25 July 2014

but with more precision, dear sir, do not go too fast

Sunday, 2 March [1919]
Dine with Princess Soutzo at the Ritz -- a swell affair ... Marcel Proust and Abel Bonnard ... there as well. Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He puts his fur coat on afterwards and sits hunched there in white kid gloves. Two cups of black coffee he has, with chunks of sugar. yet in his talk there is no affectation. He asks no questions. Will I please tell him how the committees work? I say: 'Well, we generally meet at 10.0, there are secretaries behind ...' 'Mais non, mais non, you are going too fast. Start anew. You take a car to the delegation. You get out at the Quai d'Orsay. You walk up the steps. You enter the Great Hall. And then? With more precision, dear sir, more precision.' So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of paper: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time. 'But with more precision, dear sir, do not go too fast.'

This is part of Harold Nicolson's diary from the negotiations at Versailles at the end of World War I, quoted in In Europe: travels through the twentieth century by Geert Mak (page 127). Nicolson's recounting of his diplomatic experience is heartbreaking, especially in light of the futility of war. He continues with talk of the inevitability of more conflict because of the terms forced upon the Germans.

As horrible as the thoughts are of the futility of the war and negotiations, I cannot help but be thrilled by the precision that Proust wants, the same care that goes into descriptions in In search of lost time.

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