Part II, Chapter II, from "Meanwhile, as she took her place at table..." to "...like a lamb and refraining from fisticuffs."
We finally get to the dinner table, but the exposition of the character of the Duc and Duchesse doesn't cease. When M. de Grouchy arrives late, he offers, perhaps partly as an apology, to send six brace of pheasant to the Duchesse. She insists on sending the footman Poullein to pick them up, telling him to switch with another servant because it's his day off tomorrow. The narrator knows, however, from a conversation with Poullein in the hallway after seeing the Elstirs, that he's planning to see his fiancée tomorrow.
After Poullein leaves the dining room, "everyone complimented the Duchesse on her kindness toward her servants." She replies, "That one is a trifle irritating because he's in love. He finds it appropriate to go about with a lovesick look on his face." Poullein returns to the room, and M. de Grouchy observes that "he doesn't look very cheerful. One needs to be kind to these people, but not too kind."
Meanwhile, the Princess of Parma is trying to keep up with the Duchesse's witticisms and unconventional opinions, and compliments her on the "Teaser Augustus" pun. The Duc explains the joke to the narrator, who is reminded of his appointment to see Charlus after dinner. He thinks of mentioning it, but decides it more tactful not to do so.
The conversation turns to the Duchesse's cousin, Mme. d'Heudicourt, and her dinner parties, with the Duchesse -- who, the narrator observes, "was not too keen that the award of 'best table in Paris' should go to any table but her own" -- making catty remarks about the quantity of food served: "My cousin follows the same pattern as the constipated writers who present us with a one-act play or a sonnet every fifteen years. The sort of things people call little masterpieces, little jewels of nothing -- the sort of thing I really hate, in fact. The food at Zénaïde's place isn't bad, but one would find it more humdrum if she were less parsimonious."
The narrator, meanwhile, finds himself in conversation with the Comtesse d'Arpajon about the archives of correspondence at Mme. d'Heudicourt's Normandy residence. The Prince d'Agrigente is seated between them. The Comtesse asks the narrator,
"Have you noticed that an author's letters are often superior to the rest of his work? Who was the man who wrote Salammbô?"
I would have preferred not to have to reply and to curtail this conversation, but I felt it would be rather unkind to the Prince d'Agrigente; he was pretending to know perfectly well whom Salammbô was by and to be leaving it to me to say, whereas he was actually in a painful quandary.
"Flaubert," I ended up saying, but the assenting nods performed by the Prince's head smothered the sound of my remark, with the result that the lady I was talking to was not exactly sure whether I had said Paul Bert or Fulbert, names that did not ring quite right in her ears.
The Duc begins proclaiming rather philistine tastes in literature and music, including the fact that Wagner puts him to sleep. The Duchess intervenes to opine, "Even with his insufferable long-windedness, Wagner had elements of genius. Lohengrin is a masterpiece. Even in Tristan there are occasionally intriguing passages. And the Spinning Chorus in The Flying Dutchman is perfect heaven." (Note to non-Wagnerites: these opinions mark the Duchesse as musically unsophisticated.) The Duc goes on, however, to jumble up Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute) with the now mostly forgotten composer Auber (Fra Diavolo, Les Diamants de la couronne) -- "that's what we call music!" -- and to confuse Balzac with Dumas.
The narrator characterizes the dinner party as "such an ordinary, humdrum table," when he hears Mme. d'Arpajon denouncing Victor Hugo as "incapable of making the distinction between beauty and ugliness." Meanwhile, the Princess of Parma and the Duchesse are gossiping "in an undertone" about Mme. d'Arpajon, a lately cast-off mistress of the Duc's.
"She's not a dreadful person, but, believe me, she's unimaginably boring. She gives me such a headache each day that I'm forever having to take painkillers. And it's all because Basin took it into his head to go to bed with her behind my back for a year or so. And if that wasn't enough, I've got a footman who's in love with a little slut and goes about sulking if I don't ask the young lady to quit her streetwalking profits for half an hour and come and have tea with me! It's enough to drive one mad!" the Duchess concluded languidly.
Meanwhile, the footman in question, Poullein, is serving dishes to the Duc de Châtellerault, performing "his task so awkwardly that the young Duc's elbow was constantly coming in contact with his own." M. de Châtellerault "showed no sign of annoyance with the blushing footman," but the narrator suspects "that he was aware of the servant's disappointed hopes and that what he was in fact feeling was perhaps a malicious amusement."
The Duchesse's comments on literature are so middlebrow that the narrator reflects, "Since such tastes were the opposite of my own, she fed me with literature when she spoke to me about the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and never seemed so stupidly Faubourg Saint-Germain as when she talked about literature." The Duc, however, is proud of his wife, and convinced that she is impressing the narrator: "Oriane is really extraordinary," the narrator imagines him thinking. "She can talk about anything, she's read everything. She couldn't possibly have guessed that the conversation this evening would turn to Victor Hugo. Whatever the subject, she's ready for it. She can hold her own with the most learned people. This young man here must be quite enthralled."
Finally, the Princess drops the name of Émile Zola into the conversation:
At the name Zola, not a single muscle stirred on the face of M. de Beautreillis. The General's anti-Dreyfusism lay too deep for him even to attempt to give expression to it. And his benign silence when such topics were broached touched the hearts of the uninitiated as the sign of the same delicacy that a priest shows in avoiding any reference to one's religious obligations, a financial adviser in making sure that he does not recommend the companies he himself controls, a strong man in behaving like a lamb and refraining from fisticuffs.