In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
James Grieve's acclaimed new translation of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is Proustís spectacular dissection of male and female adolescence, charged with the narratorís memories of Paris and the Normandy seaside. At the heart of the story lie his relationships with his grandmother and with the Swann family. As a meditation on different forms of love, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower has no equal. Here, Proust introduces some of his greatest comic inventions, from the magnificently dull M. de Norpois to the enchanting Robert de Saint-Loup. It is memorable as well for the first appearance of the two figures who for better or worse are to dominate the narratorís lifeóthe Baron de Charlus and the mysterious Albertine.
When it was first suggested we invite M. de Norpois to dinner, my mother commented that it was a pity Professor Cottard was absent from Paris and that she herself had quite lost touch with Swann, either of whom the former ambassador would have been pleased to meet; to which my father replied that, although a guest as eminent as Cottard, a scientific man of some renown, would always be an asset at one's dinner table, the Marquis de Norpois would be bound to see Swann, with his showing off and his name-dropping, as nothing but a vulgar swank, "a rank outsider," as he would put it. This statement of my father's may require a few words of explanation, as there may be some who remember Cottard as a mediocrity and Swann as the soul of discretion and modesty in all things social. As regards Swann, it turns out that our old family friend was now no longer only "young Swann" and "Swann of the Jockey Club"; to these personalities he had added a new one, which was not to be his last, that of Odette's husband. Adapting to her humble ambitions all the flair, desires, and industry that he had always possessed, Swann had contrived to construct a new position for himself, albeit far below the one he had formerly occupied, but suited to the wife with whom he must now share it. And in this position he had turned into a new man. Since this was the beginning of a second life for both of them, among a circle of new people (except for personal friends from his bachelor days whom he went on seeing alone, and whom he did not wish to burden with the acquaintance of Odette, unless they themselves expressed the wish to meet her), it would have been understandable if, in judging the social standing of these new people, and thereby gauging the degree of self-esteem that their company might afford him, his standard of comparison had been based at least on Odette's former associates, if not on the exalted individuals among whom he himself had moved before his marriage. However, even when one knew that the people he now wished to associate with were unrefined civil servants, or the sort of dubious women who were fixtures of the annual ball at certain ministries, one could still be astounded to hear this man (who in former days, and even now, could show such exquisite tact in not advertising an invitation to Twickenham1 or Buckingham Palace) braying out the fact that the wife of an undersecretary's undersecretary had returned Mme Swann's visit. It may be thought that this was because the simplicity of manners in the fashionable Swann was only a finer form of vanity, and that, after the manner of certain Jews, our old family friend had passed through the successive phases of a development observable in the breed he belonged to, going from the most guileless snobbery, the crassest caddishness, to the politest of refinements. The main reason, however, was (and it is one which holds good for all of humanity) that even our virtues are not extraneous, free-floating things which are always at our disposal; in fact, they come to be so closely linked in our minds with the actions we feel they should accompany that, if we are required to engage in some different activity, it can take us by surprise, so that we never even think that it too might entail the use of those very virtues. In his gushing ways with these new friends and his boastful citing of their exploits, Swann was like the great artist who takes up cooking or gardening late in life and who, though modest enough to be untroubled by criticism of his masterpieces, cannot bear to hear faint praise of his recipes or flower beds, and basks naïvely in the delight of hearing them lauded; or who, though generous enough to let a canvas go for nothing, will be put out by losing a few pennies at dominoes.
As for Professor Cottard, we shall meet him again eventually, and at some length, at La Raspelière, the château of the Patronne. For the moment, let the following remark suffice. The change in Swann may well be surprising, since it had already come about, albeit without my knowledge, by the time I had become familiar with him as the father of Gilberte, at the Champs-Élysées; and then, of course, as he never spoke to me, he could not brag about his connections in the political world. (And even if he had done so, I might well not have been immediately aware of his vanity, as one's long-standing mental image of others deprives one of sight and hearing in their presence-my mother took three years to notice the lipstick that one of her nieces was using; for all she could see, it might have been totally and invisibly dissolved, till the day when either an extra dab of it or some other cause brought about the reaction known as supersaturation: all the unseen lipstick crystallized and, in the face of this sudden splash of color, my mother declared, after the manner of Combray, that it was a disgrace, and all but broke off relations with the girl.) With Cottard, however, the days when we saw him witnessing Swann's introduction to the Verdurins were long past. Honors and official titles come with the years. Also, it is possible to be unread, and to like making silly puns, while having a special gift that outweighs any general culture, such as the gift of the great strategist or the great clinician. So Cottard was seen by his medical colleagues not just as an obscure practitioner who had eventually risen to celebrity throughout Europe. The cleverest of the younger doctors declared-for a few years at any rate, since all fashions, having arisen from a desire for change, eventually pass away for the same reason-that if ever they should fall ill Cottard was the only eminent man to whom they would entrust their persons. Obviously, for conversation, they preferred the company of certain other senior colleagues who were more cultivated or more artistically minded, and with whom they could discuss Nietzsche or Wagner. At Mme Cottard's musical evenings, to which she invited students and colleagues of her husband's in the hope that he would one day become dean of the faculty, Cottard himself never listened to a note, preferring to play cards in one of the other rooms. But he was renowned for his diagnostic skill, for the unhesitating acuity and accuracy of his eye. In addition, in considering the general effect that Cottard's manners made on someone like my father, it should be noted that the nature we display in the second part of our life may not always be, though it often is, a growth from or a stunting of our first nature, an exaggeration or attenuation of it. It is at times an inversion of it, a garment turned inside out. In youth, everyone except the Verdurins, who had taken a great fancy to him, had mercilessly mocked him for his hesitant air, his excessive diffidence and affability. Did some kind friend suggest he adopt an icy demeanor? The eminence of his position certainly made it easy for him to comply. Except at the Verdurins', where he instinctively became himself again, he now made a show of being cold and taciturn; when speech was required, he was brusque and made a point of saying unpleasant things. He first tried his new manner on patients who had no prior acquaintance with him, who could therefore make no comparisons, and who would have been amazed to learn that he was not a man to whom such abruptness came naturally. He aimed first and foremost at being impassive; and even when he made some of his puns doing the rounds in the hospital, making everyone laugh, from the medical superintendent to the newest student, he would always do it without moving a muscle in his face, which, since he had shaved off his beard and mustache, was also quite unrecognizable.
