A fascinating story from the Financial Times magazine about the passion of a Proust collector.
Jacques Guérin was head of the French perfume company Parfums d’Orsay. But although he would remain there for over 50 years, it was never the primary focus of his life. His real passion lay in the rare books, precious manuscripts and artists’ papers that he collected. He loved to stroll in and out of the city’s antiquarian bookstores, scanning the shelves, sniffing out something unique. He was making his usual rounds one day in 1935 when, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, he saw a bookshop he had never noticed before. He went inside and began to browse. The owner asked if he could be of help, if there were any writers in particular who interested him. Guérin demurred, but mentioned Baudelaire and Proust. The bookseller, named Lefebvre, expressed surprise. Only a few minutes earlier he had bought some proofs, corrected by the hand of Marcel Proust. The seller had just left. In addition to these autograph manuscripts, he had also been told that Proust’s desk and bookcase were for sale, but he had declined them, as he was not set up to deal with furniture. He said that the man would soon be returning to the store to pick up a cheque.

The Days After: Edmund White's Proust

Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White 
Penguin Books, 2009

While I was blogging about In Search of Lost Time, I pretty much avoided reading biographies and critical studies, except occasionally to check some facts or details on the Web, where I read Edmund Wilson's essay on Proust. And now that I've finished the three thousand-odd pages of the novel, I don't have much stomach yet for reading another thousand pages of biography, like the ones by Jean-Yves Tadié or William C. Carter. But Edmund White's little volume, in the Penguin Lives series, is just the right size. It's nice to revisit the novel through White's eyes, and he's a fine writer.

White asserts at the beginning that "Proust's fame and prestige have eclipsed those of Joyce, Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Gide and Valéry and Genet, of Thomas Mann and Brecht, for if some of these writers are more celebrated than Proust in their own country, Proust is the only one to have a uniformly international reputation."

But he notes that his contemporaries were less enthusiastic: "Gide was irritated that Proust never acknowledged his own homosexuality nor ever presented homosexual inclinations in an attractive light." Alphonse Daudet called him "the devil" and Paul Claudel "a painted old Jewess." He was also the source of many anecdotes. Reynaldo Hahn, one of Proust's lovers, recalled his rapt contemplation of a rosebush, about which White comments:.

Typically, Proust also invoked this very scene, but said that inhaling the moment was ineffectual; only the sudden, unprompted awakenings of memory, triggered by something illogical and unforeseen (the madeleine, for example), could invoke the past in its entirety.
Colette described him as a "tottering young man of fifty." And White sums up: "He was such a presence that many people spoke of him as tall, but in fact he stood just five feet six inches."

His father was Christian and his mother Jewish, and he was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church. But White classifies him as "a mystical atheist, someone imbued with spirituality who nonetheless did not believe in a personal God, much less a savior." He caricatured Jews, such as the Blochs, and never reveals his Jewish origins in his fictions. "The apparently gentile Proust, who had campaigned for Dreyfus and had been baptized Catholic, was a sort of modern Esther" -- who concealed her Jewishness until she could use it to help her people. His support of Dreyfus (whose case White summarizes) caused a strain in his friendships in the aristocracy as well as a split with his own father.

He was born on July 10, 1871 to Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a rich stockbroker, and Adrien Proust, a physician whose father had been a grocer in the village of Illiers, near Chartres. His mother, like the narrator's grandmother in In Search of Lost Time, loved the letters of Madame de Sévigné. They were very close, and he shared her passion for literature and for making fun of other people. He describes his father as a "brute" and a "vulgar man" in Jean Santeuil, but idealizes both of his parents in the Search. The village of Illiers is of course the model for Combray, and is today officially known as Illiers-Combray. His mother was pregnant with him during the Franco-Prussian war, when Paris was besieged and its residents nearly starved. "As a result, Jeanne Proust was so weakened from hunger and anxiety that when Marcel was born he was sickly and fragile and at first not expected to live." His brother Robert was born two years later, and they were close throughout his life. Like the narrator of the Search in the opening section of Swann's Way, he "could not go to sleep without his mother's kiss.
Not only did Proust not outgrow his dependence; it became the template for his adult loves, since for Proust passion was a nagging need that became only more demanding the more it was denied. Indeed, Proust would drive away all his lovers (in his fiction as in his life) through his unreasonable demands.
The Prousts lived at 9 boulevard Malesherbes when he was small. The parents' room was at the other end of a forty-five-foot long corridor from the children's rooms. Marcel's schoolfriend Fernand Gregh remembered the apartment as having "a rather dark interior, bursting with heavy furniture, weatherstripped with curtains, stuffed with carpets, everything black and red." White observes that "This was the Paris of ... the recently built Palais Garnier opera house, which resembles a cross between a Victorian inkwell and a Liechtenstein medal for bravery." The Eiffel Tower was new "(and much criticized)" in the Paris of Proust's childhood. "All his life Proust would remain faithful to the ugly furnishings his parents and relatives had accumulated" and "he filled his room with hideous but sacred objects which spoke to him of his dead parents, his childhood, time lost."

Like the narrator, Proust played in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, where his closest friends were two sisters, Marie and Nelly Benardsky. Marie may have been the model for Gilberte Swann. White notes that readers are often confused (I certainly was) about how old the narrator and Gilberte are in these early scenes, since they seem sexually precocious at the same time that they are playing children's games and being watched over by nannies like Françoise: "In fact they are teenagers, sixteen or seventeen, in a period before adolescence was invented, at a time when people passed directly from childhood to adulthood, when a boy would be wearing short pants one day and taking a mistress the next."

White observes that "it would be a mistake to see all of Proust's women as disguised men." Some, like Odette or the Duchesse de Guermantes or La Berma, "are unquestionably, quintessentially womanly." (La Berma is modeled on Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane.) But others, such as the delivery girls with whom the narrator flirts, are "boys-in-drag." The narrator's obsession with Albertine's lesbianism is possibly drawn from his experience with Alfred Agostinelli, "who was primarily heterosexual."
Can the putatively heterosexual Narrator's overpowering jealousy about Albertine's lesbian affairs actually be a reflection of the homosexual Proust's fury when his bisexual lovers drifted back to women?

Proust had his first asthma attack in 1881 after a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. "Asthma was one of the great decisive factors in Proust's development." It made him solitary and kept him distanced from the world: "if he wanted to see hawthorn trees in bloom, he had to be driven through the countryside in a hermetically sealed car." His school attendance was irregular: He entered the Lycée Condorcet in 1882, and made friends with Jacques Bizet, the son of the composer of Carmen, and Daniel Halévy, the composer's nephew. He fell in love with Bizet when they were seventeen, but Halévy recalled, "we were beastly to him." Proust's mother, suspecting that Marcel and Bizet were lovers, forbade her son from seeing him. White says that Proust "believed that sex between boys was innocent and became a 'vice' only with age." Bizet later became a drug addict and committed suicide ten days before Proust's death.

Rejected by Bizet, Proust fell in love with Bizet's mother, Geneviève Straus, who was the daughter of Fromental Halévy, composer of the opera La Juive, which is alluded to in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. (Rachel, Robert de Saint-Loup's mistress, is nicknamed "Rachel, when of the lord" by the narrator, in an allusion to an aria from La Juive.) Because of her wit, Geneviève Straus is one of the models for the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Proust's favorite professor at the Lycée Condorcet was Alphonse Darlu, "who believed in spirituality but not Christianity." Darlu's brand of idealism influenced him greatly.

