Proust: an afternoon party at
the house of the Princesse
de Guermantes

... A young woman asked me: “Shall we go and dine together at a restaurant?” and when I replied: “With pleasure, if you don’t mind dining alone with a young man,” I heard the people round me giggle and I added hastily, “or rather with an old one.” I realised that the words which caused the laughter were of the kind my mother might have used in speaking of me; for my mother I always remained a child and I perceived that I was looking at myself from her point of view. Had I registered, as she did, changes since my childhood, they would have been very old ones, for I had stopped at the point where people once used to say, almost before it was true, “Now he really is almost a young man.” That was what I was now thinking but tremendously late. I had not perceived how much I had changed but how did the people who laughed at me know? I had not a grey hair, my moustache was black. I should have liked to ask them how this awful fact revealed itself. And now I understood what old age was—old age, which, of all realities, is perhaps the one of which we retain a purely abstract notion for the longest time, looking at calendars, dating our letters, seeing our friends get married, the children of our friends, without realising its significance, whether through dread or through idleness, until the day when an unknown effigy like M. d’Argencourt teaches us that we are living in a new world; until the day when we, who seem to him like his grandfather, treat the grandson of one of our women friends as a comrade and he laughs as though at a joke. And then I understood what is meant by death, love, joys of the mind, usefulness of sorrow and vocation. For if names had lost their meaning for me, words had unfolded it. The beauty of images is lodged at the back of things, that of ideas in front, so that the first no longer cause us wonder when we reach them and we only understand the second when we have passed beyond them.

... I continued to say, “How do you do?” and talk to people I knew. Age, moreover, had not marked all of them in similar fashion. Someone asked my name and I was told it was M. de Cambremer. To show he had recognised me he inquired: “Do you still suffer from those feelings of suffocation?” On my replying in the affirmative, he went on: “You see that that does not prevent longevity,” as though I were a centenarian. I was speaking to him with my eyes fixed upon two or three features which my thought was reducing to a synthesis of my memories of his personality quite different from what he now represented. He half turned his head for a moment and I then perceived that he had become unrecognisable owing to the adjunction to his cheeks of enormous red pockets which prevented him from opening his mouth and his eyes properly, so much so that I stood stupefied not wanting to show that I noticed this sort of anthrax to which it was more becoming that he should allude first. But since, like a courageous invalid, he made no allusion to it and laughed, I feared to seem lacking in feeling if I did not inquire and in tact if I did. “But don’t they come more rarely as one grows old?” he asked, referring to the suffocated feeling. I told him not. “Well, my sister has them much less now than formerly,” he remarked with an air of contradiction, as though it must be the same in my case, as though age were a remedy which had been good for Mme de Gaucourt and therefore salutary for me. Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin now approached and I felt more and more afraid of seeming insensitive in not deploring what I remarked on her husband’s face and yet I did not dare speak first. “You must be pleased to see him again,” she said. “Is he well?” I answered hesitatingly. “As you see,” she replied. She had never even noticed the growth which offended my vision and which was only another of the masks which Time had attached to the Marquis’ face, but so gradually and progressively that the Marquise had noticed nothing. When M, de Cambremer had finished questioning me about my attacks of suffocation it was my turn to ask someone, in a whisper, if the Marquis’ mother was still alive. She was. In appreciating the passage of time, it is only the first step that counts. At first it is painful to realise that so much time has passed, afterwards one is surprised it is not more. One begins by being unable to realise that the thirteenth century is so far away and afterwards finds difficulty in believing that any churches of that period survive though they are innumerable in France. In a few instants that slower process had taken place in me which happens to those who can scarcely believe a person they know is sixty and fifteen years later are equally incredulous when they hear he is still alive and no more than seventy-five. I asked M. de Cambremer how his mother was. “Splendid as ever,” he answered, using an adjective which to the contrary of those tribes which treat aged parents without pity applies in certain families to old people whose use of the physical faculties, such as hearing, walking to church and bearing bereavement without feeling depressed, endows them with extreme moral beauty in the eyes of their children.

