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Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

Part 9 out of 9

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aesthetic basis of Odette's beauty--I, who had at first loved Gilberte, in
Combray days, on account of all the unknown element in her life into which
I would fain have plunged headlong, have undergone reincarnation,
discarding my own separate existence as a thing that no longer mattered, I
thought now, as of an inestimable advantage, that of this, my own, my too
familiar, my contemptible existence Gilberte might one day become the
humble servant, the kindly, the comforting collaborator, who in the
evenings, helping me in my work, would collate for me the texts of rare
pamphlets. As for Bergotte, that infinitely wise, almost divine old man,
because of whom I had first, before I had even seen her, loved Gilberte,
now it was for Gilberte's sake, chiefly, that I loved him. With as much
pleasure as the pages that he had written about Racine, I studied the
wrapper, folded under great seals of white wax and tied with billows of
pink ribbon, in which she had brought those pages to me. I kissed the
agate marble, which was the better part of my love's heart, the part that
was not frivolous but faithful, and, for all that it was adorned with the
mysterious charm of Gilberte's life, dwelt close beside me, inhabited my
chamber, shared my bed. But the beauty of that stone, and the beauty also
of those pages of Bergotte which I was glad to associate with the idea of
my love for Gilberte, as if, in the moments when my love seemed no longer
to have any existence, they gave it a kind of consistency, were, I
perceived, anterior to that love, which they in no way resembled; their
elements had been determined by the writer's talent, or by geological
laws, before ever Gilberte had known me, nothing in book or stone would
have been different if Gilberte had not loved me, and there was nothing,
consequently, that authorised me to read in them a message of happiness.
And while my love, incessantly waiting for the morrow to bring a
confession of Gilberte's love for me, destroyed, unravelled every evening,
the ill-done work of the day, in some shadowed part of my being was an
unknown weaver who would not leave where they lay the severed threads, but
collected and rearranged them, without any thought of pleasing me, or of
toiling for my advantage, in the different order which she gave to all her
handiwork. Without any special interest in my love, not beginning by
deciding that I was loved, she placed, side by side, those of Gilberte's
actions that had seemed to me inexplicable and her faults which I had
excused. Then, one with another, they took on a meaning. It seemed to tell
me, this new arrangement, that when I saw Gilberte, instead of coming to
me in the Champs-Elysées, going to a party, or on errands with her
governess, when I saw her prepared for an absence that would extend over
the New Year holidays, I was wrong in thinking, in saying: "It is because
she is frivolous," or "easily lead." For she would have ceased to be
either if she had loved me, and if she had been forced to obey it would
have been with the same despair in her heart that I felt on the days when
I did not see her. It shewed me further, this new arrangement, that I
ought, after all, to know what it was to love, since I loved Gilberte; it
drew my attention to the constant anxiety that I had to 'shew off' before
her, by reason of which I tried to persuade my mother to get for Françoise
a waterproof coat and a hat with a blue feather, or, better still, to stop
sending with me to the Champs-Elysées an attendant with whom I blushed to
be seen (to all of which my mother replied that I was not fair to
Françoise, that she was an excellent woman and devoted to us all) and also
that sole, exclusive need to see Gilberte, the result of which was that,
months in advance, I could think of nothing but how to find out at what
date she would be leaving Paris and where she was going, feeling that the
most attractive country in the world would be but a place of exile if she
were not to be there, and asking only to be allowed to stay for ever in
Paris, so long as I might see her in the Champs-Elysées; and it had little
difficulty in making me see that neither my anxiety nor my need could be
justified by anything in Gilberte's conduct. She, on the contrary, was
genuinely fond of her governess, without troubling herself over what I
might choose to think about it. It seemed quite natural to her not to come
to the Champs-Elysées if she had to go shopping with Mademoiselle,
delightful if she had to go out somewhere with her mother. And even
supposing that she would ever have allowed me to spend my holidays in the
same place as herself, when it came to choosing that place she considered
her parents' wishes, a thousand different amusements of which she had been
told, and not at all that it should be the place to which my family were
proposing to send me. When she assured me (as sometimes happened) that she
liked me less than some other of her friends, less than she had liked me
the day before, because by my clumsiness I had made her side lose a game,
I would beg her pardon, I would beg her to tell me what I must do in order
that she should begin again to like me as much as, or more than the rest;
I hoped to hear her say that that was already my position; I besought her;
as though she had been able to modify her affection for me as she or I
chose, to give me pleasure, merely by the words that she would utter, as
my good or bad conduct should deserve. Was I, then, not yet aware that
what I felt, myself, for her, depended neither upon her actions nor upon
my desires?

