A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Proust Project, Day 50

Where this began
Day 49


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 271-285.

Today's dissection of snobbery begins with Françoise, whose confidence in her own status in the world is unassailable, which is why she's one of the book's most endearing and memorable characters. Even the people she works for have to know their place, and after she befriends the staff of the hotel, Françoise has no qualms about letting the narrator and his grandmother know where they stand in the scheme of things. "The long and the short of it was that we had to make do without proper hot water because Françoise was a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it."

The peculiar and sometimes artificial relationships of resort life extend to the grandmother as well. After she pretends not to see Mme. de Villeparisis in the dining room, which the marquise returns in kind, they meet by accident in a doorway and go through a stagy scene of surprised recognition, "like a air of actors in a scene by Molière who have been standing apart from one anther, each delivering a soliloquy and supposedly not seeing the other, though there is no more than a few feet between them." Mme. de Villeparisis then begins to join them at table, raising their status in the eyes of the headwaiter.
To bring this look of happiness to Aimé's face, one needed only to speak the name of a titled person; and in this he was the opposite of Françoise, in whose hearing one could not mention "Count This" or "Viscount That" without her expression's turning dark and her voice's sounding curt and sour, which actually meant she cherished the nobility not less than Aimé but more.... But once she had unmistakably registered Mme de Villeparisis's countless little acts of considerateness toward us, and even toward herself, Françoise forgave her for being a marquise; and since she had never ceased being grateful to her for being a marquise, Mme de Villeparisis was her favorite of all the people we knew.

And then a more elevated member of the aristocracy enters their lives, the Princess of Luxembourg, to whom they are introduced by Mme. de Villeparisis. But this doesn't at all raise their status in the eyes of the local gentry, used to being the most kowtowed-to of the visitors to the hotel. These include the First President from Caen, the bâtonnier from Cherbourg, and an eminent notary from Le Mans, and especially their wives: "Each time Mme de Villeparisis walked through the vestibule, the wife of the First President, always on the lookout for loose women, set aside her embroidery and inspected her in a way that moved her two friends to irresistible laughter." She vows to make inquiries about Mme. de Villeparisis, unwilling to believe she's a genuine marquise. And the same holds true for the Princess of Luxembourg, who, she reports to the other women, is "a female with dyed hair, if you don't mind, made up to the eyeballs, and with a carriage that smacked of 'immoral earnings' a mile away, the kind that sort of woman always has, and who turned up a while ago asking to see our alleged marquise!"

This is great stuff, but there's one flaw in it for those who insist that authors stick to the conventions of fiction: How could the narrator have been present at the table of these gossips? Proust is not one, however, for sticking to a limited point of view for very long. And the material is so good that he (almost) gets away with it.

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