If certain women proclaimed their age by make-up, certain men on whose faces I had never noticed cosmetics accentuated their age by ceasing to use them, now that they were no longer concerned to charm. Amongst these was Legrandin. The disappearance of the pink in his lips and cheeks which I had never suspected of being an artifice, gave his skin a grey hue and his long-drawn and mournful features the sculptured and lapidary precision of an Egyptian God. A God! More like one who had come back from the dead. He had not only lost the courage to paint himself but to smile, to put life into his manner and to talk with animation. It was astonishing to see him so pale, so beaten, only emitting a word now and then which had the insignificance of those uttered by the dead when they are evoked. One wondered what prevented him from being lively, talkative and entertaining, as at a séance, one is struck by the insignificant replies of the spirit of a man who was brilliant when he was alive, to questions susceptible of interesting developments. And one realised that old age had substituted a pale and tenuous phantom for the highly-coloured and alert Legrandin. Certain people’s hair had not gone white. I noticed this when the Prince de Guermantes’ old footman went to speak to his master. The ample whiskers which stood out from his cheeks had like his neck retained that red-pink which he could not be suspected of obtaining by dye like the Duchesse de Guermantes. But he did not seem less old on that account. One only felt that there are species of man like mosses and lichens in the vegetable kingdom which do not change at the approach of winter.

In the case of guests whose faces had remained intact, age showed itself in other ways; they only seemed to be inconvenienced when they had to walk; at first, something seemed wrong with their legs, later only, one grasped that age had attached soles of lead to their feet. Some, like the Prince of Agrigente, had been embellished by age. This tall, thin, dispirited-looking man with hair which seemed to remain eternally red, had, by means of a metamorphosis analogous to that of insects, been succeeded by an old man whose red hair, like a worn-out table-cloth had been replaced by white. His chest had assumed an unheard of and almost warrior-like protuberance which must have necessitated a regular bursting of the frail chrysalis I had known; a self-conscious gravity tinged his eyes which beamed with a newly acquired benevolence towards all and sundry. And as, in spite of the change in him, there was still a certain resemblance between the vigorous prince of now and the portrait my memory preserved, I was filled with admiration of the recreative power of Time which, while respecting the unity of the being and the laws of life, finds means of thus altering appearance and of introducing bold contrasts in two successive aspects of the same individual. Many people could be immediately identified but like rather bad portraits of themselves in which an unconscientious and malevolent artist had hardened the features of one, taken away the freshness of complexion or slight-ness of figure of another and darkened the look of a third. Comparing these images with those retained by my memory, I liked less those displayed to me now, in the same way as we dislike and refuse the photograph of a friend because we don’t consider it a pleasant likeness. I should have liked to say to each one of them who showed me his portrait: “No, not that one, it doesn’t do you justice, it isn’t you.” I should not have ventured to add: “Instead of your beautiful straight nose you have now got the hooked nose of your father”; it was, in fact, a new familial nose. In short, the artist Time had produced all these models in such a way as to be recognisable without being likenesses, not because he had flattered but because he had aged them. That particular artist works very slowly. Thus the replica of the face of Odette, a barely outlined sketch of which I perceived in that of Gilberte on the day I first saw Bergotte, had been worked by time into the most perfect resemblance (as will be seen shortly) like painters who keep a work a long time and add to it year by year. In several cases I recognised not only the people themselves but themselves as they used to be, like Ski, for instance, who was no more changed than a dried flower or fruit, a type of those amateur “celibates of art” who remain ineffectual and unfulfilled in their old age. Ski had, in thus remaining an incomplete experiment, confirmed my theories about art. Others similarly affected were in no sense amateurs; they were society people interested in nothing, whom age had not ripened and if it had drawn a curve of wrinkles round their faces and given them an arch of white hair, they yet remained chubby and retained the sprightliness of eighteen. They were not old men but extremely faded young men of eighteen. Little would have been needed to efface the withering effects of years, and death would have had no more trouble in giving youth back to their faces than is needed to restore a slightly soiled portrait to its original brightness. I reflected also on the illusion which dupes us into crediting an aged celebrity with virtue, justice and loveliness of soul, my feeling being that such famous people, forty years earlier, had been terrible young men and that there was no reason to suppose that they were not just as vain, cunning, self-sufficient and tricky now.

