Remembrance of Things Past is one of the monuments of 20th century literature. Within a Budding Grove is the second of seven volumes. The young narrator, experiencing his youthful sexuality, falls under the spell of a group of adolescent girls, succumbs to the charms of the enchanting Gilberte and visits a brothel where he meets Rachel. His impressions of life are also stimulated by the painter, Elstir, and his encounter with another girl, Albertine.
The title A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs is translated various ways. Moncrief’s Within a Budding Grove sucks. Seriously, where are the girls and the play of light? I prefer Nabokov’s more natural In the Shade of the Blooming Young Girls. My doubts about whether I am reading what the author actually wrote normally steer me away from reading translations---but I make an exception for this vast, supremely intelligent novel.
On the surface this part of the Recherche covers the beautiful, rich, stylish, asthmatic, and batty Narrator’s youthful loves: Gilberte and her mother in Paris; the faces and voices of Albertine and the rest of the little band in Balbec; and Charlus (although the Narrator naively did not comprehend what was going on). They all end badly, Gilberte gets tired of him, Albertine calls for help to thwart his advances and Charlus even administers a salutary douche.
I think the Narrator’s love for Odette is the most profound of them all; it is her fragrance that intoxicates, her housecoats that delight, her chrysanthemums that have special significance. She is observed down to the lining of her jacket. The mauve vision of Odette in her slow procession through the Bois is for me the most enchanting part of the novel. Accompanied by her entourage who are awed by her beauty and wealth, saluted by Princes, she is more aristocratic than the aristocrats and singularly sums up the belle epoque. And Odette is important to Proust, for, despite her mediocre intelligence, she has invented “a physiognomy of her own”---that is, she has invented herself.
Proust is a subtle and penetrating psychologist and has superhuman powers of analogy. He has created images that impress themselves on my mind: the sea reflected in Balbec hotel's bookcases, the green dining room, Berma with her arm extended, the hawthorne, and of course the mauve image of Odette. As if it were an Elstir painting, Proust’s novel has the feel of a mirage in a tinted haze; just so, the bit about the letters with Gilberte is recalled by me now as perhaps letters that the Narrator dreamed he wrote to Gilberte, or maybe wrote them and didnt send them, or maybe sent them and imagined her reply, or maybe he did receive an actual response. I cant tell. Very nice effect.
The other thing that keeps me coming back to Proust is the brilliant observations that appear on virtually every page. To give but two instances: he dumps on Norpois “...to repeat what everybody else was thinking was, in politics, the mark not of an inferior but of a superior mind”; and reflects on Bergotte’s genius, “...the men who produce works of genius are not those that live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those that have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in the reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.” There is simply a lot to chew on.
I wont talk of Proust’s larger themes (Time, Art, Memory, Self-Deception, Life’s Irony, etc.) but I do want to recommend some criticism that I found enlightening: Pippin’s essay Becoming who one is (and failing) and Landy’s excellent Philosophy as Fiction.
There are a couple things that continue to puzzle me: what is the actual relationship between Bloch and Odette? is Bergotte a homosexual? Perhaps the reader might leave me a message to help me out.
Proust does not show what's happening with dialog, he tells, and tells in a verbose way. You will find yourself mired in page after page of tedious descriptions of French social order or on some other tangent, with long parentheses-ridden sentences, wishing he would get on with it. Yes, he may be catching all sorts of subtleties in what he’s trying so very hard to explain, but in leaving no stone unturned, he becomes too much of a chore to read.
There were some points when I thought ah, here we go, we’re settled in now, and this at last is the reason people love this guy. At the end of part one, and the beginning of part two, when he gets into the trials and tribulations of love, and in the fleeting nature of things, such as seeing and passing by the young girl at a train station, he was at his best for me. The scene where his doctor advises him to have ‘a little too much beer or brandy, so as to be in the state he called euphoria’, to have him calm down before his rail journey (much to his grandmother’s consternation), is excellent, as the state of the narrator is told masterfully through the reactions of those around him.
Unfortunately these types of moments are not sustained. Just as the narrator’s reaction to La Berma, an actress who is revered, is to his disappointment lukewarm, and he is constantly searching for signs of genius in her when all of the other actresses seem to be superior, I find this is my reaction to Proust, years after having read the first volume. I feel a bit like an infidel giving him such a low rating, but I don’t think this book holds up, and I wonder whether glowing reviews are a function of his reputation, and the feat one feels for having slogged through and finished this book.