It shewed me finally, the new arrangement planned by my unseen weaver,
that, if we find ourselves hoping that the actions of a person who has
hitherto caused us anxiety may prove not to have been sincere, they shed
in their wake a light which our hopes are powerless to extinguish, a light
to which, rather than to our hopes, we must put the question, what will be
that person's actions on the morrow.

These new counsels, my love listened and heard them; they persuaded it
that the morrow would not be different from all the days that had gone
before; that Gilberte's feeling for me, too long established now to be
capable of alteration, was indifference; that hi my friendship with
Gilberte, it was I alone who loved. "That is true," my love responded,
"there is nothing more to be made of that friendship. It will not alter
now." And so the very next day (unless I were to wait for a public
holiday, if there was one approaching, some anniversary, the New Year,
perhaps, one of those days which are not like other days, on which time
starts afresh, casting aside the heritage of the past, declining its
legacy of sorrows) I would appeal to Gilberte to terminate our old and to
join me in laying the foundations of a new friendship.

* * *

I had always, within reach, a plan of Paris, which, because I could see
drawn on it the street in which M. and Mme. Swann lived, seemed to me to
contain a secret treasure. And to please myself, as well as by a sort of
chivalrous loyalty, in any connection or with no relevance at all, I would
repeat the name of that street until my father, not being, like my mother
and grandmother, in the secret of my love, would ask: "But why are you
always talking about that street? There's nothing wonderful about it. It
is an admirable street to live in because it's only a few minutes' walk
from the Bois, but there are a dozen other streets just the same."

I made every effort to introduce the name of Swann into my conversation
with my parents; in my own mind, of course, I never ceased to murmur it;
but I needed also to hear its exquisite sound, and to make myself play
that chord, the voiceless rendering of which did not suffice me. Moreover,
that name of Swann, with which I had for so long been familiar, was to me
now (as happens at times to people suffering from aphasia, in the case of
the most ordinary words) the name of something new. It was for ever
present in my mind, which could not, however, grow accustomed to it. I
analysed it, I spelt it; its orthography came to me as a surprise. And
with its familiarity it had simultaneously lost its innocence. The
pleasure that I derived from the sound of it I felt to be so guilty, that
it seemed to me as though the others must read my thoughts, and would
change the conversation if I endeavoured to guide it in that direction. I
fell back upon subjects which still brought me into touch with Gilberte, I
eternally repeated the same words, and it was no use my knowing that they
were but words--words uttered in her absence, which she could not hear,
words without virtue in themselves, repeating what were, indeed, facts,
but powerless to modify them--for still it seemed to me that by dint of
handling, of stirring in this way everything that had reference to
Gilberte, I might perhaps make emerge from it something that would bring
me happiness. I told my parents again that Gilberte was very fond of her
governess, as if the statement, when repeated for the hundredth time,
would at last have the effect of making Gilberte suddenly burst into the
room, come to live with us for ever. I had already sung the praises of the
old lady who read the _Débats_ (I had hinted to my parents that she must
at least be an Ambassador's widow, if not actually a Highness) and I
continued to descant on her beauty, her splendour, her nobility, until the
day on which I mentioned that, by what I had heard Gilberte call her, she
appeared to be a Mme. Blatin.

"Oh, now I know whom you mean," cried my mother, while I felt myself grow
red all over with shame. "On guard! on guard!--as your grandfather says.
And so it's she that you think so wonderful? Why, she's perfectly
horrible, and always has been. She's the widow of a bailiff. You can't
remember, when you were little, all the trouble I used to have to avoid
her at your gymnastic lessons, where she was always trying to get hold of
me--I didn't know the woman, of course--to tell me that you were 'much too
nice-looking for a boy.' She has always had an insane desire to get to
know people, and she must be quite insane, as I have always thought, if
she really does know Mme. Swann. For even if she does come of very common
people, I have never heard anything said against her character. But she
must always be forcing herself upon strangers. She is, really, a horrible
woman, frightfully vulgar, and besides, she is always creating awkward

