Day Thirty-Three: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, pp. 44-59

From "Fearing that the conversation might turn..." to "...to be at the Café Anglais!"
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M. de Norpois continues to hold sway over the narrator and his parents. When the narrator asks about Swann and the Comte de Paris, de Norpois recalls an occasion when the Comte saw Odette:
Now, of course, no one in his entourage saw fit to ask His Highness what he thought of her. ... But when the vagaries of conversation happened subsequently to bring up her name, His Highness appeared not averse to bring up her name, by means of certain signs, you understand, which, though they may verge on the imperceptible, are withal quite unambiguous, that his impression of the lady had been far from, in a word, unfavorable.

The "in a word" is a nice touch. No word in de Norpois' discourse ever goes it alone, always being accompanied by qualifiers and litotic undercuttings. No word, that is, until we get to the question of the narrator's cherished writer Bergotte. De Norpois dismisses the narrator's favorite as "a flute-player," a writer without substance whose "works are so flaccid that one can never locate in them anything one could call a framework." Worse still, he uses the narrator's enthusiasm for Bergotte to issue a harsh critique of the narrator's own writing -- "that little thing you showed me before dinner, about which, by the way, the less said the better." He dismisses it as, using the narrator's own words (which the narrator intended as a show of modesty), "mere childish scribbling." Returning to Bergotte, de Norpois comments,
"Nowadays, a chap sets off a few verbal fireworks and everyone acclaims him as a genius.... Believe you me, he's the perfect illustration of the idea of that clever fellow who once said that he only acquaintance one should have with writers is through their books."

Here the general reader can be grateful for Grieve's note that the "clever fellow" is Proust himself, in his essay "Contre Sainte-Beuve." (Grieve is not as thorough in annotating this volume, I think, as Davis was in hers, but here he gives us some essential information.)

The narrator is, of course, "devastated": "I became once more acutely aware of my own intellectual poverty and of the fact that I had no gift for writing." Feeling "deflated and dumbfounded," he changes the subject by asking if Gilberte was at the dinner where de Norpois met Odette. De Norpois recalls "A young lady of fourteen or fifteen" -- the first more or less precise indication we've had of the age of Gilberte (and the narrator) at this point in the novel. And so the narrator presses de Norpois to speak about him to Gilberte and Odette, and when de Norpois agrees, "I was suddenly so overcome by tender feelings for this important man, who was going to exercise on my behalf the great prestige he must enjoy in the eyes of Mme Swann, that I had to retrain myself from kissing his soft hands." But his enthusiasm "was so chilling in its effect that ... I caught a glimpse of hesitancy and annoyance flitting across the ambassador's face." He has gone too far with this overinflated egotist.

Still, despite the harshness of de Norpois' criticism of his work, and of his idol Bergotte, the narrator is so awed by the man's reputation that he assumes that his own opinions are worthless. His sense of his own inadequacy is reinforced when his father shows him a newspaper review of La Berma's performance, which accords with de Norpois' conventional opinion of the actress. The narrator learns that the newspaper critic regards the performance he has seen, and been disappointed by, as "a triumph than which, in the whole course of her illustrious career, she has rarely had a greater," that it was "a veritable milestone in the theater," and that "the best-qualified judges are as one" in acclaiming it "as the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art that any of us have been privileged to witness in this day and age." Too naive to recognize the critique for what it is -- vapid and banal -- the narrator is all too ready to convince himself that he agrees with it.

Moreover, he now begins to have serious doubts about his vocation as a writer, which his father has endorsed for the wrong reasons. His father's statement -- "He's not a child anymore, he knows that he likes, he's probably not going to change, he's old enough to know what'll make him happy in life" -- depresses him. It implies that "the years to come would not be very different from the years already elapsed." And more important for the theme of the novel is the implication "that I did not live outside Time but was subject to its laws." His father's statement "suddenly showed me myself living inside Time; and he filled me with sadness."

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