Proust rejected André Gide's more ordinary form of realism, his method of building up a character or situation through the accretion of small details, by saying that he, Proust, could be interested only in those details that pointed towards a general truth or that expressed poetic enchantment. Every page of Proust's masterpiece piles up several "general truths"and adds to the elevated philosophical tone.
White calls Proust "the great philosophical novelist," and puts him in the company of George Eliot, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Robert Musil.

He struggled with his homosexuality when he was seventeen, and cultivated an infatuation with forty-year-old Laure Hayman, who was his uncle's mistress (and, he would later find out, his father's). Laure, like Odette, had a house on the rue de La Pérouse, rode in the Bois de Boulogne and loved chrysanthemums. He shunned the "decadent" writers of his day and modeled his style, including his long sentences, on the classics. When he was in his early twenties, his favorite writers were Pierre Loti and Anatole France, whose style fitted his taste for classicism. Later, John Ruskin "would influence him to abandon France's materialism for a more congenial brand of spiritualism."

On November 11, 1889, after graduating, he signed up for a year of military service, which he would remember nostalgically as "a paradise," though "at the time he complained bitterly." The nostalgic view of his service is depicted in The Guermantes Way, when the narrator visits Saint-Loup at Doncières, which is modeled on Orléans, where he was stationed.

In September 1890, he visited Cabourg, a resort on the coast of Normandy that became Balbec in the novels. And that fall he started reading law in Paris and entered the École libre des sciences politiques ("Sciences-Po") to study politics. His legal and political studies gave him a grounding in those subjects, which makes it possible for him to create pictures of the diplomatic corps in his novels. He was inspired by Balzac, who moves with ease in various sections of society. And these studies also gave him, "more important for a writer, to their vocabularies, including their sophisticated strategies of evasion." He took a course in diplomacy from Albert Sorel, who is the model for M. de Norpois, "the ultimate slippery statesman."

In 1891 he met Oscar Wilde and invited him to dine with his parents, but the perhaps apocryphal story has it that Wilde was offended by the Prousts' "heavy, dark furniture" and left after saying, "How ugly everything is here." In Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust alludes unsympathetically to Wilde's fall. A scandal involving Prince Philip von Eulenberg in 1906 also alerted Proust to the uneasy position of gay men in contemporary society. At the same time, however, he was becoming friends with Robert de Flers and Lucien Daudet, and his mother was alarmed by a photograph he had taken with them in 1892, touching off a quarrel with his parents that he depicted in Jean Santeuil. Although he continued to seek out the company of other gay men, he tried not to be identified as gay himself:
Years later he would tell André Gide that one could write about homosexuality even at great length, so long as one did not ascribe it to oneself.
He began his rise in society and cultivated his gift for imitating the mannerisms of the people he met. White notes that this talent for mimickry "would come in handy later when he would begin to create his cast of great Dickensian eccentrics: the baron de Charlus, Madame Verdurin, the duc de Guermantes, the maid Françoise, all of whom have a distinctive, not to say preposterous, way of speaking." He also loved to write pastiches of famous writers, and said that he did it to purge his own style of imitation: "to become original again afterwards and not produce involuntary pastiches the rest of one's life." He also used it as an analytical tool, examining other writers' style by attempting to reproduce it. He includes a pastiche of the Goncourts' journal in Finding Time Again. He attracted the attention of eminent writers like Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, and became a regular at the salon of Princess Mathilde, Napoleon's niece, who appears under her own name in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

He also met Henri Bergson, but White dismisses him as a serious influence on Proust's thought, except for a conversation on the nature of sleep that they had after World War I, which is reflected in Sodom and Gomorrah. "Bergson seems to have dismissed Proust as someone interested only in high society (le monde)," White says. And he notes that Proust developed a reputation as a snob. Jean Cocteau wrote of Proust that he "doesn't hesitate to judge society people and accuse them of stupidity. He finds them stupid but superior, which is the very definition of snobbism." White asserts that the young Proust was attracted to aristocrats because he saw them as "living, breathing, walking, talking history, a modern incarnation of a medieval legend." The Duchesse de Guermantes, whom the narrator first sees in the church at Combray in the chapel of her ancestor Gilbert the Bad, becomes the narrative embodiment of this attitude. But as White observes, "he ended up as the most penetrating critic of snobbism who ever lived." His contemporaries in society were shocked by his portraits of them in the Search, and the Comtesse de Chévigné, "one of the models for the duchesse de Guermantes," burned his letters. But others were impressed by "his elaborate politeness."
He knew all the secrets of the aristocracy and spent thirty years learning their rituals, feuds, genealogies, and vanities, but he was also distanced from this world by the fact he was half-Jewish, untitled, gay, and an invalid. 
In 1892-93, Proust, Daniel Halévy, Robert Dreyfus and Fernand Gregh started a literary magazine called Le Banquet. When it folded, Proust began publishing fiction in La Revue Blanche. In 1893, he met the dandy Robert de Montesquiou, who became one of the models for Charlus, as he had already been the model for des Esseintes in Huysmans' Against the Grain, although Huysmans had never met him -- he heard about Montesquiou from Mallarmé. Montesquiou was a subject for Proust's mimickry, but he admired his "reverence for the arts and extraordinary social connections; the young man shared the first and coveted the second." But Montesquiou wasn't the only model for Charlus's "tantrums, his preposterous pride in his social position and lineage, his endless monologues." Proust also modeled the baron on the corpulent Jacques Doasan, "who ruined himself heaping presents on a Polish violinist," just as Charlus does with Charles Morel. And White suggest that Proust gave Charlus "his own tyrannical whims, his aestheticizing, and his peevishness."

In 1894, he met the composer Reynaldo Hahn, who was five years his junior, beginning an affair that would last for two years -- "like Proust, he was half-Jewish, gay, and artistic." They "traveled together and were put up in châteaus together by tolerant hostesses." One hostess who tolerated them was Madame Lemaire, whose "tyrannical ... attentions to her guests" influenced Proust in his creation of Madame Verdurin. Their relationship finally foundered on Proust's "obsessive neediness." The scene in which Swann goes searching through Paris for Odette "had its antecedent in Proust's life when he was unable to find Reynaldo and nerly went mad."

In 1895 they visited Sarah Bernhardt at Belle-Île on the coast of Brittany. While there, Proust began writing Jean Santeuil, a novel that he later abandoned. The character he based on himself is not the narrator but is observed in third person. In it, his parents are depicted as "vulgar bullies and obstructionists who stand in the way of their son's social and artistic ambitions," whereas in the Search, written after their deaths, they are "wise, refined, melancholy beings who want nothing but their ailing, neurasthenic son's health and happiness." There is scant mention of homosexuality in the early novel, "although already Proust is disguising his boyfriends as girls," and Jean obsesses over a suspected lesbian relationship over two girls modeled on Hahn and Daudet. Hahn is not represented in the Search: "Already in Jean Santeuil Proust was ridding himself of Hahn by writing about him, since for Proust to paint the verbal portrait of a friend was to give him the kiss-off." White suggests that breaking up with Hahn may have been one reason why Proust stopped working on the novel. But its was also "one of the few equal and reciprocated sexual and romantic relationships of Proust's life" and they remained friends -- Proust read Swann's Way to him while he was working on it, and the relationship of Swann and Odette in the novel, with its "alternating bouts of jealousy and reconciliation," is based on the dynamic of Proust's relationship with Hahn. Lucien Daudet, seven years younger than Proust, was his next "focus of amorous interest in 1896 and 1897." Daudet was the son of one of the most celebrated French writers of the day and had studied painting with Whistler. Their affair lasted eighteen months, and they, too, remained friends afterward.