As for Swann, in my attempts to resemble him, I spent the whole time, when
I was at table, in drawing my finger along my nose and in rubbing my eyes.
My father would exclaim: "The child's a perfect idiot, he's becoming quite
impossible." More than all else I should have liked to be as bald as
Swann. He appeared to me to be a creature so extraordinary that I found it
impossible to believe that people whom I knew and often saw knew him also,
and that in the course of the day anyone might run against him. And once
my mother, while she was telling us, as she did every evening at dinner,
where she had been and what she had done that afternoon, merely by the
words: "By the way, guess whom I saw at the Trois Quartiers--at the
umbrella counter--Swann!" caused to burst open in the midst of her
narrative (an arid desert to me) a mystic blossom. What a melancholy
satisfaction to learn that, that very afternoon, threading through the
crowd his supernatural form, Swann had gone to buy an umbrella. Among the
events of the day, great and small, but all equally unimportant, that one
alone aroused in me those peculiar vibrations by which my love for
Gilberte was invariably stirred. My father complained that I took no
interest in anything, because I did not listen while he was speaking of
the political developments that might follow the visit of King
Theo-dosius, at that moment in France as the nation's guest and (it was
hinted) ally. And yet how intensely interested I was to know whether Swann
had been wearing his hooded cape!

"Did you speak to him?" I asked.

"Why, of course I did," answered my mother, who always seemed afraid lest,
were she to admit that we were not on the warmest of terms with Swann,
people would seek to reconcile us more than she cared for, in view of the
existence of Mme. Swann, whom she did not wish to know. "It was he who
came up and spoke to me. I hadn't seen him."

"Then you haven't quarrelled?"

"Quarrelled? What on earth made you think that we had quarrelled?" she
briskly parried, as though I had cast doubt on the fiction of her friendly
relations with Swann, and was planning an attempt to 'bring them

"He might be cross with you for never asking him here."

"One isn't obliged to ask everyone to one's house, you know; has he ever
asked me to his? I don't know his wife."

"But he used often to come, at Combray."

"I should think he did! He used to come at Combray, and now, in Paris, he
has something better to do, and so have I. But I can promise you, we
didn't look in the least like people who had quarrelled. We were kept
waiting there for some time, while they brought him his parcel. He asked
after you; he told me you had been playing with his daughter--" my mother
went on, amazing me with the portentous revelation of my own existence in
Swann's mind; far more than that, of my existence in so complete, so
material a form that when I stood before him, trembling with love, in the
Champs-Elysées, he had known my name, and who my mother was, and had been
able to blend with my quality as his daughter's playmate certain facts
with regard to my grandparents and their connections, the place in which
we lived, certain details of our past life, all of which I myself perhaps
did not know. But my mother did not seem to have noticed anything
particularly attractive in that counter at the Trois Quartiers where she
had represented to Swann, at the moment in which he caught sight of her, a
definite person with whom he had sufficient memories in common to impel
him to come up to her and to speak.

Nor did either she or my father seem to find any occasion now to mention
Swann's family, the grandparents of Gilberte, nor to use the title of
stockbroker, topics than which nothing else gave me so keen a pleasure.
My imagination had isolated and consecrated in the social Paris a certain
family, just as it had set apart in the structural Paris a certain house,
on whose porch it had fashioned sculptures and made its windows precious.
But these ornaments I alone had eyes to see. Just as my father and mother
looked upon the house in which Swann lived as one that closely resembled
the other houses built at the same period in the neighbourhood of the
Bois, so Swann's family seemed to them to be in the same category as many
other families of stockbrokers. Their judgment was more or less favourable
according to the extent to which the family in question shared in merits
that were common to the rest of the universe, and there was about it
nothing that they could call unique. What, on the other hand, they did
appreciate in the Swanns they found in equal, if not in greater measure
elsewhere. And so, after admitting that the house was in a good position,
they would go on to speak of some other house that was in a better, but
had nothing to do with Gilberte, or of financiers on a larger scale than
her grandfather had been; and if they had appeared, for a moment, to be of
my opinion, that was a mistake which was very soon corrected. For in order
to distinguish in all Gilberte's surroundings an indefinable quality
analogous, in the scale of emotions, to what in the scale of colours is
called infra-red, a supplementary sense of perception was required, with
which love, for the time being, had endowed me; and this my parents

