I’ve been In Search of Lost Time for several years now, generally tackling one volume each summer break. I’ve put off Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah, for about a year now, mostly because I need to be in full-on Proust Mode to read Proust, so I thought I’d take some time to read some other works not set in fin-de-siècle France. Which was great--I got acquainted with Elena Ferrante and Elias Khoury--but Marcel’s heavy-lidded book cover portrait always gazed down reproachfully from my shelf, as if reminding me that I had some unfinished business. So here I am, back in fin-de-siècle France.
Proust’s talent as a social critic shone in Volume III, The Guermantes Way, in which he proved himself to be a shrewd observer of the upper echelons of French society (with the haughty Duchess Oriane de Guermantes front and center). Thus far in Volume IV, I feel he takes this talent to the next level, imbuing biting wit reminiscent of Maupassant or Jane Austen. An over-100 page account of a chic affair was loaded with zingers that left me somewhere between a smile and a cringe.
Beyond comedic appreciation, I was struck by the fact that many of the social dynamics that Proust describes still ring true today. Regardless of nationality or social status, polite human interaction is abound with anxieties and awkwardnesses. While a party should represent relaxation and a good time, it is an occasion that can intensify our worst insecurities and discomforts more than anything else. And all the more for those who did not attend; as Proust writes,“Parties of this sort are as a rule premature. They have little reality until the following day, when they occupy the attention of the people who were not invited.” (64)*
Here are some examples of Proust’s best insights. For context, the narrator has been invited to an important gathering at the home at the Prince de Guermantes. He fears, however, that his invitation is no longer valid because he may have recently offended the Baron de Charlus, the Prince’s cousin, and arrives at the house worried that he will be turned away in front of the other guests. That fear subsides when the doorman officially receives him, allowing him entrance into the house.
Yet the second hurdle manifests the second he walks through the doorway. The narrator is not on familiar terms with the host, but it would be bad form to not speak with him at some point during the evening. However, he requires someone to introduce him to the host. Now, imagine that you got some invitation to a party at, say, Harvey Weinstein’s house. The decorum may be lax enough today for you to just walk up and introduce yourself, but even if you had the guts to pull it off, what you would really prefer is an introduction, someone to implicitly endorse you prior to your conversation with the host. So he realizes that this is, in fact, a person worth talking to.
That’s precisely what the narrator hopes to achieve, but it’s more of a challenge than it should be. No one seems to want to bear the responsibility of endorsing the narrator, or to waste one of their social bargaining chips on him. He is at first encouraged by the friendliness of the beautiful and influential Mme de Souvré. However, when he asks for an introduction,
“...I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.” (67)
Attempt two arrives via Mme d’Arpajon, a former mistress of the Duc de Guermantes, the Prince’s other cousin. The narrator describes her as “more cowardly than Mme de Souvré,” but with better reason; she has lost the little influence she had since the Duc left her.
“The ill-humour aroused in her by my request that she should introduce me to the Prince produced a silence which she was ingenuous enough to imagine a convincing pretense of not having heard what I had said. Perhaps, on the other hand, she was aware of it, did not bother about the inconsistency, and made use of it for the lesson in tact which she was thus able to teach me without undue rudeness; I mean a silent lesson, but none the less eloquent for that.” (70)
Ouch. And yes, sometimes very in-control people will make no effort to hide their negative reactions because they want it to be very clear to you how they feel.
Attempt three is the Baron de Charlus himself, who doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment towards the narrator, but is nevertheless irascible and unaccommodating. Salvation finally appears with M. de Bréauté, who willingly administers the crucial introduction.
Amidst all of this strategizing, the narrator writes that he is in the process of mastering the unspoken rules of interaction,
“...the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority of those towards whom it is directed, thought not to the point of dispelling that inferiority, for in that case it would no longer have any raison d’être.” (84)
Oh yes, that person who wants to indulge his/her inner illusions of magnanimity. “Call me anytime if you need anything!” While hoping, of course, that you never actually call, and what’s more, that you know it would be highly improper to do so, because this is an incredibly busy and important person. But they get to walk out of that conversation feeling good that they can seem accessible to the little guy, while the rest of us are presumably supposed to be satisfied by the mere offer of their time and attention. As Proust goes on,
“So it was that Mme de Marsantes, when someone from a different world entered her circle, would praise in his hearing those unobtrusive people ‘who are there when you want them and the rest of time let you forget their existence,” as one indirectly reminds a servant who smells that practice of taking a bath is beneficial to the health.’ ” (85)
Did I say something about zingers?
