_____Except for a visit in August 1914 for a medical examination, the narrator has been away in a sanatorium "until the time, at the beginning of 1916, when it became impossible any longer to obtain medical staff." He returns to wartime Paris to find Mme. Verdurin and Mme. Bontemps the queens of society. The museums are all closed, so "elegance" has established itself "in the absence of the arts." In fact, the whole aesthetic of the times has changed: Mme. Verdurin goes to Venice but what she admired
was not Venice, nor St. Mark's, nor the palaces, all of which had delighted me so much and for which she had cared very little, but the effect of the searchlights in the sky, searchlights about which she provided information supported by figures. Thus from age to age is reborn a certain realism as a reaction against the art previously admired.And the cause that had once divided society, the Dreyfus affair, is virtually forgotten: "Dreyfusism was now integrated into a range of respectable and normal things.... Brichot himself, the great nationalist, whenever he made allusion to the Dreyfus case, would say, 'In those prehistoric times.'"
Mme. Verdurin, once so contemptuous of the aristocracy, has changed with the times: "as the number of socially glittering people making advances to Mme Verdurin increased, so the number of those she called 'bores' diminished." The war is the chief topic of conversation, of course, and hostesses vie to outdo themselves with the latest news, so that the salons are also infested with spies. "Mme Verdurin would say: 'Do come in at five o'clock to talk about the war,' just as she would once have said 'to talk about the [Dreyfus] Affair', or more recently: 'Do come and listen to Morel.'" Morel, in fact, "was a deserter, but nobody knew this."
Another star of the salons is Octave, who has been discharged from service for medical reasons, has married Andrée, and has "become for me the author of a series of admirable works which were constantly in my thoughts" -- so constantly that the narrator realizes that Octave was also involved in "Albertine's departure from my house." At this point, the narrator says of Albertine, "I simply never thought about her," although this and other such statements are self-contradictory: realizing that you don't think about something is to think about it, which is what made the Tolstoy family's game of trying not to think about a white bear so difficult.
One person Mme. Verdurin is unsuccessful at luring to her salon is Odette, but the rest of society is "more than happy to take advantage of the luxury of the Verdurins, which continued to increase with their wealth at a time when even the richest people, unable to draw their dividends, were economizing."
The narrator finds himself enjoying a mostly solitary life, watching the airplanes defending the skies over Paris, which he claims did not evoke memories of the airplane sighted on his last visit to Versailles with Albertine, "for the memory of that drive had become indifferent to me." In a restaurant he is touched by the sight of a soldier on leave outside, allowing "his eyes to rest for a moment on the lighted windows," which evokes memories of the people who would gather outside the hotel windows in Balbec to watch the diners there, though it's more poignant, knowing that the man will return to the trenches after seeing "the shirkers rushing to grab their tables." And once again the supposedly forgotten Albertine comes to mind as he reflects "how lovely it would have been, on evenings when I had dined out, to arrange to meet her out of doors, beneath the arcades!"