On the days when Gilberte had warned me that she would not be coming to
the Champs-Elysées, I would try to arrange my walks so that I should be
brought into some kind of contact with her. Sometimes I would lead
Françoise on a pilgrimage to the house in which the Swanns lived, making
her repeat to me unendingly all that she had learned from the governess
with regard to Mme. Swann. "It seems, she puts great faith in medals. She
would never think of starting on a journey if she had heard an owl hoot,
or the death-watch in the wall, or if she had seen a cat at midnight, or
if the furniture had creaked. Oh yes! she's a most religious lady, she
is!" I was so madly in love with Gilberte that if, on our way, I caught
sight of their old butler taking the dog out, my emotion would bring me to
a standstill, I would fasten on his white whiskers eyes that melted with
passion. And Françoise would rouse me with: "What's wrong with you now,
child?" and we would continue on our way until we reached their gate,
where a porter, different from every other porter in the world, and
saturated, even to the braid on his livery, with the same melancholy charm
that I had felt to be latent in the name of Gilberte, looked at me as
though he knew that I was one of those whose natural unworthiness would
for ever prevent them from penetrating into the mysteries of the life
inside, which it was his duty to guard, and over which the ground-floor
windows appeared conscious of being protectingly closed, with far less
resemblance, between the nobly sweeping arches of their muslin curtains,
to any other windows in the world than to Gilberte's glancing eyes. On
other days we would go along the boulevards, and I would post myself at
the corner of the Rue Duphot; I had heard that Swann was often to be seen
passing there, on his way to the dentist's; and my imagination so far
differentiated Gilberte's father from the rest of humanity, his presence
in the midst of a crowd of real people introduced among them so miraculous
an element, that even before we reached the Madeleine I would be trembling
with emotion at the thought that I was approaching a street from which
that supernatural apparition might at any moment burst upon me unawares.

But most often of all, on days when I was not to see Gilberte, as I had
heard that Mme. Swann walked almost every day along the Allée des Acacias,
round the big lake, and in the Allée de la Reine Marguerite, I would guide
Françoise in the direction of the Bois de Boulogne. It was to me like one
of those zoological gardens in which one sees assembled together a variety
of flora, and contrasted effects in landscape; where from a hill one
passes to a grotto, a meadow, rocks, a stream, a trench, another hill, a
marsh, but knows that they are there only to enable the hippopotamus,
zebra, crocodile, rabbit, bear and heron to disport themselves in a
natural or a picturesque setting; this, the Bois, equally complex, uniting
a multitude of little worlds, distinct and separate--placing a stage set
with red trees, American oaks, like an experimental forest in Virginia,
next to a fir-wood by the edge of the lake, or to a forest grove from
which would suddenly emerge, in her lissom covering of furs, with the
large, appealing eyes of a dumb animal, a hastening walker--was the Garden
of Woman; and like the myrtle-alley in the Aeneid, planted for their
delight with trees of one kind only, the Allée des Acacias was thronged by
the famous Beauties of the day. As, from a long way off, the sight of the
jutting crag from which it dives into the pool thrills with joy the
children who know that they are going to behold the seal, long before I
reached the acacia-alley, their fragrance, scattered abroad, would make me
feel that I was approaching the incomparable presence of a vegetable
personality, strong and tender; then, as I drew near, the sight of their
topmost branches, their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its
coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, over which hundreds of flowers
were laid, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects; and
finally their name itself, feminine, indolent and seductive, made my heart
beat, but with a social longing, like those waltzes which remind us only
of the names of the fair dancers, called aloud as they entered the
ball-room. I had been told that I should see in the alley certain women of
fashion, who, in spite of their not all having husbands, were constantly
mentioned in conjunction with Mme. Swann, but most often by their
professional names;--their new names, when they had any, being but a sort
of incognito, a veil which those who would speak of them were careful to
draw aside, so as to make themselves understood. Thinking that Beauty--in
the order of feminine elegance--was governed by occult laws into the
knowledge of which they had been initiated, and that they had the power to
realise it, I accepted before seeing them, like the truth of a coming
revelation, the appearance of their clothes, of their carriages and
horses, of a thousand details among which I placed my faith as in an inner
soul which gave the cohesion of a work of art to that ephemeral and
changing pageant. But it was Mme. Swann whom I wished to see, and I waited
for her to go past, as deeply moved as though she were Gilberte, whose
parents, saturated, like everything in her environment, with her own
special charm, excited in me as keen a passion as she did herself, indeed
a still more painful disturbance (since their point of contact with her
was that intimate, that internal part of her life which was hidden from
me), and furthermore, for I very soon learned, as we shall see in due
course, that they did not like my playing with her, that feeling of
veneration which we always have for those who hold, and exercise without
restraint, the power to do us an injury.

