_____Gilberte and Andrée have become friends, which intrigues the narrator because Rachel, who is performing at the party, had been the mistress of both of their husbands, except that Andrée's husband (Octave) had left Rachel for her. And he speculates that Gilberte feels that Rachel had "been more deeply loved by Robert than she had ever been." Gilberte also reveals her scorn for the hostess, who is now her aunt, "for having been Mme de Saint-Loup since slightly earlier than Mme Verdurin entered the family, she considered herself always to have been a Guermantes and to have been dishonored by the misalliance her uncle had contracted by marrying Mme Verdurin." Gilberte is also rather dismissive of the Duchesse de Guermantes: "I saw you talking to my aunt Oriane, who has plenty of good qualities, but I don't think it would be unfair, do you, to say that she's hardly one of the intellectual elite."
The narrator is thinking of the party as a kind of farewell to the social life: "I intended to resume living in solitude from the next day onward." He recognizes that he is about to turn the lives of the people he has met into fiction, to "take these gestures they made, these things they said, their lives, their natures, and attempt to describe the curve they made and to isolate and define their laws." Which is, in a phrase, pretty much what In Search of Lost Time attempts to do. But he still has a longing for some kind of new life: "a few light love affairs with young girls in flower would be a select nutrient which, if I had to, I might allow my imagination, like the famous horse that was fed on nothing but roses." At the same time, he is prey to nostalgia, to a longing to find that his grandmother or Albertine would somehow turn up to be alive.
I forgot only one thing, which was that if they really were still living, Albertine would now have something like the appearance that Mme Cottard had presented at Balbec, and that my grandmother, being over ninety-five years old, would show me nothing of that beautiful, calm, smiling face with which I still imagined her now.
He notices the Duchesse de Guermantes "deep in conversation with a frightful old woman." Later, he will learn that the woman is Rachel, now a famous actress, one of several that the Duchesse now associates with, having given up the Faubourg Saint-Germain, "which, she said, bored her to death." He tells her of his encounter with Charlus, and when Morel enters, "the Duchesse greeted him with a politeness which I found a little disconcerting." But remembering the marriage into the Cambremer family of the "daughter" (earlier: niece) of Jupien, "the tradesman from our building, and that the additional factor which had enabled her to become a glittering success was that her father procured men for M. de Charlus," he reflects that "a name is always taken at its current valuation." The valuation of the Duchesse, for example, is now low: "The new generations concluded from [her friendship with actresses] that Mme de Guermantes, despite her name, must be some demi-rep who had never really been properly upper-crust." He also wonders if her friendship with Rachel reflects "the antipathy which the unpredictable Duchesse had recently developed towards Gilberte."
The mutability of relationships is further demonstrated by the fact that it was in the Duchesse's home that Rachel "had, long ago, received her most terrible humiliation. Rachel had gradually, not forgotten, but forgiven, but the singular prestige which the Duchesse had, in her eyes, thereby received could never be effaced."
"Meanwhile, at the other end of Paris," as the narrator puts it, the other party to which he was invited, the tea given by La Berma for her daughter and son-in-law is a disaster. Everyone has gone to the Princesse's. La Berma (previously reported as dead) is fatally ill, but "to pay for the luxury her daughter needed and which her son-in-law, idle and with poor health, was unable to provide, she had returned to acting." While on stage, she is vividly alive, but in fact is in great pain. She also resents the fact that Rachel has become a success, for she "still regarded Rachel as a tart who had been allowed to appear in dramas in which she, La Berma, was playing the leading role, because Saint-Loup paid for the dresses she wore on stage." To make matters worse, "the son-in-law was furious that Rachel, whom he and his wife knew very well, had not invited them" to her performance at the Princesse's. A solitary guest shows up at La Berma's tea party.
But soon the blast of air which was sweeping everything towards the Guermantes, and which had swept me there myself, was too strong, and he rose and left, leaving Phèdre, or death, it was not very clear any longer which of the two it was, with her daughter and her son-in-law, to finish eating the funeral cakes.As it turns out, Rachel's performance is unconventional, and "Everybody looked at one another, not quite knowing what expression to assume" and "a few ill-mannered young people stifled giggles." But the Princesse "was acting as a claque. She was whipping up enthusiasm and creating favorable impressions by constantly giving voice to exclamations of delight. Here alone her Verdurin nature could still be seen."
Now we learn that the narrator is as yet unaware of the identity of the actress, who, "without any gratification of my vanity, for she was old and ugly, ... was giving me the eye, though in a somewhat restrained manner." It turns out that she was trying to get him to recognize her, which he doesn't, until Bloch whispers to him, "Isn't it funny to see Rachel here!" The revelation "instantly shattered the enchantment which had given Saint-Loup's mistress the unknown form of this disgusting old woman." He is made "aware that the passing of time does not necessarily bring about progress in the arts" because "La Berma was, as they say, head and shoulders above Rachel, and time, by making Rachel a star at the same time as Elstir, had overrated a mediocrity and consecrated a genius."
He also becomes aware of what time has done to Mme. de Guermantes, whose wit has grown sour, just as Bergotte "kept his characteristic sentence rhythms, his interjections, his ellipses, his epithets, though all in order to say nothing." And he realizes that the Duchesse, once so exalted, so dazzlingly inaccessible, now treats him as one of her oldest friends, that she has
forgotten certain details which had seemed to me then to be essential, namely that I did not go to Guermantes, and was only a middle-class boy from Combray at the time when she came to Mlle Percepied's nuptial mass, and that for the whole year after her appearance at the Opéra-Comique, despite all Saint-Loup's entreaties she never invited me to her house. To me this seemed terribly important, because it was precisely at this point that the life of the Duchesse de Guermantes appeared to me to be a paradise I would never enter. But to her it just seemed to be a part of the same ordinary life as always.He reminds her of the time when he first went to the Princesse de Guermantes, uncertain whether he had really been invited, and of the red dress and red shoes she wore, and she grows melancholy about the passage of time. And though she has not forgotten that Rachel once gave that disastrous performance at her house, she remembers it quite differently: "it was I who discovered her, saw how good she was, sang her praises and made people take notice of her at a time when she had no reputation and everybody thought she was ridiculous."