Proust's first book, Pleasures and Days, was published in 1896, when he was twenty-seven. It was not enthusiastically received. Anatole France, the model for Bergotte in the Search, "complained that Proust wrote 'sentences long enough to make you consumptive,'" and Léon Blum called it "this book that is too coquettish and too pretty," partly because it was printed in an unusually luxurious and expensive edition, costing four times as much as other books its size. Proust did no significant writing in 1897 and 1899, but read constantly, particularly Balzac.

Proust was influenced by the story of how young, ambitious men from the provinces (epitomized by Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions) could social-climb their way through Paris with the help of mistresses -- and even a powerful male lover: Lucien, for instance, is aided by Vautrin, a master criminal who is clearly in love with him. 
Balzac also gave him "a taste for the theatrical," as in the scenes in Jupien's male brothel in Finding Time Again, the scene in Swann's Way in which Mlle. Vinteuil and her female lover desecrate the portrait of Mlle. Vinteuil's father, and the cruel treatment of Charlus by Mme. Verdurin in The Prisoner. Proust also read Shakespeare, Goethe, and George Eliot, and was especially affected by the character of Casaubon in Middlemarch, "who labored all his life on an insignificant and absurd work," as Proust put it.

In 1897, Proust fought a duel with the novelist Jean Lorrain, who had called Proust "one of those pretty little society boys who've managed to get themselves pregnant with literature" in a review of Pleasures and Days, and managed to suggest that Proust was gay in a newspaper article. (Lorrain was gay, too.) Neither man was injured. He would fight other duels in the years to follow, never harming anyone. (The narrator of the Search alludes to his own duels, but never gives an account of one.)
It was this hypervirile image  that Proust was eager to cultivate, as a way of offsetting his spreading reputation as a homosexual. To be labeled a homosexual in print (as opposed to living a homosexual life in private or discreetly among friends) was social anathema, even in Paris, until the recent past. 

Proust now turned his literary efforts to translating John Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. He was interested in Ruskin the aesthete, not Ruskin the social thinker and pacifist. White notes that Proust "was a fierce patriot, a proud ex-soldier, and anything but a pacifist." He worked from a literal, word-for-word translation done by his mother and Marie Nordlinger, Hahn's English cousin, and traveled to Amiens with Hahn and to Venice with his mother to see the architecture Ruskin described. "The style Proust worked out in French and retained for his later fiction, with its complex syntax and long sentences (so unusual in French literature) sounds very much like Ruskin." But it's the essay that served as the translation's preface, "On Reading," that constitutes Proust's "first mature piece of writing." It's about the effect of reading on the development of a child's imagination, a theme to which Proust returned in the "Combray" section of Swann's Way. 
What is important to point out is that Proust's first genuine writing came in the form of a personal essay written in opposition to the theories of a major thinker.... So much of the literary art of our times has struck sparks by opposing one genre to another -- novel and memoir, for instance, or fiction and essay.... In Proust's case, the fertile encounter took place between the essay and the novel. 

Proust now made friends among the aristocracy. Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, a member of one of France's most eminent families, is one of the models for Robert de Saint-Loup. Another friends was Antoine de Bibesco, a Romanian prince, who once tried to show Proust how to shake hands with a firmer grip, only to be told that people would think he was gay if he did.
Which is just an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become -- a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero -- whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake...
He was shocked when Bibesco told people what Proust had confided to him: an attraction to another aristocrat, Bertrand de Fénelon. "Proust seems not to have realized how his reputation as a homosexual had become general knowledge in his circle." It turned out that Fénelon was bisexual, but Proust didn't learn it until later years. Fénelon also contributed to the portrait of Saint-Loup: He once walked along the backs of the banquettes in a restaurant to fetch a coat for Proust, as Saint-Loup does for the narrator in The Guermantes Way. Proust also enlisted Bibesco to spy on Fénelon, as the narrator does "in his fits of jealousy over Albertine." With his friends, he traveled to various cathedrals around Paris, recording architectural details that would enter into descriptions in the Search. He went to Holland with Fénelon in 1902, where he saw Vermeer's View of Delft, which is the painting with the patch of yellow that Bergotte goes to see in The Prisoner before being felled by a stroke.

In February 1903, his brother Robert married, and in November of that year their father died, one day after the birth of Robert's daughter. Two years later, in September 1905, their mother died at age fifty-six. Marcel would mourn her death for the rest of his life, and said, "In dying, Maman took with her her little Marcel," which White interprets as a turning point from "the intellectual dandified Marcel" to "the determined, wise, ascetic Proust." He also observes that the narrator's mother in the Search has Proust's mother's "disappointment with her son's lack of self-discipline," while the narrator's grandmother is given "his real mother's tenderness, her unconditional love for him in spite of all his failings."

He was thirty-four when his mother died, and had published only a book of stories and a translation of Ruskin, but his ambition was "to write a book that would rival Balzac's panorama of Parisian society." He had both the knowledge of the world and the sensibility to accomplish the task, and he had been left a fortune by his parents: "the equivalent of about $6 million of our money today, including a monthly revenue of some $15,000." He would squander a lot of it on gifts, even ordering an airplane for Alfred Agostinelli -- though he canceled the order after Agostinelli's death -- which becomes the yacht the narrator offers to buy Albertine in The Prisoner. He would also make bad investments on a whim, but he spent little on himself: "He was a playboy-monk."

In December 1906 he moved to 102 boulevard Haussmann, where he insulated his bedroom from noise and dust, lining the walls with cork and covering the windows "with layers of heavy curtains that were never opened." Here he began his project, beginning it "as a sort of Platonic dialogue with his mother on the subject of Sainte-Beuve, the nineteenth-century literary critic," the centenary of whose birth had been widely celebrated in December 1904. Proust dissented radically from Sainte-Beuve's belief that the reader should study a writer's biography in order to fully understand his work. Proust believed that this led Sainte-Beuve to radically undervalue such writers as Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Nerval. "A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices," Proust asserted. But the dialogue about Sainte-Beuve was not the only thing he was planning to write:

In a letter of this period he said he was planning: a study of the nobility; a Parisian novel; an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert; an essay on women; and an essay on pederasty. Other topics mentioned were gravestones, stained-glass church windows -- and an essay on the novel. What is crucial to underline is that at its very inception Proust thought of his book as several books, mostly essays. 

By June 1908 he was working on the fictional conversation with his mother on Sainte-Beuve, writing constantly, but also worrying about publishing what he was writing, which he called "obscene." The work, which had a "provisional title," Against Sainte-Beuve, Memories of a Morning, was a novel, and one of the characters was gay. It would end, he wrote to Georges de Lauris, "with a long conversation on Sainte-Beuve and aesthetics." White observes that In Search of Lost Time ends with a meditation and not a conversation on aesthetics. And that Sainte-Beuve's autobiographical theory has been countered in the novel by Vinteuil, who "is a mighty creator as a composer and a totally self-effacing wimp as a man -- the perfect counterargument to Sainte-Beuve's theory of the harmonious congruity between an individual's life and work." And that from the very beginning Proust had planned to write about homosexuality in his novel.