I assigned the first place, in the order of aesthetic merit and of social
grandeur, to simplicity, when I saw Mme. Swann on foot, in a 'polonaise'
of plain cloth, a little toque on her head trimmed with a pheasant's wing,
a bunch of violets in her bosom, hastening along the Allée des Acacias as
if it had been merely the shortest way back to her own house, and
acknowledging with a rapid glance the courtesy of the gentlemen in
carriages, who, recognising her figure at a distance, were raising their
hats to her and saying to one another that there was never anyone so well
turned out as she. But instead of simplicity it was to ostentation that I
must assign the first place if, after I had compelled Françoise, who could
hold out no longer, and complained that her legs were 'giving' beneath
her, to stroll up and down with me for another hour, I saw at length,
emerging from the Porte Dauphine, figuring for me a royal dignity, the
passage of a sovereign, an impression such as no real Queen has ever since
been able to give me, because my notion of their power has been less
vague, and more founded upon experience--borne along by the flight of a
pair of fiery horses, slender and shapely as one sees them in the drawings
of Constantin Guys, carrying on its box an enormous coachman, furred like
a cossack, and by his side a diminutive groom, like Toby, "the late
Beaudenord's tiger," I saw--or rather I felt its outlines engraved upon my
heart by a clean and killing stab--a matchless victoria, built rather
high, and hinting, through the extreme modernity of its appointments, at
the forms of an earlier day, deep down in which lay negligently back Mme.
Swann, her hair, now quite pale with one grey lock, girt with a narrow
band of flowers, usually violets, from which floated down long veils, a
lilac parasol in her hand, on her lips an ambiguous smile in which I read
only the benign condescension of Majesty, though it was pre-eminently the
enticing smile of the courtesan, which she graciously bestowed upon the
men who bowed to her. That smile was, in reality, saying to one: "Oh yes,
I do remember, quite well; it was wonderful!" to another: "How I should
have loved to! We were unfortunate!", to a third: "Yes, if you like! I
must just keep in the line for a minute, then as soon as I can I will
break away." When strangers passed she still allowed to linger about her
lips a lazy smile, as though she expected or remembered some friend, which
made them say: "What a lovely woman!". And for certain men only she had a
sour, strained, shy, cold smile which meant: "Yes, you old goat, I know
that you've got a tongue like a viper, that you can't keep quiet for a
moment. But do you suppose that I care what you say?" Coquelin passed,
talking, in a group of listening friends, and with a sweeping wave of his
hand bade a theatrical good day to the people in the carriages. But I
thought only of Mme. Swann, and pretended to have not yet seen her, for I
knew that, when she reached the pigeon-shooting ground, she would tell her
coachman to 'break away' and to stop the carriage, so that she might come
back on foot. And on days when I felt that I had the courage to pass close
by her I would drag Françoise off in that direction; until the moment came
when I saw Mme. Swann, letting trail behind her the long train of her
lilac skirt, dressed, as the populace imagine queens to be dressed, in
rich attire such as no other woman might wear, lowering her eyes now and
then to study the handle of her parasol, paying scant attention to the
passers-by, as though the important thing for her, her one object in being
there, was to take exercise, without thinking that she was seen, and that
every head was turned towards her. Sometimes, however, when she had looked
back to call her dog to her, she would cast, almost imperceptibly, a
sweeping glance round about.

Those even who did not know her were warned by something exceptional,
something beyond the normal in her--or perhaps by a telepathic suggestion
such as would move an ignorant audience to a frenzy of applause when Berma
was 'sublime'--that she must be some one well-known. They would ask one
another, "Who is she?", or sometimes would interrogate a passing stranger,
or would make a mental note of how she was dressed so as to fix her
identity, later, in the mind of a friend better informed than themselves,
who would at once enlighten them. Another pair, half-stopping in their
walk, would exchange:

"You know who that is? Mme. Swann! That conveys nothing to you? Odette de
Crécy, then?"

"Odette de Crécy! Why, I thought as much. Those great, sad eyes... But I
say, you know, she can't be as young as she was once, eh? I remember, I
had her on the day that MacMahon went."

"I shouldn't remind her of it, if I were you. She is now Mme. Swann, the
wife of a gentleman in the Jockey Club, a friend of the Prince of Wales.
Apart from that, though, she is wonderful still."

"Oh, but you ought to have known her then; Gad, she was lovely! She lived
in a very odd little house with a lot of Chinese stuff. I remember, we
were bothered all the time by the newsboys, shouting outside; in the end
she made me get up and go."