Yet in complete contrast with these last I was surprised when I conversed with men and women who were formerly unbearable, to discover that they had almost entirely lost their defects, whether because life had disappointed or satisfied their ambitions and thus freed them from presumption or from bitterness. A rich marriage which makes both effort and ostentation unnecessary, perhaps too the influence of a wife, a slowly-acquired sense of values other than those in which light-headed youth exclusively believes had enlarged their characters and brought out their qualities. With age such individuals seemed to have acquired a different personality like trees which seem to assume a new character with their autumnal tints. In their case age manifested itself as a form of morality they used not to possess, in the case of others it was physical in character and so new to me that a particular person such as Mme de Souvré, for instance, seemed simultaneously familiar and a stranger. A stranger for I could not believe it was she and, in responding to her bow, I could not help letting her notice my mental effort to establish which of three or four people (of whom Mme de Souvré was not one) I was bowing to with a warmth which must have astonished her for, in fear of being too distant if she were an intimate friend, I had made up for the uncertainty of my recognition by the warmth of my smiling handshake. On the other hand, her new aspect was familiar to me. It was one I had, in the course of my life, often observed in stout, elderly women without then suspecting that, many years before, they might have resembled Mme de Souvré. So different was this aspect from the one I had known in the past that I might have thought her a character in a fairy story which first appears as a young girl, then as a stout matron and finally, no doubt, turns into a tottering, bowbacked old woman. She looked like an exhausted swimmer far from shore who painfully manages to keep her head above the waves of time which were submerging her. After looking long at her irresolute face, wavering like a treacherous memory which cannot retain former appearances, I succeeded somehow in recovering something by indulging in a little game of eliminating the squares and hexagons which age had affixed to those cheeks. But it was by no means always geometrical figures that it affixed to the faces of the women. In the Duchesse de Guermantes’ cheeks which had remained remarkably unchanged though they now seemed compounded of nougat, I distinguished a trace of verdigris, a tiny bit of crushed shell and a fleshiness difficult to define because it was slighter than a mistletoe-berry and less transparent than a glass bead.

Some men walked lame and one knew it was not on account of a carriage accident but of a stroke and that they had, as people say, one foot in the grave. This was gaping for half-paralysed women like Mme de Franquetot who seemed to be unable to pull away their raiment caught in the stones of the vault, as though they could not recover their footing, with their heads held low, their bodies bent into a curve like the one between life and death they were now descending to their final extinction. Nothing could resist the movement of the parabola which was carrying them off, trying tremblingly to rise, their quivering fingers failed them. Certain faces under the hood of their white hair wore the rigidity, the sealed eyelids of those about to die, their constantly moving lips seemed to be mumbling the prayer of the dying.