On being cruel to family, and the ones you love:
“But my grandmother, noticing that I looked put out, said that, if the taking of the photograph was bothersome to me, she would not go ahead with it. I did not want her to abandon the idea, told her I had no objection, and let her titivate herself. But I thought it was pretty clever and superior of me to say a few hurtful and sarcastic words to her, so as to neutralize the pleasure she seemed to look forward to from being photographed; and though I was obliged to see her magnificent hat, at least I managed to banish from her face the signs of a joy that I ought to have been happy to share with her, but which, as so often happens while those whom we love best are still alive, can strike us a mere irritant, a mark of something silly and small-minded, rather than the precious revelation of the happiness we long to give them.”
On flirtation, and wow on the ‘shed my pleasure’ bit:
“As I came close to Gilberte, who was leaning back in her chair, telling me to take the letter but not handing it to me, I felt so attracted by her body that I said:
‘You try to stop me from getting it and we’ll see who wins.’
She held it behind her back, and I put my hands behind her neck, lifting the long plaits which hung on her shoulders, either because it was a hairstyle that suited her age, or because her mother wanted her to appear younger than she was, so as not to age too rapidly herself; and in that strained posture, we tussled with each other. I kept trying to draw her closer to me; she kept resisting. Flushed with the effort, her cheeks were as red and round as cherries; she laughed as though I were tickling her. I had her pinned between my legs as though she were the bole of a little tree I was trying to climb. In the middle of all my exertions, without my breathing being quickened much more than it already was by muscular exercise and the heat of the playful moment, like a few drops of sweat produced by the effort, I shed my pleasure, before I even had time to be aware of the nature of it, and managed to snatch the letter away from her. Gilberte said in a friendly tone:
‘If you like, we could wrestle a bit more.’”
“Peace of mind is foreign to love, since each new fulfillment one attains is never anything but a new starting point for the desire to go beyond it.”
On love unrequited:
“With a woman who does not love us, as with someone who has died, the knowledge that there is nothing left to hope for does not prevent us from going on waiting. One lives in a state of alertness, eyes and ears open; a mother whose son has gone on a dangerous sea voyage always has the feeling, even when she has long known for certain that he has perished, that he is just about to come through the door, saved by a miracle, unscathed.”
On love’s settings:
“I rang the ‘lift’, to go up to the room Albertine had taken, which overlooked the valley. The slightest motions, the mere act of sitting down on the little seat inside the elevator, were full of sweetness, because they were in direct touch with my heart; in the cables that hauled the lift upward, and in the few stairs still to be climbed, I saw nothing but the workings of my joy and the steps toward it, materialized. In the corridor, I was only a few paces away from the bedroom inside which lay the precious substance of her pink body – the room which, however delightful the acts to take place in it, would go on being its unchanging self, would continue to seem, for the eyes of any unsuspecting passerby, identical to all the other rooms, which is the way things have of becoming the stubbornly unconfessing witnesses, the conscientious confidants, the inviolable trustees of our pleasure.”
On snobbery, loved this one:
“Whenever the notary’s wife and the good lady of the First President saw her at mealtimes in the dining room, they would hold up their eyeglasses and give her a good, long, insolent stare, with such an air of punctilious distaste and misgiving that she might have been a dish of pompous name and dubious appearance which, after subjecting it to a rigorous inspection, one waves away with a distant gesture and a grimace of disgust.”
On women (or chasing women); this one brought a smile:
“…I was on an errand with a friend of my father’s when from the carriage I caught sight of a woman walking away into the dark: the thought struck me that it was absurd to forfeit, for a reason of mere propriety, a share of happiness in this life, it being no doubt the only one we are to have, and so I jumped out without as much as a by-your-leave, ran after the intriguing creature, lost her at a crossing of two streets, saw her again on another street, and eventually ran her to ground under a lamppost, where I found I was out of breath and face-to-face with the aging Mme Verdurin, whom I usually avoided like the plague, and who now cried in delight and surprise, ‘Oh, how nice of you to chase after me just to say good evening!’”
“One lives among monsters and gods, a stranger to peace of mind. There is scarcely a single one of our acts from that time which we would not prefer to abolish later on. But all we should lament is the loss of the spontaneity that urged them upon us. In later life, we see things with a more practical eye, one we share with the rest of society; but adolescence was the only time we ever learned anything.”
I loved these little snippets, reflecting the times:
“In those days, in that part of Paris, which was seen as rather remote (indeed, the whole city was darker then than nowadays, none of the streets, even in the center of town, being lit by electricity, and very few of the houses), lamps glowing inside a drawing room on a ground floor or a mezzanine, which was where Mme Swann’s receiving rooms were, could light up the street and draw the glance of passerby, who saw in these illuminations a manifest but veiled relation to the handsome horses and carriages waiting outside the front doors.”
And this one, imagining a ‘phototelephone’, a device which will create an image of the person speaking from the sound of their voice, as opposed to transmitting video:
“…her voice was like the one that it is said will be part of the phototelephone of the future: the sound of it gave a vivid picture of her.”
