Part II, Chapter II, from "On ordinary weekdays (after dinner..." to "...the subject matter of their writings."
The narrator goes on (and on and on) with his analysis of the Guermantes, to the frustration of those of us who are waiting to find out what Charlus is so eager to talk to him about or just generally want him to get on with the story. Still, what he has to say is witty, and we can only hope relevant to the rest of the novel.
He observes that the manners and customs on display at events such as the Duchesse's dinner party or the receptions of the Princess of Parma are somewhat anachronistic in "an egalitarian society," but also wonders, "would not a society become secretly more hierarchical as it became ostensibly more democratic?" And in fact, the Princess is somewhat intimidated by the Duchesse:
In short, inviting the Duchesse to her house was for the Princess of Parma a rather vexing business, so strongly was she beset by the fear that Oriane would find fault with everything. But, by contrast, and for the same reason, when the Princess of Parma came to dine with Mme de Guermantes, she could be certain in advance that everything would be perfect, delightful, and she had only one misgiving, the fear of being unable to understand, remember, engage people, of being unable to assimilate ideas and personalities. On this score, my presence aroused her attention and stimulated her cupidity, in exactly the same way that a novel style of decorating a dinner table with garlands of fruit might have done, uncertain as she was which of the two -- the table decoration or my presence -- was more distinctive as one of those charms that were the secret of Oriane's receptions.
But becoming a fixture in the Guermantes salon, it seems, could have its downside for some of the guests.
So, for instance, a doctor, a painter, and a diplomat with a fine career before him had failed to achieve the sort of success for which they were nonetheless more brilliantly equipped than most, because their friendship with the Guermantes meant that the first two were regarded as men of fashion and the third as a revolutionary, and this had prevented all three from earning the recognition of their peers.
Most of all, "what the Duchesse prized above all else was not intelligence but -- intelligence in a superior form, in her view, rarer, more exquisite, elevating it to a verbal species of talent -- wit." This was what set the Guermantes apart from their kin, the Courvoisiers.
Unfortunately, the example of the Duchesse's wit provided in this section is a rather lame pun, perhaps lost in translation, in which she referred to Charlus as "Teaser Augustus." The pun went out on the social grapevine as a choice instance of her cleverness, but when it reached the ear of a Courvoisier, "He did not quite see the point, but he half understood it, being an educated man. And the Courvoisiers went about repeating that Oriane had called Uncle Palamède 'Caesar Augustus,' which was, according to them, a good enough description of him." The Courvoisiers are so intimidated by the Duchesse, so often the butt of the Duchesse's jokes, which "make the Guermantes laugh until the tears ran down their cheeks," that they live in fear of making a gaffe that will draw her fire.