He was afraid he wouldn't live to complete the work: "He was so ill that he was spending about twenty thousand dollars a year for medicines." But he hadn't completely withdrawn from the world. At Cabourg, "he studied the actress Lucy Gérard and the two daughters of Viscount d'Alton" as models for the "gang of girls" in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. But he also studied "with feverish fascination" a group of boys he met on the beach, including 19-year-old Marcel Plantevignes, who visited Proust in his room until a woman warned Plantevignes about Proust's homosexuality. Proust flew into a rage when the woman told him that Plantevignes had agreed with her about the accusation, "and even challenged Plantevignes's father to a duel." Proust's own seconds thought the challenge absurd and like "a duel from an operetta by Offenbach." The duel was called off and the friendship resumed when Plantevignes and his parents assured Proust that they didn't believe he was gay. Plantevignes also claimed that he suggested the title, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur.

In mid-August 1909 Proust talked to an editor about the novel he said he had nearly finished: a novel of about 300 pages, followed by an essay, a conversation about Sainte-Beuve, of 150 pages. The editor turned it down and another decided not to publish it as a newspaper serial. Proust decided to continue work and did so for the next three years. He conceived of the novel as a story about the narrator's childhood in Combray followed by the adolescent experiences of the narrator and Gilberte Swann in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées -- the "Swann in Love" section, which is four-fifths of Swann's Way, was not part of the original conception. The section is integral to the complete Search because Swann's unrequited love for Odette is echoed later in the narrator's relationship with Albertine, and Swann's failure to become a writer is reflected in the experience of the narrator, who finally overcomes what is blocking his writing.
And it suggests that one reason for Swann's failure is his addiction to friendship and frivolity and especially to "idolatry," by which Proust meant the collector's love of fine furnishings, beautiful mistresses, and great paintings: the perishable Things of this world rather than the immortal ideas that lie behind them, which can be recaptured only through involuntary memory -- and which only then can be codified in great works of literary art. 
Proust had learned how to shape a novel, how to introduce a theme, drop it, and return to it later, and how to work with a narrator whose impressions of other characters changes as the story progresses: The narrator of the Search first hears of Charlus as a womanizer and assumes that he is Odette's lover, but gradually learns otherwise. The creation of the character of Charlus, White observes, "falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James." Like Dickens's characters, Charlus is made up of "memorable traits" and presented in "Dickensian bold relief." But "by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at."
Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth but (especially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another. Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving us successive "takes" over hundreds of pages.
Proust rewrote and expanded the first volume of the Search from 1909 through 1911. He dictated to his stenographers, had the manuscript set in type, then filled the margins with changes and additions, even pasting in new pages. "In fact, if any writer would have benefited from a word processor it would have been Proust." He paid for the typesetting, which was expensive, himself. In 1910 he worked on what would become Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way, then divided the manuscript in two volume, one called Time Lost and the other Time Regained. He rarely went out, although he was present at the famously controversial opening night of the Stravinsky/Diaghilev/Nijinsky Rite of Spring. In 1911, he subscribed to Théâtrophone, which broadcast concerts over the telephone. He heard Act III of Die Meistersinger and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande this way. He preferred Wagner, and some critics have compared the Search to Parsifal: Parsifal's quest for the Grail being parallel to the narrator's search for "the secret of literature" and the "young girls in flower" to the Flower Maidens. And the name Guermantes echoes that of Gurnemanz, the leader of the Grail Knights.

By 1912, Proust's manuscript had reached 1,200 pages and he began to look for a publisher. He was working with a typist named Albert Nahmias, on whom he had a crush, and who eventually lent his name to Albertine. The novel was sent in October to the publisher Fasquelle, which had published Flaubert, Zola, and the Goncourt brothers. They returned it in December with a reader's note expressing complete bewilderment. He then sent it to Gallimard, which was a new publishing house started by André Gide, Jacques Copeau and Jean Schlumberger. But the readers, led by Gide, seem not to have read the manuscript, dismissing Proust as "a socialite and a snob." In any case, "the book was much too long for a fledgling house." Gide would later express regret at the missed opportunity. Then it went to Ollendorff, where a reader protested about Proust's using "thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep."

Finally, Proust resorted to self-publication through Bernard Grasset:
Grasset, whom Proust compared to an ebony paper-cutter, so hard and sharp and efficient was he, virtually invented modern publishing in France; he was the first to resort to massive press offensives, advertising, bribing well-known personalities to launch a good word-of-mouth campaign, and so on. 
 Proust met Alfred Agostinelli in 1907; he chauffeured Proust in Normandy, and again a year later drove him from Cabourg to Versailles. But Proust did not see him again until 1913, when Agostinelli was 25 and living with a woman named Anna. Proust hired him as a secretary, and both Agostinelli and Anna moved into Proust's apartment.

At that time homosexual relations, especially between the classes, were viewed benignly as a form of patronage -- or weren't focused upon at all, except when a scandal erupted; and such scandals were never characteristic of France ... in large part because the laws dating back to 1791 (and ratified by the penal code of 1810) had already decriminalized sodomy.
"Patronage" relationships were typically between an older rich man and a younger poor man, and were then "considered to be charitable and generous." Proust was indeed generous, sending money to members of Agostinelli's family. He "was certainly in love," and his fits of jealousy are reflected not only in his portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and Albertine, but also in that of Swann and Odette, passages of which he reworked in August 1913.

Agostinelli and Anna moved out of Proust's apartment on December 1, 1913, while Proust was sleeping. They had lived with him from the beginning of the year. Proust was "devastated" and tried to lure Agostinelli back by promising to buy him an airplane -- Agostinelli's interest in flying is reflected in the narrator's accompanying Albertine to the airfields around Paris. The departure of Agostinelli cast a shadow over the publication of Swann's Way in November 1913. The reviews were good, but Proust took no pleasure in them.

On May 30, 1914, Agostinelli died while making his second solo flight over the Mediterranean: He clung or a while to the wreckage of the plane, but drowned because he couldn't swim. Proust took Anna in and helped her until she could go out on her own again. He was unable to work even on the page proofs of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which he began receiving in June. But the publication of that book had to be postponed because of the outbreak of World War I in August, giving him time to rework it, to separate it from The Guermantes Way, and to give Albertine a greater role in it. He also conceived of The Prisoner and The Fugitive at this time. He also gave the theme of lesbianism a greater prominence in the work as a whole. "In the eight years following Agostinelli's death Proust's book doubled in volume." As the nature of the book Proust was working on became better known, André Gide wrote him to apologize for rejecting Swann's Way.  Proust also recovered from Agostinelli's death by having an affair with Ernst Forssgren, "a six-foot-four blond Swedish Adonis," his valet-secretary, which ended when Forssgren emigrated to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Swedish army.

Proust worked through the war, researching details by writing thousands of letters to people asking for facts, details and anecdotes. He lost many friends in the war, including Bertrand de Fénelon, killed in combat, and Emmanuel Bibesco, who killed himself because he had a terminal illness. His faithful companion and only servant during the war was Céleste Albaret, who wrote a memoir of her life with Proust. "Only his mother and Céleste ever gave him the unconditional love that he expected." Céleste steadfastly denied to biographers that he was gay, but admitted that he had visited a male brothel -- for "research," she claimed. He "even gave some of his parents' furniture to be used in this hotbed of homosexual prostitution" -- a detail reflected in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, in which the narrator gives some of the furniture he has inherited from his Aunt Léonie to a brothel. According to one not entirely reliable witness Proust was turned on sexually by watching live rats stabbed to death with hatpins. Several others report that he would spit on his mother's picture while having sex -- a reënactment of the scene with Vinteuil's daughter and her lesbian lover in Swann's Way, and perhaps also reflected in The Guermantes Way when Charlus has an excited fantasy about wanting to see Bloch beat his mother.

