Day Eighty-Four: The Guermantes Way, pp. 209-224

From "Mme de Villeparisis rang, and a footman..." to "...repeating a long-established joke."
Bloch's breaking the vase is not his first faux pas of the evening. Muttering to himself, he blames the servants for putting the vase where he might bump into it, and Mme. de Villeparisis for not training them better. "He was one of those touchy, high-strung people who cannot bear to have made a blunder, will not admit it to themselves, and whose whole day is ruined by it," the narrator comments. Bloch starts to take his leave, but Mme. de Villeparisis calls him back to discuss the theatrical production he proposes to stage at her home. Among the performers he wants to use is "a tragic actress 'with blue-green eyes, beautiful as Hera,' who would recite lyrical prose with a feeling for 'plastic beauty.' But when she heard the actress's name, Mme de Villeparisis declined. It was the name of Saint-Loup's mistress." 

She whispers to the narrator that she thinks the affair will soon be over, and blames it all on Captain Borodino for "furthering a scandalous liaison" by giving Saint-Loup leave to see Rachel in Bruges. Meanwhile, Bloch keeps adding to his gaffes by denouncing Saint-Loup as a "dirty rascal" and by telling an anecdote in which Saint-Loup -- or "de Saint-Loup-en-Bray" as Bloch persists in calling him -- fails to show due deference to the son of Sir Rufus Israels. The anecdote lands with a thud in the room because "Sir Rufus Israels, whom Bloch and his father regarded as an almost royal figure, one to be trembled at by the likes of Saint-Loup, was in the eyes of the Guermantes world merely a foreign upstart." 

Bloch goes on to rudely insist on opening a window, and when Mme. de Villeparisis forbids it because she has a cold, he persists in calling the room a "hothouse" and arguing that the overheated room is "exactly what is giving you the cold." And then he asks to be introduced to de Norpois because he wants "to get him to talk about the Dreyfus case." Mme. de Villeparisis is embarrassed because Bloch's eagerness to see de Norpois brings attention to their relationship: de Norpois is already present, in her study, and has not yet come down to join the party. 

She sends the butler to fetch de Norpois, who picks up a hat at random in the vestibule to conceal the fact that he hasn't arrived from outside: "He had no idea that the Marquise had completely undermined the plausibility of this charade prior to his appearance." When he arrives, she treats him with "an exaggerated respect for his position as ambassador." But the narrator notes that these "less familiar, more ceremonious marks of respect ..., in the salon of a distinguished woman, in contrast to the freedom with which she treats her other regular guests, mark out that man immediately as her lover." 

De Norpois warmly greets the narrator, who "took advantage of this to relieve him of the hat he had felt obliged to bring with him as a sign of formality; I had just noticed that it was my own." But the ambassador continues to steamroll over the narrator's opinions, reminding him that he had harshly criticized the narrator's writing, and that they had disagreed about Bergotte. But the narrator decides to press the advantage of de Norpois's acquaintance with the Duchesse de Guermantes, hoping that the ambassador might help him get an invitation from her to see the paintings by Elstir that she owns. He tells de Norpois that Elstir is his favorite painter and that the Duchesse owns one -- "a masterpiece" -- he'd particularly like to see. But as usual, de Norpois puts him down: "'A masterpiece!' exclaimed M. de Norpois in astonished disapproval. 'It can't even claim to be a picture. It's a mere sketch.'" 

Bloch takes de Norpois aside, and the narrator overhears the Duchesse and Mme. de Villeparisis talking about Rachel, who had once given a disastrous performance at the Duchesse's salon. "A perfect horror, you know," the Duchesse says. "Not an ounce of talent, and grotesque to look at." At that moment, her husband arrives and she says, wryly, "Oh, well, I suppose I'd better be going," a reference "to the comic aspect of their appearing to be paying a call together like a newly married couple, and not to the often strained relations that existed between her and this strapping pleasure-seeker, who was getting on in years, but who still led the life of a young bachelor." The Duchesse goes on to talk about Rachel's performance of a play by Maeterlinck, which disillusions the narrator: "'What a bird-brained woman!' I thought to myself, still smarting from the icy greeting she had given me. I found a sort of grim satisfaction in this evidence of her total incomprehension of Maeterlinck." 

Bloch has returned and, overhearing the conversation about Saint-Loup and his mistress, "began to slander him so violently that everyone was appalled." M. d'Argencourt suggests that there is a similarity between Saint-Loup's relationship with Rachel and that of Swann and Odette.
"Oh, but things were quite different in Swann's case," the Duchesse protested. "It was extraordinary, I know, because she was something of an idiot, but she was never ridiculous, and at one time she was pretty."

"Pooh-pooh!" muttered Mme de Villeparisis.

"You didn't think so? I did. She had some charming features, very fine eyes, lovely hair, and she dressed wonderfully. She still does. She's become loathsome, I agree, but she was a ravishing woman in her time. Not that I was any less sorry when Charles married her, because it was so unnecessary" 

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