If a face retained its linear form, white hair replacing blond or black sufficed to make it look like that of another. Theatrical costumiers know that a powdered wig so dis-guises a person as to make him unrecognisable. The young Marquis de Beausergent whom I had met in Mme de Cambremer’s box when he was a sub-lieutenant on the day when Mme de Guermantes was in her sister’s box, still had perfectly regular features, even more so, because the physiological rigidity of arteriosclerosis exaggerated the impassive physiognomy of the dandy and gave his features the intense and almost grimacing immobility of a study by Mantegna or Michael Angelo. His formerly brick-red skin had become gravely pale; silver hair, slight stoutness, Doge-like dignity and a chronic fatigue which gave him a constant longing for sleep, combined to produce a new and impressive majesty. A rectangle of white beard had replaced a similar rectangle of blond so perfectly that, noticing that my former sub-lieutenant now had five stripes, my first thought was to congratulate him not on having been promoted Colonel but on being one so completely that he seemed to have borrowed not only the uniform but also the solemn and serious appearance of his father the Colonel. In the case of another man, a white beard had succeeded a blond one but as his face had remained gay, smiling and youthful, it made him appear redder and more active and by increasing the brightness of his eyes, gave this worldling who had remained young the inspired appearance of a prophet. The transformation which white hair and other elements had effected, particularly in women, would have claimed my attention less if it had involved a change of colour only, for that may charm the eyes whereas a change of personality troubles the mind. Actually to recognise someone, more still, to identify him you have been unable to recognise, is to think two contradictory things under a single denomination, it is the same as saying that he who was here, the being we recall, is here no longer and that he who is here is one we never knew, that means piercing a mystery almost as troubling as that of death of which it is indeed the preface and the herald. For I knew what these changes meant and what they preluded and so that whitening of the women’s hair in addition to so many other changes deeply moved me. Somebody mentioned a name and I was stupefied to know it applied at one and the same time to my former blonde dance-partner and to the stout elderly lady who moved ponderously past me. Except for a certain pinkness of complexion their name was perhaps the only thing in common between these two women who differed so much—the one in my memory and this one at the Guermantes’ reception—the young ingénue and the theatrical dowager. That my dancer had managed to annex that huge carcass, that she had succeeded in slowing down her cumbersome movements like a metronome, that all she should have preserved of her youth were her cheeks, fuller certainly but freckled as ever, that for the erstwhile dainty blonde there should have been substituted this old pot-bellied Marshal, life must have achieved more destruction and reconstruction than is needed to replace a spire by a dome and when one remembered that the operation had been carried out not upon inert matter but upon flesh which only changes insensibly, the overwhelming contrast between this apparition and the being I remembered removed her into a past which, rather than remote, was almost incredible. It was difficult to reunite the two aspects, to think of the two creatures under the same denomination; for in the same way that one has difficulty in realising that a dead body was alive or that he who was alive is dead to-day, it is almost as difficult, and the difficulty is the same (for the annihilation of youth, the destruction of a personality full of strength and vitality is the beginning of a void), to conceive that she who was young is old, when the aspect of this old woman juxtaposed on that of the young one seems so completely to exclude it that in turn it is the old woman, then the young one, then again the old one which appear to you as in a dream and one cannot believe that this was ever that, that the matter of that one is herself which had not escaped elsewhere, but thanks to the adroit manipulations of time, had become this one, that the same matter has never left the same body—if one did not have the name as an indication as well as the affirmative testimony of friends to which the copperas, erstwhile exiguous between the gold of the wheat ears to-day buried beneath the snow, alone gives an appearance of credibility. One was terrified on considering the periods which must have passed since such a revolution had been accomplished in the geology of the human countenance, to observe the erosions that had taken place beside the nose, the immense deposits on the cheeks which enveloped the face with their opaque and refractory mass. I had always thought of our own individuality at a given moment in time as a polypus whose eye, an independent organism, although associated with it, winks at a scatter of dust without orders from the mind, still more, whose intestines are infected by an obscure parasite without the intelligence being aware of it, and similarly of the soul as a series of selves juxtaposed in the course of life but distinct from each other which would die in turn or take turn about like those different selves which alternately took possession of me at Combray when evening came. But I had also observed that these moral cellules which constitute a being are more durable than itself. I had seen the vices and the bravery of the Guer-mantes return in Saint-Loup, as I had seen the strange and swift defects and then the loyal semitism of Swann. I could see it again in Bloch. After he had lost his father the idea, besides the strong familial sentiment which often exists in Jewish families, that his father was superior to everyone, had given the form of a cult to his love for him. He could not bear losing him and had shut himself up for nearly a year in a sanatorium. He had replied to my condolences in a deeply felt but almost haughty tone, so enviable did he consider me for having been acquainted with that distinguished man whose carriage and pair he would have gladly given to a historical museum. And at his family table (for contrary to what the Duchesse de Guermantes believed, he was married) the same anger which animated M. Bloch senior against M. Nissim Bernard animated Bloch against his father-in-law. He made the same attacks on him. In the same way when I listened to the, talk of Cottard, Brichot and so many others I had felt that by culture and fashion a single undulation propagates identical modes of speech and thought in the whole expanse of space, and in the same way, throughout the duration of time, great fundamental currents raise from the depths of the ages the same angers, the same sorrows, the same boasts, the same manias, throughout superimposed generations, each section accepting the criteria of various levels of the same series and reproducing, like shadows upon successive screens, pictures similar to though often less insignificant than that which brought Bloch and his father-in-law, M. Bloch senior and M. Nissim Bernard and others I never knew, to blows.

There were men I knew there with whose relations I was also acquainted without ever realising that they had a feature-in common; in admiring the white-haired old hermit into whom Legrandin had changed, I suddenly observed, I could say discovered with a zoologist’s satisfaction, in his ironed-out cheeks, the same construction as in those of his young nephew, Léonor de Cambremer, who, however, did not seem to bear any resemblance to him; to this preliminary common feature I added another I had not until now remarked, then others, none of which composed the synthesis his youthfulness ordinarily offered me, so that soon I had a sort of caricature of him, deeper and more lifelike than a literal resemblance would have been; his uncle now seemed to me young Cambremer who, for fun, had assumed the appearance of the old man he would eventually be, so completely indeed that it was not only what youth of the past had become but what youth of to-day would change into that had given me such an intensified sense of Time.