In 1917 and 1918 Proust started going out more often, especially to the Ritz, whose headwaiter, Olivier Dabescat, gave him many anecdotes about the well-to-do for the novel. But his health, exacerbated by uppers like adrenaline and caffeine and downers like opium, was deteriorating. He was also forced to move, and stayed for a while in the home of the actress Réjane, one of the models for La Berma, before settling at 44 rue Hamelin.

In June 1919, Gallimard reissued Swann's Way, and published In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and a collection of short pieces and pastiches. At the end of the year he won the Goncourt Prize for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by a vote of six to four, after campaigning for the award with presents and dinners for the judges. The award was controversial, regarded by some as "the coronation of an invalid who lived in the past." His book was "dismissed ... as disorganized childhood and adolescent memories -- formless, plotless, endless." The criticism was frustrating for Proust, who knew the shape of the novel as a whole, and especially the role of memory in it: "the theme of involuntary memory" is introduced in the episode with the madeleine near the beginning of Swann's Way, but is not fully developed until the final book, Finding Time Again. The complete work was not published until 1927, five years after Proust's death.
Proust was anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning or method alone; it must be delivered to us, fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of the intellect or willpower. Paradoxically, if Proust was anti-intellectual he was also profoundly philosophical, in that what he sought was not the accidents but the essence of a past event. Involuntary memory, be definition anti-intellectual, nevertheless refines away all the unnecessary details of a forgotten moment and retains only its unadorned core. 

In the summer of 1918, he fell in love with a waiter at the Ritz, Henri Rochat, "a handsome Swiss who wanted to be a painter." Although his fortune had been shrunk by 25 percent through spending and poor investing, he again showered his lover with gifts. Rochat moved into Proust's apartment where he spent his days painting.
What researchers have figured out in recent years is that Proust wrote first The Fugitive, soon after Agostinelli's departure and death, while the material was still vivid in his mind and a weight on his heart, whereas he elaborated [The Prisoner] later, even though the book actually precedes The Fugitive in the published sequence. Why? Simply because the main inspiration for the Albertine of [The Prisoner] is Henri Rochat, not Alfred Agostinelli. It was Rochat who lived in his own room, solitary and self-sufficient, in Proust's gloomy apartment, whereas Agostinelli had lived with his wife and only briefly under Proust's roof. Accordingly, [The Prisoner], which had been sketched out as early as 1916, doubled in size during the two years Rochat lived with Proust. 
Eventually, Proust tired of Rochat's mooching and managed to get rid of him.

In January 1920, Proust published his essay on Flaubert in La Nouvelle Revue Française, in which he differentiates his style from Flaubert's by writing about the author's lack of use of metaphor, whereas Proust's style is richly metaphorical. In the spring of 1921, he began to suffer increasingly from dizzy spells, and one of his last outings was to see Vermeer's The View of Delft on loan to the Jeu de Paume. He would refer to this visit in his account of Bergotte's similar outing and death, and "on the night before he died Proust dictated a last sentence, 'There is a Chinese patience in Vermeer's craft.'" (Vermeer is also the subject of Swann's never-completed study.)

In May 1921, Sodom and Gomarrah was published, "and Proust was almost disappointed by the lack of scandal." One who took offense at Proust's "ugly picture ... of homosexuals" was André Gide. In a conversation with Gide, Proust explained "that he had transposed to the female characters all his homosexual memories that were tender and charming and so had been left with nothing but grotesque details for his homosexual characters." But elsewhere Proust argued that gay people had been so persecuted by Christians "that the only gays who'd survived had been invalids impossible to cure."

In September 1922, his health began to fail more rapidly. He developed pneumonia which turned into bronchitis and a lung abscess. He died in the evening of November 18, 1922.

"Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking ... the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect," White comments. He is not, however, a realist: "Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales."
Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless those fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise -- the artificial paradise of art.... Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times. 

Day One Hundred Eighty-Two: Finding Time Again, pp. 322-358

From "At this moment an unexpected incident occurred. ..." through "... between which so many days have taken up their place -- in Time."
La Berma's daughter and son-in-law have left her, "spitting a little blood," and come to the party to see Rachel. A footman brings their note to Rachel who "smiled at the transparency of their pretext and at her own triumph," and sends word that her performance is over. "The footmen in the ante-room, where the couple's wait continued, were already beginning to snigger at the two rejected supplicants." Meanwhile, Rachel makes fun of them before allowing them to enter, "ruining at a stroke La Berma's position in society, as they had destroyed her health." She also plans to taunt La Berma backstage about their crashing the party. "Yet she might have shrunk from delivering it if she had known that it would be fatal."

We learn now that the Duchesse is unhappy because the Duc, having mostly stopped being unfaithful to her, has fallen in love with Odette. He has "sequestrated his mistress to the point that, if my love for Albertine had repeated, with major variations, Swann's love of Odette, M. de Guermantes's love for her had recalled my love for Albertine." Odette has come full circle, becoming "once more, just as she had appeared to me in my childhood, the lady in pink" kept by his Uncle Adolphe.

As for the Duc, the narrator sees him as "little more than a ruin, but a superb one, or perhaps not even a ruin so much as that most romantic of beautiful objects, a rock in a storm." And he watches as the Duc, "tried painfully to pass through the door and descend the staircase on his way out," an image that will haunt the narrator until the closing pages of the novel.

Odette has turned talkative in her old age, and under the impression that the narrator "was a well-known author," tells him stories about her affairs, including one with M. de Bréauté. As for Swann, she says, "Poor Charles, he was so intelligent, so fascinating, exactly the kind of man I liked best." And the narrator thinks, "perhaps this was true." The narrator listens to her stories, which she tells him "simply to give me what she thought were subjects for novels."
She was wrong, not because she had not provided the reserves of my imagination with an abundance of material, but because this had been done in a much more involuntary fashion and by an act that I initiated myself as I drew out from her, without her knowledge, the laws of her life.
The Duchesse, too, is forthcoming, in her own way, with the narrator, and they leave the main drawing-room to visit the smaller rooms where people are getting away from the crowd and listening to music. In one room they see a beautiful woman whom the Duchesse identifies as Mme. de Saint-Euverte, the wife of one of the grand-nephews of the Mme. de Saint-Euverte at whose soirée Swann and the Duchesse, then the Princesse des Laumes, had chatted long ago. The Duchesse denies having been at that party. The present Mme. de Saint-Euverte, stretched out in a cradle-like chaise longue, becomes for the narrator a symbol of "both the distance and the continuity of Time. It was Time that she was rocking in that hollow cradle, where the name of Saint-Euverte and Empire style were bursting into flower in red fuchsia silk."

The Duchesse now takes it on herself to denounce Gilberte as "the most artificial, the most bourgeois thing I've ever seen," and to chide the narrator for coming "to great soulless affairs like this. Unless of course you're gathering material...." He points out how hard it must be for Gilberte "to have to listen, as she just has, to her husband's former mistress." But the Duchesse doubts that it affects Gilberte at all, and claims that "there were an awful lot of stories" about how Gilberte was unfaithful to Saint-Loup, including with an officer whom he wanted to challenge to a duel. She calls Gilberte "a slut," which the narrator sees as "the product of the hatred she felt for Gilberte, by a need to hit her, if not physically then in effigy."