Without listening to these memories, I could feel all about her the
indistinct murmur of fame. My heart leaped with impatience when I thought
that a few seconds must still elapse before all these people, among whom I
was dismayed not to find a certain mulatto banker who (or so I felt) had a
contempt for me, were to see the unknown youth, to whom they had not, so
far, been paying the slightest attention, salute (without knowing her, it
was true, but I thought that I had sufficient authority since my parents
knew her husband and I was her daughter's playmate) this woman whose
reputation for beauty, for misconduct, and for elegance was universal.
But I was now close to Mme. Swann; I pulled off my hat with so lavish, so
prolonged a gesture that she could not repress a smile. People laughed. As
for her, she had never seen me with Gilberte, she did not know my name,
but I was for her--like one of the keepers in the Bois, like the boatman,
or the ducks on the lake, to which she threw scraps of bread--one of the
minor personages, familiar, nameless, as devoid of individual character as
a stage-hand in a theatre, of her daily walks abroad.

On certain days when I had missed her in the Allée des Acacias I would be
so fortunate as to meet her in the Allée de la Reine Marguerite, where
women went who wished to be alone, or to appear to be wishing to be alone;
she would not be alone for long, being soon overtaken by some man or
other, often in a grey 'tile' hat, whom I did not know, and who would talk
to her for some time, while their two carriages crawled behind.

* * *

That sense of the complexity of the Bois de Boulogne which made it an
artificial place and, in the zoological or mythological sense of the word,
a Garden, I captured again, this year, as I crossed it on my way to
Trianon, on one of those mornings, early in November, when in Paris, if we
stay indoors, being so near and yet prevented from witnessing the
transformation scene of autumn, which is drawing so rapidly to a close
without our assistance, we feel a regret for the fallen leaves that
becomes a fever, and may even keep us awake at night. Into my closed room
they had been drifting already for a month, summoned there by my desire to
see them, slipping between my thoughts and the object, whatever it might
be, upon which I was trying to concentrate them, whirling in front of me
like those brown spots that sometimes, whatever we may be looking at, will
seem to be dancing or swimming before our eyes. And on that morning, not
hearing the splash of the rain as on the previous days, seeing the smile
of fine weather at the corners of my drawn curtains, as from the corners
of closed lips may escape the secret of their happiness, I had felt that I
could actually see those yellow leaves, with the light shining through
them, in their supreme beauty; and being no more able to restrain myself
from going to look at the trees than, in my childhood's days, when the
wind howled in the chimney, I had been able to resist the longing to visit
the sea, I had risen and left the house to go to Trianon, passing through
the Bois de Boulogne. It was the hour and the season in which the Bois
seems, perhaps, most multiform, not only because it is then most divided,
but because it is divided in a different way. Even in the unwooded parts,
where the horizon is large, here and there against the background of a
dark and distant mass of trees, now leafless or still keeping their summer
foliage unchanged, a double row of orange-red chestnuts seemed, as in a
picture just begun, to be the only thing painted, so far, by an artist who
had not yet laid any colour on the rest, and to be offering their
cloister, in full daylight, for the casual exercise of the human figures
that would be added to the picture later on.

