Part II, Chapter II, from "I know you're related to Admiral..." to "...the poor general has never lost."
It seems that in the world of high society, the narrator is always being mistaken for someone or other. This time, it's the Princess of Parma's lady-in-waiting, Mme. de Varambon, who is sure he's related to an admiral who is "a complete stranger to me." And "despite the admonitions of the Princess of Parma and my own protestations" can't be convinced otherwise. At another occasion, someone else insists that the narrator is a "great friend of his cousin," who met him in Scotland. "I have never been in Scotland," the narrator tells him, "and in my honesty I went to the trouble -- a complete waste of time -- of pointing this out." Like politicians, Proust's socialites seem to create their own reality.
As does the Duchesse, when she insists that Zola, to whom the conversation has turned, is "not a realist, he's a poet, madame!" The narrator observes that she is "drawing her inspiration from the critical articles she had read over the last few years and converting them to her individual brilliance." The Princess of Parma is so stunned by the assertion that she "gave a sudden start for fear of being knocked to her feet." The Duchesse goes on to proclaim, "He's master of the epic dungheap! The Homer of the sewers! He can't write Cambronne's expletive" -- i.e., merde -- "in big enough letters." (In her conversation with Swann in Swann's Way the Duchesse, then the Princesse des Laumes, made a sly reference to Mme. de Cambremer's "astonishing name" -- the joke being that it is made up of both "Cambronne" and "merde.") She then turns her attention to the narrator: "'I do believe that Zola has actually written a study on the work of Elstir, the painter whose pictures you were looking at a while ago. The only ones of his that I like, as it happens,' she added. In fact, she hated Elstir's painting, but found something special in anything that was in her own house."
The narrator asks the Duc about the identity of one of the figures in a painting in their collection, but the Duc claims to "have no head for names.... Swann would be able to tell you. He's the one who made Mme de Guermantes buy all that stuff." He then adds, "Not that there's much need to rack one's brains to say all there is to be said about M. Elstir's paintings, as there would be if we were talking about Ingres's La Source or The Princes in the Tower by Paul Delaroche" -- two paintings (left to right above) in the style that Elstir and other Impressionists were reacting against in their work. The Duc continues to note with outrage that Swann urged him to buy Elstir's A Bunch of Asparagus: "Three hundred francs for a bunch of asparagus!... It surprises me that someone with a discriminating mind like yourself, someone with a superior mind, actually likes that sort of thing." This painting of Elstir's was probably inspired by one by Manet:
The Princess of Parma asks if Elstir hadn't started working on a portrait of the Duchesse.
"Indeed he did. He painted me as red as a beet. It's not the sort of thing that's going to set him down for posterity. It's ghastly. Basin wanted to destroy it."
This last statement was one that Mme de Guermantes was always making. But at other times she chose to judge differently: "I don't care for his work, but he did once do a good portrait of me." The first of these judgments was usually addressed to people who asked the Duchesse about her portrait, the second to those who did not mention it and whom she was anxious to apprise of its existence. The first was inspired by concern with her appearance, the second by vanity.
To explain why he sought out the company of so frivolous and hypocritical a woman, the narrator comments, "Mme de Guermantes's mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (which was precisely what constituted the substance of my own mind) and everything that, on account of this exclusion, it had been able to preserve, the seductive vigor of supple bodies which no exhausting reflection, moral anxiety, or nervous disorder has distorted." He likens her effect on him to that of the gang of girls at Balbec.
Mme de Guermantes offered me, tamed and subdued by good manners, by respect for intellectual values, the energy and charm of a cruel little girl from one of the noble families around Combray, who from her childhood had ridden horses, sadistically tormented cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and, though remaining a paragon of virtue, might equally well have been, some years back now, and so much did she share his dashing style, the most glamorous mistress of the Prince de Sagan.
As an instance of the Duchesse's "respect for intellectual values," the company at table also includes "M. de Bréauté, the author of an essay on the Mormons that had appeared in the Revue des deux mondes" and who "moved only in the most aristocratic circles, but even then only in such as boasted a certain reputation for intellect.... His hatred of snobs derived from his own snobbishness, but it led the simple-minded (in other words, everyone) to believe that he was untainted by it."
The Duchesse turns the conversation to her aunt, Mme. de Villeparisis, and the Duc chimes in with an observation that "Aunt Madeleine" had "said her piece to that man Bloch" at her recent salon. The Princess of Parma notes that "Mme de Villeparisis is not exactly what one would call a ... 'moral' person," but the look on the Duchesse's face makes her add, "But of course an intellect of such a high order excuses everything." But the Duchesse goes on to treat Mme. de Villeparisis with the same vitriol as she uses on others: "She will always have a reputation as a lady of the old school, a woman of sparkling wit and the loosest morals. And yet one couldn't conceive of a more middle-class, serious-minded, and lackluster person."
A mention of Charlus causes a moment of tension between the Duc and the Duchesse. She observes that his elaborate mourning of his late wife is "as if he's mourning a cousin, a grandmother, a sister. It's not the grief of a husband.... He's as soft as a woman, Mémé is!" "Don't talk rubbish," M. de Guermantes broke in sharply. "There's nothing effeminate about Mémé. I can't think of anyone more manly than he is." Methinks the Duc doth protest too much, and so does the Duchesse: "'He's always like this when he thinks anyone is getting at his brother,' she added, turning to the Princess of Parma."
There is talk about Saint-Loup and his desire not to return to Morocco, and the Prince de Foix reveals that Saint-Loup may not have split up with Rachel after all: "'I came across her two days ago in Robert's bachelor apartment and they didn't look like two people who'd quarreled, believe me,' replied the Prince de Foix, who liked to spread every bit of gossip that might possibly damage Robert's chances of marrying."
"That Rachel was telling me about you," says Prince von Faffenheim, who, we learned earlier, usually goes by the name "Prince Von" or even just "Von," to the narrator. "She said that our friend Saint-Loup idolized you, that he was even fonder of you than he was of her." He goes on "devouring his food like a red-faced ogre as he spoke, all his teeth exposed by his perpetual grin." He also makes an enigmatic reference to the mistress of the Prince de Foix and offers to explain it it to the narrator if he'll come by his place afterward. The narrator declines, citing his appointment with Charlus. Prince Von says that he was also invited to dine with Charlus but not after a quarter to eleven, and offers to accompany the narrator part of the way. "But the wide-eyed gaze on his coarse, handsome red face alarmed me, and I declined his offer by telling him that a friend was coming to collect me. There was nothing offensive about this response as far as I could see. But the Prince apparently thought differently and did not address another word to me."
There's always something left to be explained in the narrator's encounters.