Of the Marquis de Norpois it can be said that, having been a plenipotentiary of Napoleon III before the Franco-Prussian War, he had been briefly elevated to an ambassadorship during the constitutional crisis of May 16, 1877. Despite this, and to the great astonishment of many, he had also been appointed several times since then as an extraordinary representative of France, accomplishing special missions and even acting as Comptroller of Public Moneys in Egypt, where his great financial ability enabled him to render important services, at the behest of Radical cabinets, on whose behalf a mere middle-class reactionary would have declined to act, and to which M. de Norpois's past, connections, and opinions should have made him suspect. But these progressive ministers seemed to realize that, in making such an appointment, they were demonstrating the breadth of vision of which they were capable when the higher interests of France required it-so outclassing the average politician that they might expect to be called "statesmen" by the Journal des débats itself!-while basking in the prestige afforded by the man's noble name and title, and in the interest created by a dramatically unforeseeable choice. They knew too that, in having recourse to M. de Norpois, they could enjoy these advantages without fear of political disloyalty on his part, as the Marquis's breeding, rather than giving them grounds to suspect him of any such thing, ensured against it. In this, the government of the Republic was not mistaken, for the good reason that a certain aristocracy, bred from childhood to see their name as an intrinsic benefit which nothing can take away (and the value of which is fairly well gauged by their peers and by those of even higher birth), know they can spare themselves the efforts made by many a commoner to profess only opinions seen as sound, and to mix only with people seen as proper, as these efforts would be of no profit to them. However, wishing to magnify themselves in the eyes of the princely or ducal families which are their immediate superiors, these aristocrats also know that they can do this only if they enhance their name with something extraneous to it, something that, other names being equal, will make theirs prevail: a political influence, a literary or artistic reputation, a large fortune. So they lavish their attentions not on the futile squireen who is courted by the commoner, or on a fruitless friendship that will never impress a prince, but on the politicians who, though they may be Freemasons, can get someone appointed to a plum job in an embassy or elected to a safe seat, on the artists or academics who can pull a string or two in the area they dominate, on anyone who might be able to lend some distinction, or help in the making of a rich marriage.
In the case of M. de Norpois, however, the most important thing was that, through long practice of diplomacy, he had deeply imbued himself with the spirit known as "government mentality," that negative, ingrained conservative spirit which informs not just the mentality of all governments, but in particular, inside all governments, that of the Foreign Office. The career of the diplomatist had given him an aversion, a dread, and a disdain for the more or less revolutionary, or at least improper, ways that are those of oppositions. Apart from some uncouth members of the working and the fashionable classes, who are incapable of making such subtle distinctions, what brings people together is not shared opinion but a latent propensity of mind. Despite his fondness for the classics, an Academician of the likes of Legouvé may still approve Maxime Du Camp's or Mézières's eulogy of the Romantic Victor Hugo more than Claudel's of the classical Boileau. Though a shared jingoism may be enough to endear Barrès to those who vote for him, and who probably see little difference between him and M. Georges Berry, more would be required to endear him to those of his colleagues in the Académie Française who, despite sharing his political opinions, have a different cast of mind, and will thus prefer adversaries such as M. Ribot and M. Deschanel; and the latter pair of Republicans may be favored by staunch monarchists over Maurras and Léon Daudet, despite the fact that these two are also supporters of a restoration of the throne. M. de Norpois was a man of few words, not only by virtue of the diplomatist's habits of prudence and reserve, but also because words have a greater worth, and more subtle shades of meaning, for men whose efforts over a decade to bring together two countries may amount to a single adjective in a speech or a protocol, but in which, unremarkable though it may appear, they can read volumes. At the Select Committee, on which M. de Norpois was one of my father's fellow members, and where the others saw him as very standoffish, they constantly congratulated my father on the friendliness shown toward him by the former ambassador. My father was as surprised as they were by this friendliness. Being himself of a less than sociable disposition, he was used to having few relationships outside his immediate circle, and made no secret of it. He was aware that the diplomatist's good opinion of him was no more than an effect of that personal idiosyncrasy which biases each of us for or against those we like or dislike, against which no qualities of intellect or sensitivity in a person who irritates or bores us will outweigh the straightforwardness and the lightheartedness we enjoy in someone else whom others would see as vacuous, flippant, and insignificant. "It's quite remarkable-Norpois is taking me out to dinner again! It's the talk of the Select Committee! A man who doesn't cultivate personal relations with anybody! I expect he'll pass on some more of his revelations about the Franco-Prussian War." My father was aware that M. de Norpois had been perhaps the only one to warn Napoleon III about Prussia's growing power and warlike intentions, and that Bismarck had a high regard for his intelligence. And quite recently, during the state visit of King Theodosius, the newspapers had commented on the sovereign's lengthy conversation with M. de Norpois at the command performance at the Opéra. "I must find out whether that state visit was really important," said my father, who was greatly interested in foreign affairs. "I know old Norpois is very tight-lipped. But he has a nice way of opening up with me."Indispensable... the critical modernist work, overtop-ping the books of even such giants as Joyce and Mann. (Peter Brooks, The New York Times Book Review)