The beginning and the end of the book are propelled by the pursuit of the two objects of the Narrator's romantic obsession: Gilberte Swann and Albertine Simonet. They are typically portrayed in a sketch like fashion - their hair, skin, hands, a few things they say or do - and not in a way that gives the reader a very clear picture of what makes them so fascinating. Facile as he is with words, it seems as though the Narrator may simply be unable to explain his drive to captivate these young women to the reader.
I don't think there are many true stock characters among all the ones who make an appearance. These are complex people, with secrets and the capacity to surprise. Part of it is the strength of reputation and family which sets up preconceptions about how a person is expected to comport him or herself, which frequently conflicts with the urgings of the heart.
The book ends in a quiet, reflective fashion, with the Narrator in bed almost the same way the first volume started out. If he is aware of how his words and actions have moved him in a direction that feels likely to lead to unhappiness, he doesn't appear to show it.
Proust's portrayal of the end of the 19th century brings us into a world with different mores, traditions and world outlook which have been rarely equalled in world literature. Voluminous, the books which compose the series necessitate this copious literature in order to examine precisely the subject which concerns them all communally : The passing of time and the memories which haunt us.
The Whole Recherche in general, and A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles in particular, show Proust's complete master of the subject matter and the minutious details that flower from his literature. Assiduous must be he who undertakes the task of completing La Recherche, but Proust never loses the readers' attention, constantly bringing in metaphors and similes that richly manipulate the story and that can stand separately as unique pieces of writing.
An excellent read and the most evolved style of French literature, having for backing some six centuries of literature which Proust knows from A to Z.
After completing the first volume and well into this second, I still had a difficult time resolving the story’s point-of-view. Are we hearing from a very mature boy or is this a man reminiscing of the past? A few references in Place-Names:The Places to future events indicates that it’s actually the later. Upon recognizing this, another story came to mind. The literati will hang me for likening a work of Proust to something so base, but I started thinking of Jean Shepherd. More correctly, his narration of the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. I began imagining the same “adult remembering his childhood thinking like an adult” voice within Proust’s work and everything clicked into place for me.
In the first book, we finally reach the conclusion of the narrator’s “love affair” with Gilberte Swann. Typical of youthful relationships, he destroys any last hope of being with Gilberte by “playing games.” After a small understanding, he and Gilberte have an argument and stop seeing each other. Instead of mending fences, he adopts the belief that snubbing Gilberte will make her long for him more and she will eventually come running back to him. However, the picture that has been painted of our protagonist is one of a relatively weak, sickly and immature child. In actuality, he doesn’t have much to offer Gilberte and she readily replaces him with someone else.
During this period of trying to make Gilberte more interested by staying away, he does maintain a somewhat unnaturally close relationship with Gilberte’s mother, Odette Swann. Knowing Odette’s possibly tawdry past, one wonders if she isn’t actually interested in Gilberte’s “playmate.” The book ends innocently enough however with his departure to Balbec.
Once finally in Balbec, the reader is treated to more descriptive scenes of painstaking minutia. These can be a treat for today’s reader through the enjoyment of studying Proust’s use of language, but it does make progressing through the story challenging.
The narrator’s time in Balbec is once again centered around the incongruous workings of the young mind. He befriends Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray. At first, he sees him as “uppity” but really wants to be his friend. Once the friendship is established, we learn that Saint-Loup may be the first truly “stand up” character we’ve encountered in Proust’s cast.
Finally, the narrator discovers the “little group of girls.” He repeats past mistakes by going after one to make another jealous, getting “dumped” by that one, chasing someone else and all the while missing out that another is actually interested in him. He ignores all of his other friends while pursuing the girls and eventually tarnishes the one good friendship he had with Saint-Loup.
The language and time differences aside, every reader will probably recognize similar mistakes they’ve made (or continue to make) in their dealings with others. This ability to relate to the story makes In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower more approachable than the first volume, Swann’s Way.
In this volume, our narrator focuses on his first loves -- cutting things off with Gilberte and moving on to his infatuation with Albertine. Most of the novel takes place in the seaside resort of Balbec.
As in the first novel, there are plenty of gorgeous passages to savor. But Proust's general wordiness bothered me more this time around. Something about the voice didn't quite fit with the recollections as well as it did in the first volume. Still, there are plenty of snatches of brilliance along the way.
This volume convinced me I need to stretch out my reading to one book every three months or so... (I had originally hoped to read all seven volumes this year.) It took nearly a month to read this one and it made me look forward to reading something a little less challenging!
So I start reading, (so excited!!!), and it turns out that my memory has played me for a fool: before we even get to Balbec, there are hundreds of pages of fairly uninspired sequel to Swann. The narrator eventually falls out of 'love' with Gilberte, but you probably won't care. He remains awe-struck by Mme. Swann, about which you will care slightly more. But really, we just want to get to the beach.
