Tuesday, July 05, 2011

French Face: The Ruinatioin of the Duke

Reflecting yesterday on French "face," in particular as represented by Marcel Proust, I found myself remembering what is surely funniest yet also most horrifying episodes in the whole of Proust's long novel.  Our subject is the encounter--really, two encounters--between "the Princess's usher" (unnamed) and "Son Altesse, Monseigneur le duc de Châtellerault."  We begin in the shadows:
Now, a few days earlier, the Princess’s usher had met in the Champs-Elysées a young man whom he had found charming but whose identity he had been unable to establish. Not that the young man had not shewn himself as obliging as he had been generous. All the favours that the usher had supposed that he would have to bestow upon so young a gentleman, he had on the contrary received. But M. de Châtellerault was as reticent as he was rash; he was all the more determined not to disclose his incognito since he did not know with what sort of person he was dealing; his fear would have been far greater, although quite unfounded, if he had known. He had confined himself to posing as an Englishman, and to all the passionate questions with which he was plied by the usher, desirous to meet again a person to whom he was indebted for so much pleasure and so ample a gratuity, the Duke had merely replied, from one end of the Avenue Gabriel to the other: “I do not speak French.”
From there we emerge into the blinding light--the Princess's dazzling party, where that same usher presides as gatekeeper, "garbed in black like a headsman, surrounded by a group of lackeys in the most cheerful livery, lusty fellows ready to seize hold of an intruder and cast him out of doors."  Monseigneur le duc approaches the entryway, and disaster:
Having to respond to all the smiles, all the greetings waved to him from inside the drawing-room, he had not noticed the usher. But from the first moment the usher had recognised him. The identity of this stranger, which he had so ardently desired to learn, in another minute he would know. When he asked his ‘Englishman’ of the other evening what name he was to announce, the usher was not merely stirred, he considered that he was being indiscreet, indelicate. He felt that he was about to reveal to the whole world (which would, however, suspect nothing) a secret which it was criminal of him to force like this and to proclaim in public. Upon hearing the guest’s reply: “Le duc de Châtellerault,” he felt such a burst of pride that he remained for a moment speechless. The Duke looked at him, recognised him, saw himself ruined, while the servant, who had recovered his composure and was sufficiently versed in heraldry to complete for himself an appellation that was too modest, shouted with a professional vehemence softened by an emotional tenderness: “Son Altesse Monseigneur le duc de Châtellerault!” 
 --Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain Chapter  1; 
vol. 4 of Remembrance of things Past
translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff 
(Sodom et Gomorrhe, Tome 4 of À la Recherche du temps perdu)


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