Gilberte introduces him to her daughter, and says that Saint-Loup "was very proud of her. Though of course given his tastes, Gilberte went on naïvely, I think he would have preferred a boy." Mlle. de Saint-Loup, he tells us, "later chose to marry an obscure literary figure, for she was devoid of snobbery, and brought her family down to a level below that from which it had started." And she becomes the nexus of the story he is telling us:
They were numerous enough, in my case, the roads leading to Mlle de Saint-Loup and radiating out again from her. Above all it was the two great "ways" which had led to her, along which I had had so many walks and so many dreams -- through her father, Robert de Saint-Loup, the Guermantes way, through her mother, Gilberte, the Méséglise way which was the "way by Swann's". One, through the little girl's mother and the Champs-Élysées, led me to Swann, to my evenings at Combray, to the Méséglise way; the other, through her father, to my afternoons at Balbec, where I could visualize him close in the sunlit sea.
But there are other tangling ways: He had first seen Odette as the lady in pink at the house of his great-uncle, whose manservant was the father of Charles Morel, whom both Charlus and Saint-Loup had been in love with. And so on, as the threads draw in Albertine and the Verdurins and Vinteuil's music and Legrandin and the other characters of the novel, so that "between the least significant point in our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us in fact a choice about which connection to make."

Thus, "in a book whose intention was to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use, in contrast to the psychology people normally use, a sort of psychology in space." And "memory, by bringing the past into the present without making any changes to is, just as it was at the moment when it was the present, suppresses precisely this great dimension of Time through which a life is given reality." And here he begins the task of writing the book, of restoring the past "from our ceaseless falsification of it," which necessitates
putting up with the work like tiredness, accepting it like a rule, constructing it like a church, following it like a regime, overcoming it like an obstacle, winning it like a friendship, feeding it up like a child, creating it like a world, without ever neglecting its mysteries.
He assumes the task at his "big deal table, watched by Françoise," who "through being so close to my life, ... had developed a kind of instinctive understanding of literary work, more accurate than that of many intelligent people, let alone fools." He constructs his book "not as if it were a cathedral, but simply as if it were a dress I was making," assembling his notes and sketches, "pinning a supplementary page in place here and there," a process with which Françoise can sympathize, "as she always used to be saying how she could not sew if she did not have the right number thread and the proper buttons."

Anxieties arise, however: "feeling myself the bearer of a work of literature made the idea of an accident in which I might meet my death seem much more dreadful." And he understands "that since my childhood I had already died a number of times." He also experiences the incomprehension of others, when he shows them his first sketches for the work: "In the places where I was trying to find general laws, I was accused of sifting through endless detail." (The reader, or at least this one, certainly knows what he means here.) He returns to his beloved Arabian Nights for a parallel to his experience: "I would be living with the anxiety of not knowing whether the Master of my destiny, less indulgent than the Sultan Shahriyar, when I broke off my story each evening, would stay my death sentence, and permit me to take up the continuation again the following evening." And he accepts the possibility that the book itself  will "eventually die, one day.... Eternal duration is no more promised to books than it is to men."

Yet he remains convinced that he has something to say about his great theme:
the fact that we occupy an ever larger place in Time is something that everybody feels, and this universality could only delight me, since this was the truth, the truth suspected by everybody, that it was my task to elucidate.... It was this notion of embodied time, of past years not being separated from us, that it was now my intention to make such a prominent feature in my work.
And then he recalls the Duc de Guermantes, weighed down by years, perched "on the scarcely manageable summit of his eighty-three years, as if all men are perched on top of living stilts which never stop growing, sometimes becoming taller than church steeples, until eventually they make walking difficult and dangerous, and down from which, all of a sudden, they fall." So his first concern is with the people in his novel, describing them, "even at the risk of making them seem colossal and unnatural creatures, as occupying a place far larger than the very limited one reserved for them in space."

That is (to single out the last words of the novel), "in Time."


Day One Hundred Eighty-One: Finding Time Again, pp. 292-322

From "Throughout this conversation Gilberte had talked to me ..." through "... when I'm really just a bundle of nerves.' "
Gilberte and Andrée have become friends, which intrigues the narrator because Rachel, who is performing at the party, had been the mistress of both of their husbands, except that Andrée's husband (Octave) had left Rachel for her. And he speculates that Gilberte feels that Rachel had "been more deeply loved by Robert than she had ever been." Gilberte also reveals her scorn for the hostess, who is now her aunt, "for having been Mme de Saint-Loup since slightly earlier than Mme Verdurin entered the family, she considered herself always to have been a Guermantes and to have been dishonored by the misalliance her uncle had contracted by marrying Mme Verdurin." Gilberte is also rather dismissive of the Duchesse de Guermantes: "I saw you talking to my aunt Oriane, who has plenty of good qualities, but I don't think it would be unfair, do you, to say that she's hardly one of the intellectual elite."

The narrator is thinking of the party as a kind of farewell to the social life: "I intended to resume living in solitude from the next day onward." He recognizes that he is about to turn the lives of the people he has met into fiction, to "take these gestures they made, these things they said, their lives, their natures, and attempt to describe the curve they made and to isolate and define their laws." Which is, in a phrase, pretty much what In Search of Lost Time attempts to do. But he still has a longing for some kind of new life: "a few light love affairs with young girls in flower would be a select nutrient which, if I had to, I might allow my imagination, like the famous horse that was fed on nothing but roses." At the same time, he is prey to nostalgia, to a longing to find that his grandmother or Albertine would somehow turn up to be alive.
I forgot only one thing, which was that if they really were still living, Albertine would now have something like the appearance that Mme Cottard had presented at Balbec, and that my grandmother, being over ninety-five years old, would show me nothing of that beautiful, calm, smiling face with which I still imagined her now.

He notices the Duchesse de Guermantes "deep in conversation with a frightful old woman." Later, he will learn that the woman is Rachel, now a famous actress, one of several that the Duchesse now associates with, having given up the Faubourg Saint-Germain, "which, she said, bored her to death." He tells her of his encounter with Charlus, and when Morel enters, "the Duchesse greeted him with a politeness which I found a little disconcerting." But remembering the marriage into the Cambremer family of the "daughter" (earlier: niece) of Jupien, "the tradesman from our building, and that the additional factor which had enabled her to become a glittering success was that her father procured men for M. de Charlus," he reflects that "a name is always taken at its current valuation." The valuation of the Duchesse, for example, is now low: "The new generations concluded from [her friendship with actresses] that Mme de Guermantes, despite her name, must be some demi-rep who had never really been properly upper-crust." He also wonders if her friendship with Rachel reflects "the antipathy which the unpredictable Duchesse had recently developed towards Gilberte."

The mutability of relationships is further demonstrated by the fact that it was in the Duchesse's home that Rachel "had, long ago, received her most terrible humiliation. Rachel had gradually, not forgotten, but forgiven, but the singular prestige which the Duchesse had, in her eyes, thereby received could never be effaced."

