Encountering her old friend at the Guermantes' party, Gilberte urges Marcel to accept an invitation to dine at her house... instead of getting lost at such large gatherings.
"But really," she teases him,
"since you sometimes emerge from your ivory tower, wouldn't you prefer little intimate gatherings which I could arrange, with just a few intelligent and sympathetic people?" (TR, 435)
I can't speak for Gilberte, but Marcel's answer to this offer definitely took me by surprise. If I had overheard it at the party, I am sure I would have blushed.
"I should always enjoy being invited," he tells Gilberte...
"...to meet young girls, poor girls if possible, whom I could give pleasure by quite small gifts, without expecting anything of them in return except that they should serve to renew within me the dreams and sadnesses of my youth and perhaps, one improbable day, a single chaste kiss" (TR, 439).
That's all he wants really.
Enough time before he dies to finish his novel. And occasional kisses from... "young girls, poor girls."
Marcel notes that "Gilberte smiled and then looked as though she were seriously giving her mind to the problem" (TR, 439), and then he moves on to other subjects.
Some time later, though, he -- and we -- discover that Gilberte has "reached a decision bolder than any [he] would have thought possible" (TR, 501).
She wants to introduce her daughter to him. "I am sure that she will be a charming little friend for you" (TR, 501), she remarks, suggestively.
And a few minutes after that, Marcel's eyes light on the young Mlle de Saint-Loup at last:
"I saw Gilberte coming across the room towards me... I was astonished to see at her side a girl of about sixteen, whose tall figure was a measure of the distance which I had been reluctant to see. Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl, moulding her into a masterpiece, while correspondingly, on me, alas! it had merely done its work. And now Mlle de Saint-Loup was standing in front of me. She had deep-set piercing eyes, and a charming nose thrust slightly forward in the form of a beak and curved, perhaps not in the least like that of Swann but like Saint-Loup's... I thought her very beautiful: still rich in hopes, full of laughter, formed from those very years which I myself had lost, she was like my own youth" (TR, 507).
Despite the creepy context of Gilberte's proposal, the striking image of this girl, the daughter of Saint-Loup (Marcel's closest friend) and Gilbete (Marcel's first erotic interest) has lingered with me in the weeks since I finished the novel.
I find her arrival, in this final scene, to be tremendously powerful -- representing, in some unreachable way (but here, strangely, quite literally reachable for Marcel), the arrival of the physical embodiment of the novel itself.
Think about it: isn't our imaginative experience of staring, alongside Marcel, into Mlle de Saint-Loup's "deep-set piercing eyes," akin to staring into the deep mystery at the core of this novel?
Through Marcel's words, I hear Proust himself, as he elaborates on the significance of Mlle de Saint-Loup for him personally:
"Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle de Saint-Loup, and which radiated around her. Firstly, the two great "ways" themselves, where on my many walks I had dreamed so many dreams, both led to her: through the father Robert de Saint-Loup the Guermantes way; through Gilberte, her mother, the Méséglise way which was also "Swann's way... And then between these two high roads a network of transversals was set up. Balbec, for example, the real Balbec where I had met Saint-Loup, was a place that I had longed to go to very largely because of what Swann had told me... And Mlle de Saint-Loup led to many other points of my life, to the lady in pink, for instance, who was her grandmother and whom I had seen in the house of my great-uncle..." (TR, 502).
She contains, in her young girl's form, almost every event and friendship and entanglement in the novel -- truly she is one of the "giants plunged into the years" of which Marcel plans to write.
And there is still one more touch of genius to the appearance of Mlle de Saint-Loup.
For recall that in an early passage, Marcel tells us, almost off-handedly, her fate:
"Years later, this daughter, whose name and fortune gave her mother the right to hope that she would crown the whole work of social ascent of Swann and his wife by marrying a royal prince, happening to be entirely without snobbery, chose for her husband an obscure man of letters" (TR, 501).
She gives it all up to marry a "man of letters"!
This "man of letters" need not be literally Marcel, or Proust: it is enough that he is a writer -- is it not?
The more I think about it, I have come to see that the novel here achieves something astonishing: it is a form that loops into itself endlessly.
I don't mean this only in the sense that, at the conclusion of Time Regained, Marcel will write the novel we have already read. That is uncanny enough. But now there's an additional twist: the physical embodiment of this novel, representing the summation of Marcel's (and, although coded, Proust's) life, goes so far as to reject the highest claims of society... to marry a lowly writer.
In effect, Proust manages, even if obliquely, to marry his own novel. If that isn't about as close as you can possibly come in a try for immortality, I don't know what is.
(The only rival instances of this I know are the numerous iterations of "Will" in Shakespeare's sonnets... and that moment when the children in Virginia Woolf's The Waves, peeking over a high garden wall, see "the lady... between the two long windows, writing.")
I imagine the final form of the novel as having the shape of a Klein bottle:
Trace the outside surface and you go inside. Trace the inside and you go out.