Women tried to keep touch with the particular charm which had most distinguished them but the fresh matter that time had added to their faces would not permit of it. The features moulded by beauty, having disappeared in most cases, they tried to construct another one with the relics. By displacing the centre of perspective if not of gravity in the face and recomposing its features to accord with the new character, they began building up a new sort of beauty at fifty as a man takes up a new profession late in life or as soil no longer good for the vine is used to produce beetroot. This caused a new youth to flower round the new features. But those who had been too beautiful or too ugly could not accommodate themselves to these transformations. The former modelled like marble on definitive lines which cannot be changed, crumbled away like a statue, the latter who had some facial defect had even an advantage over them. To start with it was only they whom one immediately recognised. One knew there were not two mouths in Paris like theirs which enabled me to distinguish them in the course of a party at which I had recognised nobody. And they did not even appear to have aged. Age is human and being monsters they had no more changed than whales. There were other men and women who did not seem to have aged; their outlines were as slim, their faces as young as ever. But, if one approached them closely so as to talk to them, the face with its smooth skin and delicate contours appeared different and as happens when one examines a vegetable body under a microscope, watery or ensanguined spots exuded. I observed sundry greasy marks on skin I had believed to be smooth which gave me a feeling of disgust. The outline did not resist this enlargement; at a close view that of the nose had been deflected and rounded, had been invaded by the same oily patches as the rest of the face and when it met the eyes, the latter disappeared into pockets which destroyed the resemblance with the former face one thought one had rediscovered. Thus those guests who had an appearance of youth at a distance, became old as one got near to them and could observe the enlargement and distribution of the facial planes. In fact their age seemed to depend upon the spectator so placing himself as to envisage them as young by observing them only at a distance which, deprived of the glass supplied to a long-sighted person by an optician, diminishes the object; their age, like the presence of infusoria in a glass of water, was brought about less by the progress of years than by the scale of enlargement in the observer’s vision.

In general the amount of white hair was an index of depth in time like mountain summits which appear to be on the same level as others until the brilliance of their snowy whiteness reveals their height above them. And even that could not always be said, especially about women. Thus the Princesse de Guermantes’ locks, when they were grey, had the brilliance of silvery silk round her protuberant brow but now having determined to become white seemed to be made of wool and stuffing and resembled soiled snow. It also occurred that blonde dancing girls had not merely annexed, together with their white hair, the friendship of duchesses they had not previously known, but having formerly done nothing but dance, art had touched them with its grace. And, like those illustrious ladies in the eighteenth century who became religious, they lived in flats full of cubist paintings, with a cubist painter working only for them and they living only for him.

Old men whose features had changed attempted to fix on them permanently the fugitive expressions adopted for a pose, thinking they would secure a better appearance or palliate its defects; they seemed to have become unchangeable snapshots of themselves.

All these people had taken so much time to make up their disguises that, as a rule, they escaped the notice of those who lived with them, indeed often a reprieve was granted them and, during the interval, they had been able to remain themselves until quite late in life. But this deferred disguise was then accomplished more quickly and was, in any case, inevitable. Thus I had always known Mme X charming and erect and for long she remained so, too long indeed, for like a person who must not forget to put on her Turkish disguise before dark, she had waited till the last moment and precipitately transformed herself into the old Turkish lady her mother formerly resembled.

At the party I discovered one of my early friends whom I had formerly seen nearly every day during ten years. Someone reintroduced us to each other. As I went near to him, he said with a voice I well remembered: “What a joy for me after so many years!” but what a surprise for me! His voice seemed to be proceeding from a perfected phonograph for though it was that of my friend, it issued from a great greyish man whom I did not know and the voice of my old comrade seemed to have been housed in this fat old fellow by means of a mechanical trick. Yet I knew that it was he, the person who introduced us after all that time not being the kind to play pranks. He declared that I had not changed by which I grasped that he did not think he had. Then I looked at him again and except that he had got so fat, he had kept a good deal of his former personality. Nevertheless, I found it impossible to realise it and I tried to recall him. In his youth he had blue eyes that were always smiling and moving, apparently searching for something I was unaware of, which may have been disinterested truth, perhaps pursued in perpetual doubt with a boy’s fugitive respect for family friends. Having become an influential politician, capable and despotic, those blue eyes which had never succeeded in finding what they were after had become immobilised and this gave them a sharp expression like a frowning-eye-brow, while gaiety, unconsciousness and innocence had changed into design and disingenuousness. Emphatically he had changed into another person—then suddenly, in reply to a word of mine, he burst into laughter, the jolly familiar laugh of former days which suited the perpetual gay mobility of his glance. Musical fanatics hold that Z’s music orchestrated by X becomes something absolutely different. These are shades which ordinary people cannot grasp, but the wild stifled laugh of a child beneath an eye pointed like a well-sharpened blue pencil, though a little on one side, is something more than a difference in orchestration. When his laughter ceased I would have liked to reconstruct my friend, but like Ulysses in the Odyssey, throwing himself upon the body of his dead mother, like a medium vainly trying to obtain from an apparition a reply which shall identify it, like a visitor to an electrical exhibition who cannot accept the voice from a phonograph as the spontaneous utterance of a human being, I ceased to recognise my friend.