Farther off, at a place where the trees were still all green, one alone,
small, stunted, lopped, but stubborn in its resistance, was tossing in the
breeze an ugly mane of red. Elsewhere, again, might be seen the first
awakening of this Maytime of the leaves, and those of an ampelopsis, a
smiling miracle, like a red hawthorn flowering in winter, had that very
morning all 'come out,' so to speak, in blossom. And the Bois had the
temporary, unfinished, artificial look of a nursery garden or a park in
which, either for some botanic purpose or in preparation for a festival,
there have been embedded among the trees of commoner growth, which have
not yet been uprooted and transplanted elsewhere, a few rare specimens,
with fantastic foliage, which seem to be clearing all round themselves an
empty space, making room, giving air, diffusing light. Thus it was the
time of year at which the Bois de Boulogne displays more separate
characteristics, assembles more distinct elements in a composite whole
than at any other. It was also the time of day. In places where the trees
still kept their leaves, they seemed to have undergone an alteration of
their substance from the point at which they were touched by the sun's
light, still, at this hour in the morning, almost horizontal, as it would
be again, a few hours later, at the moment when, just as dusk began, it
would flame up like a lamp, project afar over the leaves a warm and
artificial glow, and set ablaze the few topmost boughs of a tree that
would itself remain unchanged, a sombre incombustible candelabrum beneath
its flaming crest. At one spot the light grew solid as a brick wall, and
like a piece of yellow Persian masonry, patterned in blue, daubed coarsely
upon the sky the leaves of the chestnuts; at another, it cut them off from
the sky towards which they stretched out their curling, golden fingers.
Half-way up the trunk of a tree draped with wild vine, the light had
grafted and brought to blossom, too dazzling to be clearly distinguished,
an enormous posy, of red flowers apparently, perhaps of a new variety of
carnation. The different parts of the Bois, so easily confounded in
summer in the density and monotony of their universal green, were now
clearly divided. A patch of brightness indicated the approach to almost
every one of them, or else a splendid mass of foliage stood out before it
like an oriflamme. I could make out, as on a coloured map, Armenonville,
the Pré Catalan, Madrid, the Race Course and the shore of the lake. Here
and there would appear some meaningless erection, a sham grotto, a mill,
for which the trees made room by drawing away from it, or which was borne
upon the soft green platform of a grassy lawn. I could feel that the Bois
was not really a wood, that it existed for a purpose alien to the life of
its trees; my sense of exaltation was due not only to admiration of the
autumn tints but to a bodily desire. Ample source of a joy which the heart
feels at first without being conscious of its cause, without understanding
that it results from no external impulse! Thus I gazed at the trees with
an unsatisfied longing which went beyond them and, without my knowledge,
directed itself towards that masterpiece of beautiful strolling women
which the trees enframed for a few hours every day. I walked towards the
Allée des Acacias. I passed through forest groves in which the morning
light, breaking them into new sections, lopped and trimmed the trees,
united different trunks in marriage, made nosegays of their branches. It
would skilfully draw towards it a pair of trees; making deft use of the
sharp chisel of light and shade, it would cut away from each of them half
of its trunk and branches, and, weaving together the two halves that
remained, would make of them either a single pillar of shade, defined by
the surrounding light, or a single luminous phantom whose artificial,
quivering contour was encompassed in a network of inky shadows. When a
ray of sunshine gilded the highest branches, they seemed, soaked and still
dripping with a sparkling moisture, to have emerged alone from the liquid,
emerald-green atmosphere in which the whole grove was plunged as though
beneath the sea. For the trees continued to live by their own vitality,
and when they had no longer any leaves, that vitality gleamed more
brightly still from the nap of green velvet that carpeted their trunks, or
in the white enamel of the globes of mistletoe that were scattered all the
way up to the topmost branches of the poplars, rounded as are the sun and
moon in Michelangelo's 'Creation.' But, forced for so many years now, by a
sort of grafting process, to share the life of feminine humanity, they
called to my mind the figure of the dryad, the fair worldling, swiftly
walking, brightly coloured, whom they sheltered with their branches as
she passed beneath them, and obliged to acknowledge, as they themselves
acknowledged, the power of the season; they recalled to me the happy days
when I was young and had faith, when I would hasten eagerly to the spots
where masterpieces of female elegance would be incarnate for a few moments
beneath the unconscious, accommodating boughs. But the beauty for which
the firs and acacias of the Bois de Boulogne made me long, more
disquieting in that respect than the chestnuts and lilacs of Trianon which
I was going to see, was not fixed somewhere outside myself in the relics
of an historical period, in works of art, in a little temple of love at
whose door was piled an oblation of autumn leaves ribbed with gold. I
reached the shore of the lake; I walked on as far as the pigeon-shooting
ground. The idea of perfection which I had within me I had bestowed, in
that other time, upon the height of a victoria, upon the raking thinness
of those horses, frenzied and light as wasps upon the wing, with bloodshot
eyes like the cruel steeds of Diomed, which now, smitten by a desire to
sea again what I had once loved, as ardent as the desire that had driven
me, many years before, along the same paths, I wished to see renewed
before my eyes at the moment when Mme. Swann's enormous coachman,
supervised by a groom no bigger than his fist, and as infantile as Saint
George in the picture, endeavoured to curb the ardour of the flying,
steel-tipped pinions with which they thundered along the ground. Alas!
there was nothing now but motor-cars driven each by a moustached mechanic,
with a tall footman towering by his side. I wished to hold before my
bodily eyes, that I might know whether they were indeed as charming as
they appeared to the eyes of memory, little hats, so low-crowned as to
seem no more than garlands about the brows of women. All the hats now were
immense; covered with fruits and flowers and all manner of birds. In place
of the lovely gowns in which Mme. Swann walked like a Queen, appeared
Greco-Saxon tunics, with Tanagra folds, or sometimes, in the Directoire
style, 'Liberty chiffons' sprinkled with flowers like sheets of wallpaper.
On the heads of the gentlemen who might have been eligible to stroll with
Mme. Swann in the Allée de la Reine Marguerite, I found not the grey
'tile' hats of old, nor any other kind. They walked the Bois bare-headed.
And seeing all these new elements of the spectacle, I had no longer the
faith which, applied to them, would have given them consistency, unity,
life; they passed in a scattered sequence before me, at random, without
reality, containing in themselves no beauty that my eyes might have
endeavoured as in the old days, to extract from them and to compose in a
picture. They were just women, in whose elegance I had no belief, and
whose clothes seemed to me unimportant. But when a belief vanishes, there
survives it--more and more ardently, so as to cloak the absence of the
power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new phenomena--an
idolatrous attachment to the old things which our belief in them did once
animate, as if it was in that belief and not in ourselves that the divine
spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent
cause--the death of the gods.

