their quarrel had only become accentuated and Mme Verdurin often made use of present conditions to discredit him further. Having said for a long time that he was used up, finished, more old-fashioned in his pretended audacities than the most pompous nonentities, she now comprised that condemnation in a general indictment by saying that he was “pre-war”. According to the little clan, the war had placed between him and the present, a gulf which relegated him to a past that was completely dead. Moreover — and that concerned rather the political world which was less well-informed — Mme Verdurin represented him as done for, as complete a social as an intellectual outsider. “He sees no one, no one receives him,” she told M. Bontemps, whom she easily convinced. Moreover there was some truth in what she said. The situation of M. de Charlus had changed. Caring less and less about society, having quarrelled with everybody owing to his petulant disposition and, having through conviction of his own social importance, disdained to reconcile himself with most of those who constituted the flower of society, he lived in a relative isolation which, unlike that in which Mme de Villeparisis died, was not caused by the ostracism of the aristocracy but by something which appeared to the eyes of the public worse, for two reasons. M. de Charlus’ bad reputation, now well-known, caused the ill-informed to believe that that accounted for people not frequenting his society, while actually it was he who, of his own accord, refused to frequent them, so that the effect of his own atrabilious humour appeared to be that of the hostility of those upon whom he exercised it. Besides that, Mme de Villeparisis had a great rampart; her family. But M. de Charlus had multiplied the quarrels between himself and his family, which, moreover appeared to him uninteresting, especially the old faubourg side, the Courvoisier set. He who had made so many bold sallies in the field of art, unlike the Courvoisiers, had no notion that what would have most interested a Bergotte was his relationship with that old faubourg, his having the means of describing the almost provincial life lived by his cousins in the rue de la Chaise or in the Place du Palais Bourbon and the rue Garancière. A point of view less transcendent and more practical was represented by Mme Verdurin who affected to believe that he was not French. “What is his exact nationality? Is he not an Austrian?” M. Verdurin innocently inquired. “Oh, no, not at all,” answered the Comtesse Molé, whose first gesture rather obeyed her good sense than her rancour. “Nothing of the sort, he’s a Prussian,” pronounced la Patronne: “I know, I tell you. He told us often enough he was a hereditary peer of Prussia and a ‘Serene Highness’.” “All the same, the Queen of Naples told me —” “As to her, you know she’s an awful spy,” exclaimed Mme Verdurin who had not forgotten the attitude which the fallen sovereign had displayed at her house one evening. “I know it most positively. She only lives by spying. If we had a more energetic Government, all those people would be in a concentration camp. And in any case you would do well not to receive that charming kind of society, for I happen to know that the Minister of the Interior has got his eye on them and your house will be watched. Nothing will convince me that during two years Charlus was not continually spying at my house.” And thinking probably, that there might be some doubt as to the interest the German Government might take, even in the most circumstantial reports on the organisation of the “little clan”, Mme Verdurin, with the soft, confidential manner of a person who knows the value of what she is imparting and that it seems more significant if she does not raise her voice, “I tell you, from the first day I said to my husband,‘the way in which this man has inveigled himself into our house is not to my liking. There’s something suspicious about it.’ Our estate was on a very high point at the back of a bay. I am certain he was entrusted by the Germans to prepare a base there for their submarines. Certain things surprised me and now I understand them. For instance, at first he would not come by train with the other guests. I had offered in the nicest way to give him a room in the château. Well, not a bit of it, he preferred living at Doncières where there were an enormous number of troops. All that stank in one’s nostrils of espionage.” As to the first of these accusations directed against the Baron de Charlus, that of being out of fashion, society people were quite ready to accept Mme Verdurin’s point of view. This was ungrateful of them for M. de Charlus who had been, up to a point their poet, had the art of extracting from social surroundings a sort of poetry into which he wove history, beauty, the picturesque, comedy and frivolous elegance. But fashionable people, incapable of understanding poetry, of which they saw none in their own lives, sought it elsewhere and placed a thousand feet above M. de Charlus men infinitely inferior to him, who affected to despise society and, on the other hand, professed social and political-economic theories. M. de Charlus delighted in an unpro-fessedly lyrical form of wit with which he described the knowing grace of the Duchesse of X’s dresses and alluded to her as a sublime creature. This caused him to be looked upon as an idiot by those women in society who thought that the Duchesse of X was an uninteresting fool, that dresses are made to be worn without drawing attention to them and who, thinking themselves more intelligent, rushed to the Sorbonne or to the Chamber if Deschanel was going to speak. In short, people in society were disillusioned with M. de Charlus, not because they had got through him but because they had never grasped his rare intellectual value. He was considered pre-war, old-fashioned, just because those least capable of judging merit, most readily accept the edicts of passing fashion; so far from exhausting, they have hardly even skimmed the surface of men of quality in the preceding generation whom they now condemn en bloc because they are offered the label of a new generation they will understand just as little. As to the second accusation against M. de Charlus, that of Germanism, the happy-medium mentality of people in society made them reject it, but they encountered an indefatigable and particularly cruel interpreter in
Morel, who, having managed to retain in the press and even in society the position which M. de Charlus had succeeded in getting him by expending twice as much trouble as he would have taken in depriving him of it, pursued the Baron with implacable hatred; this was not only cruel on the part of Morel, but doubly wrong, for whatever his relations with the Baron might have been, Morel had experienced the rare kindness his patron hid from so many people. M. de Charlus had treated the violinist with such generosity, with such delicacy, had shown such scruple about not breaking his word, that the idea of him which Charlie had retained was not at all that of a vicious man but of one with the noblest ideas and the most exquisite sensibility he had ever known, a sort of saint. He denied it so little that though he had quarrelled with him he said sincerely enough to his relations, “You can confide your son to him, he would only have the best influence upon him.” Indeed when he tried to injure him by his articles, in his mind he jeered, not at his vices but, at his virtues. Before the war, certain little broad-sheets, transparent to what are called the “initiates”, had begun to do the greatest harm to M. de Charlus. Of one of these entitled The Misadventure of a pedantic Duchess, the Old Age of the Baroness Mme Verdurin had bought fifty copies, in order to lend them to her acquaintances, and M. Verdurin, declaring that Voltaire himself never wrote anything better, read them aloud to his friends. Since the war it was not the invertion of the Baron alone that was denounced, but also his alleged Germanic nationality. “Frau Bo
M. De Charlus During The War
Letra de Marcel Proust
M. De Charlus During The War
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