It is necessary, however, to make this reserve that the beat of time itself can in certain cases be accelerated or slowed down. Four or five years before, I had by chance, met in the street Vicomtesse de St. Fiacre (daughter-in-law of the Guermantes’ friend). Her sculptured features had seemed to assure her eternal youth and indeed she still was young. But now, in spite of her smiles and greetings, I failed to recognise her in a lady whose features had so gone to pieces that the outline of her face could not be restored. What had happened was that for three years she had been taking cocaine and other drugs. Her eyes deeply and darkly rimmed were haggard, her mouth had a strange twitch. She had, it seems, got up for this reception though she was in the habit of remaining in bed or on a sofa for months. Time has these express and special trains which bring about premature old age but on a parallel line return trains circulate which are almost as rapid. I took M. de Courgivaux for his son; he looked younger and though he must have been past fifty, appeared to be no more than thirty. He had found an intelligent doctor, had avoided alcohol and salt and so had become thirty again, hardly even that because he had had his hair cut that morning.

A curious thing is that the phenomenon of age seemed in its modalities to take note of certain social customs. Great gentlemen who had been in the habit of wearing the plainest alpaca and old straw hats which a bourgeois would not have put on his head, had aged in the same way as the gardeners and peasants in the midst of whom they had lived. Their cheeks were stained brown inl patches and their faces had grown yellow and had sunk flat like a book. And I thought, too, of those who were not there because they could not be, of how their secretary, in an attempt to give them the illusion of survival, would excuse them by one of those telegrams the Princess received on occasion from such as had been ill or dying for years, who can rise no more nor even move and, surrounded by frivolous or assiduous visitors, the former attracted like inquisitive tourists, the latter by the faith of pilgrims, lie, with closed eyes clasping their breviary, their bedclothes partly thrown back like a mortuary shroud, chiselled into a skeleton beneath the pale, distended skin like marble on a tomb.

Certainly, some women were recognisable because their faces had remained almost the same and they wore their grey hair to harmonise with the season like autumn leaves. But in others and in some men their identity was so impossible to establish—for instance between the dark voluptuary one remembered and the old monk of now—that their transformation made one think, rather than of the actor’s art, of that of the amazing mimic of whom Fregoli remains the prototype. That old woman yonder is about to weep because she knows that the indefinable and melancholy smile which was formerly her charm cannot even irradiate the surface of the mask old age has affixed to her. Now, discouraged from attempts to please she more adroitly resigns herself to using it as though it were a theatrical mask to make people laugh. But in the case of nearly all the women there was no limit to their efforts to fight against age; they held the mirror of their faces towards beauty, vanishing like a setting sun whose last rays they passionately long to retain. Some sought to smooth out, to extend the white surface, renouncing the piquancy of menaced dimples, quelling the resistance of a smile doomed and disarmed, while others, realising that their beauty had finally departed, took refuge in expression, as one compensates the loss of the voice by the art of diction, and hung on to a pout, to a smirk, to a pensive gaze, or to a smile to which muscular incoordination gave the appearance of weeping.

A stout lady bade me good afternoon during the moment that these varied thoughts were pressing upon my mind. For an instant I hesitated to reply to her, fearing she might be taking me for someone else, then her confidence making me think the contrary and fearing she was someone with whom I might at one time have been intimate, I exaggerated the affability of my smile while my gaze still sought in her features the name I could not find. Thus an uncertain candidate for matriculation searches the face of the examiner for the answer he would be wiser to seek in his own memory. So I smiled and stared at the features of the stout lady. They appeared to be those of Mme de Forcheville and my smile became tinged with respect and my indecision began to cease when a second later, the stout lady said: “You were taking me for mamma, I know I’m getting to look exactly like her,” and I recognised Gilberte.