"Oh, horrible!" I exclaimed to myself: "Does anyone really imagine that
these motor-cars are as smart as the old carriage-and-pair? I dare say. I
am too old now--but I was not intended for a world in which women shackle
themselves in garments that are not even made of cloth. To what purpose
shall I walk among these trees if there is nothing left now of the
assembly that used to meet beneath the delicate tracery of reddening
leaves, if vulgarity and fatuity have supplanted the exquisite thing that
once their branches framed? Oh, horrible! My consolation is to think of
the women whom I have known, in the past, now that there is no standard
left of elegance. But how can the people who watch these dreadful
creatures hobble by, beneath hats on which have been heaped the spoils of
aviary or garden-bed,--how can they imagine the charm that there was in
the sight of Mme. Swann, crowned with a close-fitting lilac bonnet, or
with a tiny hat from which rose stiffly above her head a single
iris?" Could I ever have made them understand the emotion that I used to
feel on winter mornings, when I met Mme. Swann on foot, in an otter-skin
coat, with a woollen cap from which stuck out two blade-like
partridge-feathers, but enveloped also in the deliberate, artificial
warmth of her own house, which was suggested by nothing more than the
bunch of violets crushed into her bosom, whose flowering, vivid and blue
against the grey sky, the freezing air, the naked boughs, had the same
charming effect of using the season and the weather merely as a setting,
and of living actually in a human atmosphere, in the atmosphere of this
woman, as had in the vases and beaupots of her drawing-room, beside the
blazing fire, in front of the silk-covered sofa, the flowers that looked
out through closed windows at the falling snow? But it would not have
sufficed me that the costumes alone should still have been the same as in
those distant years. Because of the solidarity that binds together the
different parts of a general impression, parts that our memory keeps in a
balanced whole, of which we are not permitted to subtract or to decline
any fraction, I should have liked to be able to pass the rest of the day
with one of those women, over a cup of tea, in a little house with
dark-painted walls (as Mme. Swann's were still in the year after that in
which the first part of this story ends) against which would glow the
orange flame, the red combustion, the pink and white flickering of her
chrysanthemums in the twilight of a November evening, in moments similar
to those in which (as we shall see) I had not managed to discover the
pleasures for which I longed. But now, albeit they had led to nothing,
those moments struck me as having been charming enough in themselves. I
sought to find them again as I remembered them. Alas! there was nothing
now but flats decorated in the Louis XVI style, all white paint, with
hortensias in blue enamel. Moreover, people did not return to Paris, now,
until much later. Mme. Swann would have written to me, from a country
house, that she would not be in town before February, had I asked her to
reconstruct for me the elements of that memory which I felt to belong to a
distant era, to a date in time towards which it was forbidden me to ascend
again the fatal slope, the elements of that longing which had become,
itself, as inaccessible as the pleasure that it had once vainly pursued.
And I should have required also that they be the same women, those whose
costume interested me because, at a time when I still had faith, my
imagination had individualised them and had provided each of them with a
legend. Alas! in the acacia-avenue--the myrtle-alley--I did see some of
them again, grown old, no more now than grim spectres of what once they
had been, wandering to and fro, in desperate search of heaven knew what,
through the Virgilian groves. They had long fled, and still I stood vainly
questioning the deserted paths. The sun's face was hidden. Nature began
again to reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the
idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill
the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in
little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds passed swiftly over the
Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after
another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with
Dodonaic majesty, seemed to proclaim the unpeopled vacancy of this
estranged forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to
seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory, which
must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and
from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had
known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme. Swann did not appear, in
the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be
altered. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world
of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was
ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that
composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but
regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as
fugitive, alas, as the years.

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