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Failure of Compassion

Posted by clissold345 on September 6, 2007

Swann reveals to the Duchess that he is dying. At her parties, in her own set, she always knows exactly how to behave, but here (for the first time in her life says Proust) she is momentarily lost, she doesn’t know which of two actions to choose. Her solution is to deny that there is a choice. Proust is perhaps unfair to the Duchess here. She does show some compassion for Swann but it is soon set aside as she prepares to leave (to dine out at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s).

The passage I’m discussing above is from The Guermantes Way:

Placée pour la première fois de sa vie entre deux devoirs aussi différents que monter dans sa voiture pour aller dîner en ville, et témoigner de la pitié à un homme qui va mourir, elle ne voyait rien dans le code des convenances qui lui indiquât la jurisprudence à suivre et, ne sachant auquel donner la préférence, elle crut devoir faire semblant de ne pas croire que la seconde alternative eût à se poser, de façon à obéir à la première qui demandait en ce moment moins d’efforts, et pensa que la meilleure manière de résoudre le conflit était de le nier. (Page 349 of volume 8 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and shewing pity for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow, and, not knowing which to choose, felt it better to make a show of not believing that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, so as to follow the first, which demanded of her at the moment less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that any existed.


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