I mentioned in my last Proust post the Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition. (Special thanks to Patrick Alexander, the author of the incredibly helpful Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past.) Given that Monty P made a skit on this topic, it’s not a difficult guess to say it’s a gargantuan task to summarize Proust. Many books have been written analyzing Proust, summarizing Proust, and then all the PhDs… so here I am writing a blog post on Book II: Within a Budding Grove. For this reader, Book II is about Youth. Yes, there you have it. I may be wrong, I may be right, but I am keeping it simple. An alternate title of this book is: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, so perhaps I am right about Youth as a theme.
In Swann’s Way, we read a lot about the narrator’s childhood: his interests, his health, his relatives, his holidays etc. Within a Budding Grove Marcel is older, and discovers sex (thanks to his friend, Bloch and brothels). Indeed Marcel’s interest in the opposite sex seems to dominate here, but again, it’s youth pushing the narrative.
Time has moved on since the first volume, yes Marcel is no longer a child, and little Gilberte, the daughter of Monsieur and Madame Swann has also grown up. Marcel visits the home of the Swanns often and is in love with Gilberte, but their relationship only goes so far and eventually cools.
The novel oozes snobbery, sometimes consciously as when portraying the intricate snobbery of the bourgeoise, but sometimes unconsciously too. Marcel goes on holiday to Balbec with his grandmother, and snobbery rages within the hotel. No doubt this is due to the fact that anyone can book and pay for a room; it’s not as exclusionary as one’s drawing room. At one point, Marcel notes that the liftboy refers to Françoise, one of his grandmother’s servants, as an “employee.” At first Marcel is confused:
Suddenly I remembered that the title of ’employee’ is, like the wearing of a moustache among waiters, a sop to their self-esteem.
It’s amusing that Marcel never even considers the possibility that he may be the one who is incorrect, or stuck in the past which swarms with countless peasants. He decides that there is no difference between hotel workers and servants.
One of the greatest moments in the novel occurs when Marcel sees a group of girls along the seafront. One is pushing a bike and two others have golf clubs–all the accoutrements of physical activity and exertion. One of the girls is Albertine, Marcel’s (future great love):
Just as if, in the heart of their band, which progressed along the ‘front’ like a luminous comet, they had decided that the surrounding crowd was composed of creatures of another race whose suffering could not awaken in them any sense of fellowship, they appeared not to see them, forced those who had stopped to talk to step aside, as though from the path of a machine that had been set going by itself, so that it was no good waiting for it to get out of their way, their upmost sign of consciousness being, when, if some old gentleman of whom they did not admit the existence and thrust from them the contact, had fled with a frightened or furious, but a headlong or ludicrous motion, they looked at one another and smiled. They had, for whatever did not form part of their group, no affection of contempt, their genuine contempt was sufficient. But they could not set eyes on an obstacle without amusing themselves by crossing it, either in a running jump or with both feet together, because they were all filled to the brim, exuberant with that youth which we need so urgently to spend.
One of the young girls even leaps from a bandstand over the head of an elderly gentleman, parked by his much younger wife, “brushing” his yachting cap with her feet as she did so. There’s no compassion for age or infirmity; oh the harshness of youth, and yet there’s also the idea that time is passing and one day these young girls will be the object of derision from another generation. We all have our day in the sun.
It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for, when the body is fixed in an immobility which holds no fresh surprises in store, when one loses all hope on seeing–as on a tree in the height of summer one sees leaves already brown–round a face still young hair that is growing this or turning gray; it is so short, that radiant morning time, that one comes to like only the youngest girls, those in whom the flesh, like a precious leaven, is still at work.
Marcel is fascinated by this group of girls and later in the book, he tries to force a kiss on one of the girls, Albertine. He has mistaken her flagrant, rude youth and behaviour for sexual permissiveness.. There’s also the sense that the world is changing: one person has electricity installed, and heaven forbid, some people have phones! The book is packed with memorable characters: the Marquis de Saint-Loup, a man obsessed with his demanding, imperious mistress, and the unpleasant Baron de Charlus. I rather liked Mme de Villeparisis, an aristo also staying at the hotel. And then the marvellous image of Madame Swann:
So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity, of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o’clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.