_____If I were asked to pick a section from In Search of Lost Time for an anthology that would represent Proust at his best, I think it might be this chapter, for its miraculous blend of genuine feeling and wry humor. I would call it "Dickensian" except that I fear Dickens would have treated the grandmother's death far more lugubriously, and thus less touchingly, than Proust does.
We begin with a visit from Bergotte, who is ill and aging, and with the revelation that the author has lost some favor with the narrator. He has always admired Bergotte's clarity, but he has lately become fascinated by a new writer in whose work "the relations between things were so different from those that connected them for me, that I could understand almost nothing in his writing.... From then on I felt less admiration for Bergotte, whose transparency struck me as a shortcoming." It's a pretty apt description of the reaction of some early readers to Moderns like Joyce and Kafka and, of course, Proust. He elaborates on the transformative power of new visions in art with a reference to painting: "Women pass us in the street, different from those we used to see, because they are Renoirs, the same Renoirs we once refused to see as women." Or as Oscar Wilde put it, Nature imitates Art. But Bergotte manages to undercut the narrator's interest in the new writer "not so much by assuring me that his art was unpolished, facile, and hollow, as by telling me that he had seen him and very nearly mistaken him for Bloch. The image of Bloch then started to loom over the pages I read, and I no longer felt any compulsion to take the trouble to understand them."
The grandmother's condition worsens, and Cottard decides to treat her with leeches.
I knew the disgust my grandmother felt at the sight of certain creatures, not to mention being touched by them. I knew it was out of respect for the advantageous relief they would bring that she endured the leeches. And so it infuriated me to hear Françoise chuckling at her as to a child who has to be humored, and repeating, 'Oh, look at the little beasties crawling all over Madame!' Furthermore, this was to treat our invalid with a lack of respect, as though she had in fact slipped into her second childhood. But my grandmother, whose face now wore the calm forbearance of a stoic, did not even seem to hear.When the final stage arrives, the narrator's parents wake him in the middle of the night, and his mother says, "Poor boy, you have only your papa and mama to rely on now." Word spreads that the grandmother is on her deathbed, and the Duc de Guermantes pays a call, demonstrating his customary noblesse oblige: "M. de Guermantes was like a caller who turns up just as one is about to go off somewhere. But he was so conscious of the importance of the courtesy he was showing us that it blinded him to everything else, and he insisted on being shown into the drawing room." And when Saint-Loup arrives, the Duc shows a wholly inappropriate delight: "'Well, what a pleasant surprise!' cried the Duc joyfully, ... heedless of the presence of my mother."
It was not that the Duc de Guermantes was bad-mannered. Far from it. But he was one of those men who are incapable of putting themselves in the place of others, similar in this respect to undertakers and the majority of doctors, who, after composing their faces and saying, 'This is a very painful time for you,' perhaps even embracing you and recommending rest, then revert to treating a deathbed or a funeral just like some social gathering of a more or less restricted kind, at which, with the joviality they have just momentarily repressed, they scan the room for someone they can talk to about their humdrum affairs or ask to introduce them to someone else or offer a lift home in their carriage.Similarly, a priest who is a brother-in-law of the grandmother is so self-conscious about showing proper grief that, when he covers his face with his hands, the narrator catches him peering between his fingers "to observe whether my sympathy was sincere.... Priests, like specialists in mental disorders, always have something of the examining magistrate about them." Another relative "was so assiduous in his solicitude for the dying that the families concerned, on the pretext that he was delicate, ... invariably begged him, with customary evasiveness of expression, not to come to the cemetery" and others had given him "the nickname, 'No Flowers by Request.'"
And then there's Dr. Dieulafoy, who had been urged upon them by the Duc de Guermantes. By this point, the narrator has begun to see the scene surrounding his grandmother's death as taking on the character of a play, so that "when the maid announced 'M. Dieulafoy,' it was like something out of a play by Molière." The doctor is a paragon of dignity and tact -- and unnecessary, since all he can do is confirm what the other doctors have already established, that the grandmother is dying -- and when he takes his leave he makes "a perfect exit, simply accepting the sealed envelope that was slipped into his hand. He did not seem to have seen it, and even we were left wondering for a moment whether we had really given it to him, so dexterously had he made it disappear, like a conjurer, yet without losing a single trace of the gravity -- if anything, it was accentuated -- of the eminent consultant in his long frock coat with its silk lapels, his handsome face weighed down with the most dignified commiseration."
These bits of amused observation are so deftly handled that they only heighten the sense of genuine emotion when the end finally comes and Françoise combs the grandmother's hair and the narrator recognizes that "death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her to rest with the face of a young girl."