The Dragon Within

The concluding pages of The Guermantes Way is one very long riff on the essence of the nobility, a subject that has little currency for me. The prose, as always, is lively, but I am not engaged by long passages on the distinctions between the Courvoisiers and the Guermantes. Marcel’s fascination with names, names of the aristocracy in this case and their places of origin, is amply documented. The Charlus interlude is very welcome. Yet there are occasions where we recognize ourselves. Take the case of Swann’s announcement of his impending death and how it is received, filtered by the listeners’ preoccupations, lack of reference and, yet, love for the man.

 Swann cryptically talks of death. He has brought a picture for the Duchess to see.

“But, my dear Charles, I’m longing to see your photograph.”

“Ah! Extinctor diraconis latrator Anubis,”said Swann.

“Yes, it was so charming what you said about that apropos of San Giorgio at Venice. But I don’t understand why Anubis?” (III,810)

The Duchess gets the reference to the dragon and how it is famously associated with Venice. The last part of the phrase is from Vergil, referring to the “baying jackal Anubis,” a carrier of corpses across the Charon. Swann is content to leave himself unexplained. She invites Swann to accompany her and the Duke on a visit to Italy.

“Very well, give me in one word the reason why you can’t come to Italy,” the Duchess put it to Swann as she rose to say good-by to us.

“But my dear lady, it’s because I shall then have been dead for several months. According to the doctors I’ve consulted, by the end of the year the thing I’ve got–which may, for that matter carry me off at any moment–won’t in any case leave me more than three or four months to live, and even that is a generous estimate,” replied Swann with a smile, while the footman opened the glazed door of the hall to let the Duchess out.

“What’s that you say?” cried the Duchess, stopping for moment on her way to the carriage and raising her beautiful, melancholy blue eyes, now clouded by uncertainty. Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow; not knowing which to choose, she felt obliged to pretend not to believe that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, in order to comply with the first, which at the moment demanded less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that any existed. “You’re joking,” she said to Swann. (III,816)


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