Part II, Chapter II, from "In the time that followed, I was continually to be invited..." to "..."'You'll live to see us all in our graves!'"
A long stay in a waiting room today left me with nothing to do but read much more than my ten-page minimum, taking me to the end of The Guermantes Way. In this final section, we learn of the narrator's continued involvement with the social circle to which the Duchesse's dinner party invitation introduced him; of the bizarre behavior of Charlus, who thinks the narrator has been not only showed ingratitude for not taking advantage of the opportunities the Baron has offered him, but also somehow slandered him; and of Swann's terminal illness.
The narrator describes the dinner party as "a sort of social Eucharist," but insists with florid irony that "the manducation of the ortolan was not obligatory." He continues to comment on the shallowness of the society of which he has become part, sometimes by entering into the characters' heads, as when the Duchesse, in conversation with the Princess of Parma, makes a reference to "'Gustave Moreau's Young Man and Death. Your Highness is of course acquainted with the masterpiece.' The Princess of Parma, who had never even heard of Moreau, nodded in vigorous assent and smiled warmly in order to demonstrate her admiration for this painting." And he once more exposes the Duchesse's hypocrisy. Having previously called Elstir's portrait of herself "ghastly," she now claims, "Elstir has done a fine portrait of me.... It's not a good likeness, but it's intriguing." And yet the narrator continues to forgive her: "That Mme de Guermantes should be like other women had been a disappointment to me at first; I reacted to it now, with the help of so much fine wine, as something almost wondrous." But he also takes himself to task, recalling "those hours spent in society when I lived on the surface, my hair well groomed, my shirtfront starched -- that is to say, hours in which I could feel nothing of what I personally regarded as pleasure."
At one party, there are some foreshadowings of events to come, when Prince Von, "who could not endure the English" is attempting to advance the idea of an alliance between France and Germany, denouncing Edward VII and the British army, and insisting "it's us you ought to make friends with, it's the Kaiser's dearest wish, but he wants it to come from the heart. He puts it this way: 'What I want to see is a hand clasped in my own, not someone touching their hat to me!' With that you would be invincible."
But what most attracts the narrator to the company of Ducs and Princes and Barons is the sense of times past, of European history embodied in family pedigrees. The people he meets in society are dull, stupid, and prejudiced, but "these prejudices from the historical past instantly restored to the friends of M. and Mme de Guermantes their lost poetry."
M. de Guermantes had a command of memories that gave his conversation the fine feel of an ancient mansion, lacking in real masterpieces but still full of authentic pictures, of middling interest and imposing, giving an overall impression of grandeur.... Thus does the heavy structure of the aristocracy, with its rare windows, admitting a scant amount of daylight, showing the same incapacity to soar, but also the same massive, blind force as Romanesque architecture, enclose all our history within its sullen walls.
Still, the company he keeps is full of fools, of the misinformed and casually malicious, such as the Turkish ambassadress who warns the narrator that the decidedly heterosexual Duc de Guermantes is "a man to whom one could safely entrust one's daughter, but not one's son." The narrator notes that "error, gullibly credited untruth were for the ambassadress like a life-sustaining element without which she could not function." But he also credits the inanity of conversation at these affairs to his own presence: "The talk was trivial, no doubt because I was present, and, seeing all these pretty people kept apart, it pained me to think that my presence was preventing them from proceeding, in the most precious of its salons, with the mysterious life of the Faubourg Saint-Germain."
As he leaves the Hôtel de Guermantes for his appointment with Charlus, the narrator reflects on the occasion as one of his epiphanies:
I was prey to this second sort of exhilaration, very different from that afforded by a personal impression, like those I had received in other carriages: once in Combray, in Dr. Percepied's gig, from which I had seen the Martinville steeples against the setting sun; another day in Balbec, in Mme de Villeparisis's barouche, when I tried hard to work out what it was I was reminded of by an avenue of trees. But in this third carriage, what I had before my mind's eye was those conversations that had seemed so tedious at Mme de Guermantes's dinner party -- for example, Prince Von's story about the Kaiser, General Botha, and the British Army. I had just slid these into the inner stereoscope we use, as soon as we are no longer ourselves, as soon as we adopt a society spirit and wish to receive our life only from others, to bring into solid relief what they have said and done. Like a man who has had too much to drink and feels full of kindness and consideration for the waiter who has been serving him, I marveled at my good fortune -- something I had not felt, for sure, at the actual moment -- in having dined with someone who knew Wilhelm II so well and had told stories about him that were, upon my word, extremely witty.
But whatever euphoria he might be feeling in the carriage is soon to dissipate at the Baron de Charlus's. For Charlus, after making him wait a long time, receives him "stretched out on a sofa" and after the narrator speaks to him "the cold fury on M. de Charlus's face seemed to intensify." He tells the narrator to sit in the Louis XIV chair and then mocks him for his ignorance when he sits in a "Directory fireside chair." Charlus has the "magnificent head" of "an aging Apollo; but it was as if an olive-greenish, bilious juice was about to seep out of his malevolent mouth."
As Charlus's insults mount, the narrator, though still bewildered by the malevolence, becomes angry: "I grabbed hold of the Baron's new top hat, threw it to the ground, trampled on it, and, bent on pulling it to pieces, I ripped out the lining, tore the crown in two." But when he tries to leave, the Baron prevents him and changes his tone. Though he continues to insult the narrator and to charge him with ingratitude and slander, he also begins to court him, "taking my chin between two fingers, drawn there, it seemed, as if by a magnet, and, after a moment's resistance, running up to my ears like the fingers of a barber. 'Ah, how pleasant it would be to look at 'the blue moonlight' in the Bois with someone like yourself,' he said with sudden and almost involuntary gentleness, than added sadly: 'For you're nice, really. You could be nicer than anyone,' he added, laying his hand paternally on my shoulder."
"Paternally" is not exactly the word that comes to my mind here.
Finally, the Baron takes the narrator home in his carriage, still proclaiming that their friendship is over, and that because of his alleged behavior the narrator has blown any chance of being invited to the Princesse de Guermantes's. So when, a few days later, he receives an invitation from the Princesse, he suspects it of being a hoax or a cruel practical joke. To try to find out if the invitation is real, he goes to visit the Duc and Duchesse, where he encounters Swann and learns that he is suffering from the same illness "that carried off his mother, who had been struck down by it at exactly the age he now was." He talks with Swann about the Dreyfus case and the anti-Semitism of the Prince de Guermantes who, Swann claims, let a wing of his country house burn down "rather than send to the neighboring property -- it belongs to the Rothschilds -- for hoses." Swann, too, he learns, is invited to the Princesse's reception, and they agree to go there together. But the novel ends with the self-absorption of the Duc and Duchesse, who treat their own concerns -- whether the Duchesse should wear red shoes or black -- as more important than Swann's illness.