_____As the narrator waits for Elstir to finish the painting he's working on, worrying that he might miss seeing the "gang of girls," he examines a watercolor of a young woman. "The ambiguous character of the person whose portrait I was looking at came from the fact, which I did not understand, that it was a young actress of an earlier period, partly cross-dressed." The sexual ambiguity of the portrait intrigues him. At times the figure looks like "a rather boyish girl" and then again "an effeminate young man, perverted and pensive." The face's "wistful or forlorn" look, "in the contrast it made with the accessories from the world of theater and debauchery, gave a strange thrill." But it's also an expression that might have been assumed by the actress for the portrait.
When Elstir sees what he's looking at, he dismisses it as worthless, something he'd done when much younger. But he also hides it away quickly when he hears his wife coming, even though "I can assure you the young creature in the bowler hat had no part to play in my life." Mme. Elstir, whom the artist addresses as "My beautiful Gabrielle!," makes little impression on the narrator at first. He notices that she has black hair that's turning white and was "common but not simple in her manner," as if she's affecting a pose "required by her mode of statuesque beauty, which had lost, in aging, all its attractiveness." But he comes to realize that her husband had found in her an ideal of beauty that he had previously located only in his imagination -- that she is herself "a portrait by Elstir."
But he remains impatient to leave in time to catch another glimpse of his girls. Finally, Elstir is ready to take a walk with him.
I was walking back toward the villa with Elstir when, with the suddenness of Mephistopheles materializing before Faust, there appeared at the far end of the avenue -- seemingly the simple objectification, unreal and diabolical, of the temperament opposite to my own, of the almost barbaric and cruel vitality which, in my feebleness, my excess of painful sensitivity and intellectuality, I lacked -- a few spots of the essence it was impossible to mistake for any other, a few of the stars from the zoophytic cluster of young girls, who, although they looked as though they had not seen me, were without a doubt at that very moment making sarcastic remarks about me.Self-consciously, he pretends to look at porcelain in a shop window while Elstir walks ahead to meet the girls. "The certainty of being introduced to the girls had made me not only feign indifference to them, but feel it." But to his surprise, "Elstir parted from the girls without calling me over. They turned up a side street and he came toward me. It was a fiasco." The sudden reversal of expectations, that he was going to meet Albertine at last, "made her almost insignificant to me, then infinitely precious; and some years later, the belief that she was faithful to me, followed by disbelief, would have analogous results." (Proust is not averse to giving the plot away.)
The experience inspires the narrator to some thoughts about self-deception:
what is known to the will remains inefficacious if it is unknown to the mind and the sensitivity: they can believe in good faith that we wish to leave a woman, when only the will is privy to our attachment to her. They are fooled by the belief that we will see her again in a moment. But let that belief vanish, in the realization that she has just gone and will never come back, and the mind and sensitivity, having lost their bearings, are afflicted with a fit of madness, and the paltry pleasure of being with her expands to fill everything in life.He follows this insight with an anecdote: His grandmother and some other ladies in Combray once set up a fund to provide an annuity for a girl they believed to be the daughter of their drawing teacher, who was dying shortly after the death of the woman they assumed to be his mistress. When they complimented the child's beautiful hair, the grandmother asked, "'Did her mother have such lovely hair?' To which the father gave the guileless reply: 'I don't know -- I only ever saw her wearing a hat.'" I confess that I don't quite get this: Is the point that they were wrong, and the woman was not his mistress? Or is it that he is unwilling to admit it? Or maybe she followed Joe Cocker's advice and left her hat on? It seems to me something has been lost either in the telling or the translating.