"Meanwhile, at the other end of Paris," as the narrator puts it, the other party to which he was invited, the tea given by La Berma for her daughter and son-in-law is a disaster. Everyone has gone to the Princesse's. La Berma (previously reported as dead) is fatally ill, but "to pay for the luxury her daughter needed and which her son-in-law, idle and with poor health, was unable to provide, she had returned to acting." While on stage, she is vividly alive, but in fact is in great pain. She also resents the fact that Rachel has become a success, for she "still regarded Rachel as a tart who had been allowed to appear in dramas in which she, La Berma, was playing the leading role, because Saint-Loup paid for the dresses she wore on stage." To make matters worse, "the son-in-law was furious that Rachel, whom he and his wife knew very well, had not invited them" to her performance at the Princesse's. A solitary guest shows up at La Berma's tea party.
But soon the blast of air which was sweeping everything towards the Guermantes, and which had swept me there myself, was too strong, and he rose and left, leaving Phèdre, or death, it was not very clear any longer which of the two it was, with her daughter and her son-in-law, to finish eating the funeral cakes.
As it turns out, Rachel's performance is unconventional, and "Everybody looked at one another, not quite knowing what expression to assume" and "a few ill-mannered young people stifled giggles." But the Princesse "was acting as a claque. She was whipping up enthusiasm and creating favorable impressions by constantly giving voice to exclamations of delight. Here alone her Verdurin nature could still be seen."

Now we learn that the narrator is as yet unaware of the identity of the actress, who, "without any gratification of my vanity, for she was old and ugly, ... was giving me the eye, though in a somewhat restrained manner." It turns out that she was trying to get him to recognize her, which he doesn't, until Bloch whispers to him, "Isn't it funny to see Rachel here!" The revelation "instantly shattered the enchantment which had given Saint-Loup's mistress the unknown form of this disgusting old woman." He is made "aware that the passing of time does not necessarily bring about progress in the arts" because "La Berma was, as they say, head and shoulders above Rachel, and time, by making Rachel a star at the same time as Elstir, had overrated a mediocrity and consecrated a genius."

He also becomes aware of what time has done to Mme. de Guermantes, whose wit has grown sour, just as Bergotte "kept his characteristic sentence rhythms, his interjections, his ellipses, his epithets, though all in order to say nothing." And he realizes that the Duchesse, once so exalted, so dazzlingly inaccessible, now treats him as one of her oldest friends, that she has
forgotten certain details which had seemed to me then to be essential, namely that I did not go to Guermantes, and was only a middle-class boy from Combray at the time when she came to Mlle Percepied's nuptial mass, and that for the whole year after her appearance at the Opéra-Comique, despite all Saint-Loup's entreaties she never invited me to her house. To me this seemed terribly important, because it was precisely at this point that the life of the Duchesse de Guermantes appeared to me to be a paradise I would never enter. But to her it just seemed to be a part of the same ordinary life as always.
He reminds her of the time when he first went to the Princesse de Guermantes, uncertain whether he had really been invited, and of the red dress and red shoes she wore, and she grows melancholy about the passage of time. And though she has not forgotten that Rachel once gave that disastrous performance at her house, she remembers it quite differently: "it was I who discovered her, saw how good she was, sang her praises and made people take notice of her at a time when she had no reputation and everybody thought she was ridiculous."

Day One Hundred Eighty: Finding Time Again, pp. 271-292

From "The friend of Bloch and of the Duchesse de Guermantes ..." through " the time of the Caliphs, by Sinbad the Sailor. "
The young woman's misinformation about society reveals to the narrator more about the mutability of reputations: "the young woman was intelligent, but this difference between our two vocabularies made it both uneasy and instructive." The passage of time "prevents a newly disembarked American woman from seeing that M. de Charlus had held the highest social position in Paris at a time when Bloch had had none, and that Swann, who put himself to such trouble for M. Bontemps, had been treated with the greatest friendship by the Prince of Wales. ... [T]his ignorance ... is also an effect (but this time operating upon the individual rather than the social stratum) of Time."
I had heard, during the last years of Swann's life, even society people, when his name was mentioned say, as if it were his claim to notoriety, "You're speaking of the Swann of Colombin's?" [Swann had an affair with a woman who served tea there.] And I now heard even people who ought to have known better saying, when they were speaking of Bloch: "The Guermantes Bloch? The close friend of the Guermantes?"
After a rather brutal assessment of Bloch as having "the almost frightening, deeply anxious face of an old Shylock," the narrator foresees Bloch "in ten years, in drawing-rooms like this whose inertia will have made him a leading light."

But the narrator also has an insight into how he must have appeared in his early days: "The first times I dined with Mme de Guermantes how I must have shocked men like M. de Beauserfeuil, not so much by my mere presence, as by the remarks I made, indicating that I was entirely ignorant of the memories which constituted his past and which shaped the image he had of society!" And he realizes of his still-living acquaintances, such as Charlus and Gilberte, that he "had even ceased to think of them as the same people I had once known, and that it needed a chance flash of attention to reconnect them, etymologically as it were, to the original meaning they had had for me." This disjunction between the avatars of the same person was why "at least twenty years since she had met Bloch for the first time, Mme de Guermantes would have been prepared to swear that he had been born into her world and been dandled on the knee of the Duchesse de Chartres when he was two years old."

His life begins to seem to be made up of many threads.
And today all those different threads had come together to create the web, here of the Saint-Loup household, there of the young Cambremer couple, not to mention Morel, and so many others whose conjunction had combined to create a set of circumstances that it seemed to me that the circumstances were the complete unity, and the characters merely component parts.... A simple social relationship, even a material object, if I discovered it in my memory after a few years, I saw that life had gone on weaving different threads around it which eventually became dense enough to form that inimitable, lovely, velvety loom on the years, like the accretion which in old parks shrouds a simple water-pipe in a sheath of emerald.
And he becomes aware once again of the essential unknowability of other people, that "between us and other beings there is a margin of contingencies, just as I had understood in my readings at Combray that there is a margin in perception which prevents absolute contact taking place between reality and the mind.... Even with the Duchesse de Guermantes, as with certain pages of Bergotte, her charm was visible to me only at a distance and vanished when I was close to her, for it all lay in my memory and my imagination."  

A conversation about whether or not the Marquise d'Arpajon is dead makes him realize that "with ordinary, very old, society people, we got confused about whether they were dead or not, not only because one knew little about, or had forgotten, their past, but because they had no connection of any sort with the future." One old woman, he observes, takes the news of the Marquise's death not as a blow, but "on the contrary, felt as if she had won a victory in a competition against distinguished competitors every time that a person her age 'disappeared.' Their deaths were the sole means by which she could still become pleasantly aware of her own life."

And then a "stout lady" greets him and it is a moment before he recognizes her as Gilberte. It's the moment that was alluded to earlier, when Gilberte says "You thought I was Mama, it's true I am beginning to look very like her." They talk about Robert and about the war, which has begun to take some of the aspect for the narrator of the Arabian Nights.

Day One Hundred Seventy-Nine: Finding Time Again, pp. 249-271

From "And as with snow, too, ..." through "... It's just like a novel.'"
The narrator's heightened consciousness of the effect of time also causes him to turn his attention to the younger people at the party: "now it was not only what had become of the young people of the past, but what would become of the young people of today, that was giving me such a strong sensation of time." A few guests, however, seem to have withstood the ravaging effects of time and "at the age of fifty they began a new kind of beauty." But women "who were too beautiful or too ugly" couldn't benefit from this kind of transformation: The former "crumble away like a statue," and the latter "did not really look as if they had aged," but haven't improved either. In a few, the process has either "accelerated or slowed down." One former beauty has been ravaged by her addiction to "cocaine and other drugs." But one man, who "must have been over fifty, and looked younger than he had when he was thirty ... had found an intelligent doctor and cut out alcohol and salt."