And then there’s conversation itself, riddled with gaffes and pitfalls that even the most seasoned partygoers fail to avoid. The Duc de Guermantes hopes to exchange a friendly word with his brother, the Baron de Charlus, as he was particularly kind this evening to the Duke’s new mistress, Mme de Surgis. The Duke wants to appear genuine, and not have his displays of friendliness exclusively linked to the treatment of his mistress. Yet, in a soliloquy to his brother, the Duke drops a line about the Baron’s peculiar tastes, and instantly realizes that this could be interpreted as a reference to his brother’s rumored homsexuality:
“But, no sooner had he uttered these words than the Duke turned scarlet, for he was aware of his brother’s reputation, if not his actual habits. As he had never spoke to him about it, he was all the more embarrassed at having said something which might be taken to refer to it, and still more at having shown his embarrassment.” (159-160)
So, not only did the Duke say something potentially offensive, he realized the potential of this offense, and then betrayed this knowledge to his brother. There are so many layers of incrimination here and I swear I’ve dug myself into similar holes at college parties, hoping my interlocutors were too drunk to remember the next day.
But the Duke and the Baron de Charlus are both determined to smooth things over, to leave the conversation in a place where neither one seems guilty:
“The Duke had vowed to himself that he would not mention Mme de Surgis, but, in the confusion that the gaffe he had just made had wrought in his ideas, he had pounced on the one that was uppermost in his mind, which happened to be precisely the one that ought not to have appeared in the conversation, although it had started it. But M. de Charlus had observed his brother’s blush. And, like guilty persons, who do not wish to appear embarrassed that you should talk in their presence of the crime, which they are supposed not to have committed, and feel obliged to prolong a dangerous conversation…” (160)
And that’s always the hope: to be able to smile and walk away hastily at the end with no lasting damage.
My final fixation is on the implicit hierarchies of people at a gathering, based on social status and intimacy with the other guests. The narrator is disdainful of the Turkish Ambassadress because she lacks basic social tact (though he forgives some of it on the account of cultural difference). Moreover, by appearing at every party, she betrays herself as a social climber, and somewhat desperate, in contrast to those who are secure in their position and realize their status cannot be compromised by missing an event--in fact, their status might even be enhanced (see Oriane’s calculated social unpredictability in The Guermantes Way). But social climbers like the Ambassadress aren’t a fluke or a casualty at these events; on the contrary, they have a specific value. As Proust writes:
“She was, above all, extremely useful. The real stars of society are tired of appearing there. He who is curious to gaze at them must often migrate to another hemisphere where they are more or less alone. But women like the Ottoman Ambassadress, a newcomer to society, are never weary of shining there, and, so to speak, everywhere at once. They are of value at entertainments of the sort known as receptions or routs, to which they would let themselves be dragged from their deathbeds rather than miss one. They are the supers upon a hostess can always count, determined never to miss a party. Hence foolish young men, unaware that they are false stars, take them for the queens of fashion…” (82)
That person you see at EVERY party? You know better than to be fooled.
Note to self: don’t be a false star. (#StarGoals?)
And lastly, there are those whom you don’t much care for, and really don’t care for you either, and both recognize this, and polite banter is useless at this point. So, what do you do? You pretend you don’t see them! Avoid eye contact!
And, what do you do when the scales are tipped against you, and there’s someone you would like to receive some acknowledgement from but can expect by now that they won’t give it to you, yet you still want to hide this unbalance from yourself and others? The exact same thing! You pretend you don’t see them! Avoid eye contact!
“...Mme de Gallardon, who had long abandoned all hope of ever receiving a visit from her cousin, turned her back so as not to appear to have seen her, and, what was more important, so as not to offer proof that the other did not greet her.” (161)
Of course, after producing a stream of snarky remarks about the Duchesse de Guermantes, Mme de Gallardon is overjoyed when her cousin does briefly greet her on the way out. I guess Proust’s point is that we’re all suckers in the end.
Rest assured that any awkwardness you experience at a party isn’t really your fault; Marcel Proust called it 100 years ago. Now go and see if you can write six volumes about it.
*All citations from: Proust, Marcel. Sodom and Gomorrah. New York: Modern Library, 1993. Print.