Moreover, even among men who had been subjected to only a slight change, whose moustaches only had become white, one felt that the change was not purely material. One saw them as through a coloured mist or glass which affected their facial aspect with a sort of fogginess and revealed what they allowed one to observe as if it were life-size though in reality it was far away, not in the sense of space, but, fundamentally, like being on another shore whence they had as much trouble in recognising us as we them. Perhaps Mme de Forcheville who looked to me as though she had been injected with paraffin which swells the skin and prevents it from sagging, was unique in presenting the appearance of a courtesan of an earlier period who had been embalmed for eternity. “You took me for my mother,” Gilberte had said and it was true. For that matter it was a compliment to the daughter. Moreover, it was not only in the last-named that familiar features had reappeared, as invisible till then in her face as the inturned parts of a seed-pod, the eventual opening out of which would never be suspected. Thus the enormous maternal bridge in one as in the other transformed towards the fifties a nose till then inflexibly straight. In the case of another daughter of a banker, her complexion of flower-like freshness had become copper-coloured through the reflection of the gold which the father had so freely manipulated. Some even ended by resembling the quarter where they lived, bearing upon their countenances a sort of reflection of the rue de l’Arcade or the Avenue du Bois or the rue de l’Elysée. But they reproduced more than anything else the features of their parents.

One starts with the idea that people have remained the same and one discovers that they have got old. But if one starts by thinking them old, one does not find them so bad. In Odette’s case it was not merely that; her appearance, when one knew her age and expected her to be an old woman seemed a more miraculous challenge to the laws of chronology than the conservation of radium to those of nature. If I had not recognised her at first, it was not because she had changed but because she had not. Having realised in the course of the last hour what additions time made to people and the subtraction that was needed to rediscover their personalities, I rapidly added to the old Odette the number of years which had passed over her with the result that I found someone before my eyes who could not possibly be her precisely because this someone was the Odette of former days.

Which was the effect of paint and which of dye? With her flat golden hair arranged at the back like the ruffled chignon of a doll surmounting a face with a doll-like expression of surprise and superimposed upon that an equally flat sailor hat of straw of the period of the 1878 Exhibition (in which she certainly had figured and if she had then been as old as now, she would have been one of its choicest features) she looked as though she were a young woman playing a part in a Christmas revue featuring the Exhibition of 1878.

Close to us, a minister of the pre-Boulangist period who had again become a minister, passed by, bowing right and left to ladies with a tremulous and distant smile, as though imprisoned in the past like a little phantom figure manipulated by an unseen hand which had reduced his size and changed his substance so that he looked like a pumice-stone reproduction of himself. This former Prime Minister, now cultivated by the faubourg Saint-Germain, had once been the object of criminal proceedings and had been execrated by society and by the populace. But thanks to the renewal of the social elements in both groupings and the extinction of individual passions, memories disappear, no one remembered and he was honoured. There is no disgrace great enough to make a man lose heart if he bears in mind that at the end of a certain number of years our buried mistakes will be but invisible dust upon which nature’s flowers will smile peacefully. The individual momentarily under a cloud, through the equilibrium brought about by Time between the new and the old social strata, will easily assert his authority over them and be the object of their deference and admiration. Only, this is Time’s business; and at the moment of his troubles, he was inconsolable because the young milk-maid opposite had heard the crowd call him a swindler and shake their fists at him when he was in the soup. The young milk-maid does not see things on the plane of time and is unaware that men to whom the morning paper offers the incense of flattery were yesterday of bad repute and that the man who just now escaped prison, while perhaps, he was thinking of that young milk-maid, and who had not the humility to utter conciliatory words which might have secured him sympathy, will one day be glorified by the press and sought after by duchesses. Time also heals family quarrels. At the Princesse de Guermantes’ there was a couple, each of whom had had an uncle; these two uncles were not content merely to fight a duel but each had sent the other his concierge or his butler as his representative for the occasion, so as to humiliate him by showing he was not fit to be treated as a gentleman. Such tales were asleep in the papers of thirty years ago and nobody knew anything about them. Thus the Princesse de Guermantes’ salon illuminated and forgetful, flowered like a peaceful cemetery. There Time had not only disintegrated those of the past, it had made possible and created new associations.