And once there, it's as fabulous as I remember. How does he remember what it's like to be 15? How does he manage to make you think about the girls/boys you 'loved' when you were 15, with just a few well-placed episodes? How does he have such deep knowledge of the stupid things we do? And then, how does he combine this with hilarious comedy-of-manners parts, interesting essays on aesthetics, and fairly dull ekphraseis (tell me more about that water-colour. No, really.), as well as nearly as many zinging aphorisms as Swann's--
"We construct our lives for one person, and when at length it is ready to receive her that person does not come; presently she is dead to us, and we live on, prisoners within the walls which were intended only for her."
--and reflection on and warnings about the use of other peoples' aphorisms
"Whenever we confidently admire anyone, we collect from him and quote with admiration sayings vastly inferior to the sort which, left to our own judgment, we would sternly reject, just as the writer of a novel puts into it, on the pretext that they are true, 'witticism' and characters which in the living context are like a dead weight, mere padding."
How does he do this? I have no idea. Amazing. But as ever the longueurs will keep people from discovering how wonderful Proust is, which is a real shame.
The narrator is, predictably, also contemplating girls. The first book left him infatuated with Gilberte Swann, and we see a sort of resolution of that entanglement here. Then he goes to the seaside at Balbec and is intrigued by a group of girls who wander together and look like they're having a lot of fun. The changeable nature of adolescent love comes to the forefront, and Proust pokes at the idea that at that age, you're just looking for someone to be in love with. Circumstances can play a bigger part in actually falling in love than any quality of the loved one.
Not much happens in the way of plot, of course, but I think this is an intriguing book for the time period it covers in the narrator's life. So much happens in these awkward years internally, and there are episodes where the narrator seems impossibly childish, then quite grown up, then so completely unsure of himself that I am saying out loud, "what a dolt" in reaction to something he does. It's full of warmth, humor, nostalgia, and the confusion over what might be going on in other people's heads. It has solidified my desire to keep going with this series.
Recommended for: people who remember being a teenager, people who realize that every generation throughout history has said "Kids these days!"
Quote: "So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new "good book," because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation of every one of them would not enable him to discover, since it exists not in their sum but beyond it."
But even during the narrative, Marcel realized memory’s willfulness and the variation in hues, shapes, pitch and timbre between the actual object and its mental reconstruction. When he encountered an old friend, the facial features were so different from his recollection and reconstruction, for better or for worse pregnant with all the emotions, preoccupation, biases, that he could not match face with voice.
Because recollected sensation can never equate with the actual experience and time, like a patient thief, steals memories a morsel at a time until one day the owner would realize he was ruined, Marcel ultimately would fail to recapture and assemble stolen sensations and decayed seconds and in the end, must create new moments, new sensations and ultimately a new biography, through the synergy between past experiences and creative imagination. From those deceased hours and decayed memories sprouted In Search of Lost Time, not only Proust’s novel but also that of the narrator.
Whether we savor Marcel’s frailness, Swann’s infatuation, Charlus’s pompousness, Franscoise’s independent-mindedness, the sorties’ frivolousness or the social revelation of the Dreyfuss Affair, we can enjoy Proust’s classic without resorting to Marxist or Freudian or Feminist critique. And the sentences, like the serpentine Amazon, seemed to flow unceasingly into the distant horizon carrying with it the sparkling sunlight. Although ascending the novel’s three thousand pages appears precipitous, the effort will be well worth the while and, at the end of the adventure, the reader can rest on the crisp apex and savor time’s transience and memory’s playfulness as if they were alpine zephyrs.
This book concentrates on Proust himself, rather than Swann, with his thoughts and actions being described in every bit as much detail, if not more. This book is a bit longer than the first, and though it is perhaps a bit more pedestrian in its ambitions, it does not miss out any of the things which made the reading first one as good as it was. Perhaps if this book had been too similar to the first one it would have felt somewhat tedious to read straight afterwards, but as this book is written from the point of a young Proust, in contrast to the older Swann of much of the first book, it is refreshing to notice the change of perspective. Swann is always so sure of his ideas, his wants, and his enjoyments, whereas young Proust here shows a certain indecision, a mind not yet completely made up about things, which does not come across in most of the reflections in the first book. Some of the things that recur in this book include the importance of art and sensibility, and the characters preoccupation with love, which I am guessing will run throughout the remaining volumes.
I don't know whether or not it is appropriate to recommend this book, as I normally would at the end of a review, as it would be more sensible to read Swann's Way first, and then read this too, if you enjoyed the first one. But, what I can say is that if you did read and enjoy Swann's Way, then there is not much that you are likely to dislike about this book, and you may like me even possibly prefer it.