And then there's Odette: "'You think I'm my mother,' Gilberte had said to me. It was true." Expecting to see a great change in Odette, he doesn't recognize her at first. Having calculated how old she must be, "it seemed to me [she] could not possibly be the one I was looking at, precisely because she was so like her old self." And because Odette "had not changed, she hardly seemed to be alive. She was like a sterilized rose.... The voice had stayed the same, needlessly warm, captivating.... And yet, just as her eyes seemed to be looking at me from a distant shore, her voice was sad, almost pleading, like that of the dead in the Odyssey. Odette was still capable of acting." Three years later, he will see her again at Gilberte's and find that her mind is going, though when a guest says, "She's a bit gaga, you know," Odette will visibly take offense. "[S]he who had betrayed Swann and everybody else was not being betrayed by the entire universe; and she had become so weak that she no longer even dared, now the roles were reversed, to defend herself against men. And soon she would not defend herself against death."

And thus the Princesse de Guermantes's drawing-room was illuminated, forgetful, and flowery, like a peaceful cemetery. There, time had not only brought about the ruin of the creatures of a former epoch, it had made possible, had indeed created, new associations. 
Bloch has "permanently adopted his pseudonym of Jacques du Rozier as his own name" and has become a famous and successful writer. He has shaved his moustache and wears a monocle, and "his Jewish nose had disappeared, in the way that a hunchback, if she presents herself well, can seem to stand almost straight." He comments to the narrator that the Princesse de Guermantes is hardly the "marvellous beauty" that he had once raved about, and the narrator has to explain that this isn't the same person: "The Princesse de Guermantes had died and it was the former Mme Verdurin whom the Prince, ruined by the defeat of Germany, had married." Bloch protests that he must be wrong, because he had looked up the Prince in the Almanac de Gotha, and found that he was "married to somebody terribly grand, ... Sidonie, Duchesse de Duras, née des Baux." But the narrator explains that this is still the former Mme. Verdurin, who, "shortly after the death of her husband, had married the penniless old Duc de Duras, who had made her a cousin of the Prince de Guermantes, and had died after two years of marriage." So Mme. Verdurin, who scorned the aristocracy, is now in the thick of it.

So "the outward changes in the faces that I had known were no more than the symbols of an interior change which had been going on from day to day." Case in point: Charles Morel, whose arrival is greeted with "a stir of deferential curiosity" because he's now "a man of some distinction" and commended for "his high moral standards." "I was perhaps the only person there who knew that he had been kept simultaneously both by Saint-Loup and by a friend of Saint-Loup's."

Society itself has loosened up: "The Faubourg Saint-Germain, like a senile dowager, made no response beyond a timid smile to the insolent servants who invaded her drawing-rooms, drank her orangeade and introduced her to their mistresses." The younger members of society assume "that Mme Swann and the Princesse de Guermantes and Bloch had always been in the most elevated social position."
Someone having asked a young man from one of the best families if there was not some story about Gilberte's mother, the young nobleman replied that it was true that in the first part of her life she had been married to an adventurer named Swann, but that she had subsequently married one of the most prominent men in society, the Comte de Forcheville.
Bloch, who had once "cut such a sorry figure" in his former attempts to get into society, "had not left off publishing those books of his, the absurd sophistry of which I was today doing my best to demolish so as not to be bogged down by it, works without originality but which provided young people, and a large number of fashionable women, with the impression of an unusually rarefied intellect, a sort of genius." But his final arrival in society has been eased by "the few names he had retained from his acquaintance with Saint-Loup enabled him to give his current prestige the illusion of infinite regress." Bloch introduces the narrator to a young woman who is also a friend of the Duchesse de Guermantes, "and who was one of the smartest women of the day." But even she is completely confused by the lineages of the various friends of the narrator, having been led to believe that the Forchevilles are socially superior to the Guermantes.  

Day One Hundred Seventy-Eight: Finding Time Again, pp. 226-249

From "At that moment the butler came to tell me ..." through "... now broadly spread beneath the snow."
The narrator's reverie in the library comes to an end when the music in the drawing-rooms is over and he can join the guests there, but he is sure he can continue in the same meditative frame of mind. He's misaken because "a dramatic turn of events occurred which seemed to raise the gravest of objection to my undertaking."

He enters the drawing-room to discover what appears to him to be a masked ball taking place: "everybody seemed to have put on make-up, in most cases with powdered hair which changed them completely." In other words, time has changed them. The transformation is more than physical: M. d'Argencourt, who has long treated the narrator coldly, has become "another person altogether, as kindly, helpless and inoffensive as the usual Argencourt was contemptuous, hostile and dangerous."
the new, almost unrecognizable d'Argencourt stood there as the revelation of Time, which he rendered partially visible. In the new elements which made up the face and character of M. d'Argencourt one could read a certain tally of years, one could recognize the symbolic form of life not as it appears to us, that is as permanent, but in its reality, in such a shifting atmosphere that by evening the proud nobleman is depicted there in caricature.
The experience, the juxtaposition of the people he remembers with what time has made of them, "was like what we used to call an optical viewer, but giving an optical view of years, a view of not one moment, but of one person set in the distorting perspective of Time."

And then the table is turned on him: the Duchesse de Guermantes addresses him as "my oldest friend." A young man calls him "an old Parisian." Another young man, whom he had met when he arrived, leaves a note for him signed, "'your young friend, Létourville.' 'Young friend!' That was how I used to write to people who were thirty years older than myself, like Legrandin." Bloch arrives, and in his mannerisms "I would have recognized the learned weariness of an amiable old man if I had not at the same time recognized my friend standing before me ... and was astonished to notice on his face some of the signs generally thought to be more characteristic of men who are old. Then I understood that this was because he really was old, and that it is out of adolescents who last a sufficient number of years that life makes old men."

Most disturbing to him is the realization that he had "discovered this destructive action of Time at the very moment when I wanted to begin to clarify, to intellectualize within a work of art, realities whose nature was extra-temporal." He persists, however, in thinking of himself as young, and when Gilberte de Saint-Loup suggests that they go to dinner together, he agrees, "So long as you don't think it compromising to dine alone with a young man," which causes the people around him to laugh and him to correct himself, "or rather, with an old man." Still, he thinks to himself, "I had not a single grey hair, my moustache was black. I would like to have been able to ask them what it was that revealed the evidence of this terrible thing."
And now it dawned upon me what old age was -- old age, which of all realities is perhaps the one we continue longest to think of in purely abstract terms, looking at calendars, dating our letters, seeing our friends marry, and then our friends' children, without understanding, whether out of fear or laziness, what it all means, until the day when we see a silhouette we do not recognize, like that of M. d'Argencourt, which makes us realize that we are living in a new world. 
And he continues to survey the crowd of once-familiar faces -- Legrandin, Ski, etc. -- to note how "Time, the artist, had 'rendered' all these models in such a way that they were still recognizable but they were not likenesses, not because he had flattered them, but because he had aged them." He observes the influence of heredity:
I had seen the vices and the courage of the Guermantes recur in Saint-Loup, as also his own strange and short-lived character defects, and in Swann's case his Semitism. I could see it again in Bloch. He had lost his father some years ago and, when I had written to him then, had not at first been able to reply to me, because in addition to the powerful family feeling that often exists in Jewish families, the idea that his father was a man utterly superior to all others had turned his love for him into worship.
And he stumbles on the difficulty of reconciling his long-held image of people with the present reality, "to think of the two people under a single heading," to realize "that they are made of the same material, that the original stuff did not take refuge elsewhere, but through the cunning manipulation of time has become this, that it really is the same material, never having left the one body."