To return to our politician. In spite of the change in his physical substance, a change as complete as the moral transformation he now roused in the public, in a word, in spite of the many years gone by since he was Prime Minister, he had become a Minister again. The present Prime Minister had given the one of forty years ago a post in the new Cabinet much as theatrical managers entrust a part to one of their earlier women associates who has been long in retirement but whom they consider more capable than younger ones of performing it with delicacy, of whose embarrassed situation they are, moreover, aware and who, at nearly eighty, still shows that age has scarcely impaired an artistic integrity which amazes the public within a few days of her death.

Mme de Forcheville presented an appearance so miraculous that one would have said not that she had grown young, but that, with all her carmine and rouge, she had reflowered. Even more than an incarnation of the Universal Exhibition of 1878, she could have been the chief attraction of a horticultural exhibition to-day. To me, at all events, she did not seem to be saying: “I am the Exhibition of 1878” but “I am the Allée des Acacias of 1892.” To me it was as though she were still part of it. And, because she had not changed, she seemed hardly to be living, she was like a sterilised rose. When I wished her good afternoon, she tried for a moment vainly to put a name to my face. I gave it her and at once, thanks to its evocative magic, I ceased to wear the appearance of Arbousier or of Kangouroo apparently bestowed on me by age, and she began talking to me with that peculiar voice, applauded in the smaller theatres, which enchanted people so much when they were invited to meet her at lunch and discovered that they could have as much as they liked of it with every word she uttered. That voice had retained the same futile cordiality, the same slight English accent. And yet, just as her eyes seemed to be looking at me from a distant shore, her voice was sad, almost appealing like that of the dead in the Odyssey. Odette ought to have gone on acting. I paid her a compliment on her youth. She answered: “You are charming, my dear, thanks.” And as it was difficult for her to express any sentiment, however sincere, without revealing her anxiety to be fashionable, she repeated several times: “Thanks so much, thanks so much.” And I, who had formerly made long journeys only to catch a glimpse of her in the Bois, who, when first I went to her house, had listened to the words that fell from her lips as though they were pearls, found the moments now spent with her interminable; I knew not what to say and I left her. Alas, she was not always to remain thus. Less than three years afterwards, I was to see her at an evening party given by Gilberte, not fallen into second childhood but somewhat decayed, no longer able to hide under a mask-like face what she was thinking—thinking is saying too much—what she was feeling, moving her head about, pursing her lips, shaking her shoulders at everything she felt, like a drunken man or a child or like certain inspired poets who, unconscious of their surroundings, compose their poems when they are in company or at table, and, to the alarm of their astonished hostess, knit their brows and make grimaces. Mme de Forcheville’s feelings—except the one that brought her to Gilberte’s party, tenderness for her beloved child, her pride in so brilliant an entertainment, a pride which could not veil the mother’s melancholy that she no longer counted—these feelings were never happy and were inspired by her perpetual self-defence against rudeness meted out to her, the timid defence of a child. One constantly heard people say: “I don’t know if Mme de Forcheville recognises me, perhaps I ought to be introduced over again.” “You can dispense with that,” (someone replied at the top of his voice neither knowing nor caring that Gilberte’s mother could hear every word) “you won’t get any fun out of it. Leave her alone. She’s a bit daft.” Furtively, Mme de Forcheville cast a glance from her still beautiful eyes at the insulting speakers, then quickly looked away, for fear of seeming to have heard, while, bowing beneath the blow, she restrained her weak resentment with quivering head and heaving breast, and glanced towards another equally ruthless guest. Nor did she seem too greatly overwhelmed for she had been ailing several days and had hinted to her daughter to postpone the party which the latter had refused. Mme de Forcheville did not love her the less; the presence of the Duchesses, the admiration the company manifested for the new mansion, flooded her heart with joy, and when the Marquise de Sebran was announced, this lady representing, with much effort, the highest peak of fashion, Mme de Forcheville felt she had been a good and far-seeing mother and that her maternal task had been accomplished. A fresh lot of contemptuous guests brought on another solitary colloquy if a mute language only expressed by gesticulation can be called talking. Beautiful still, she had become as never previously, an object of infinite sympathy for now the whole world betrayed her who had once betrayed Swann and the rest; now that the rôles were reversed, she had become too weak to defend herself against men. And soon she would be unable to defend herself against death. After that anticipation, let us go back three years, to the reception at the Prince de Guermantes’...

From Marcel Proust's Time Regained

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