Tag Archives: Proust

Within a Budding Grove: Proust

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 WayMarcel 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.

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Filed under Fiction, posts, Proust Marcel

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein

First the disclaimer: I have not read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Several years ago, I started to read the first volume and while I enjoyed it, something came along which distracted me from my reading project. Since this was a work that I really wanted to pay attention to, I decided that the time wasn’t right. I meant to return to Proust, and I will, thanks to the encouragement of other bloggers, so when I saw the nonfiction book Monsieur Proust’s Library from Anka Muhlstein, I decided to read it as a sort of enticement–an encouragement, if you will. But there’s another reason I decided to read Monsieur Proust’s Library: last year I read and enjoyed Balzac’s Omelette from the same author. As anyone who has read Balzac knows, it would be easy to spend one’s entire life analysing and dissecting La Comédie Humaine, but author Anka Muhlstein wisely chose to examine the place of food in Balzac’s work. This now brings me to Monsieur Proust’s Library, and here the focus is books and reading in Remembrance of Things Past.

I’ll admit that I would have got more out of this book had I read Proust’s work, but on one level, while Monsieur Proust’s Library is an academic work, it’s also very user-friendly, so even if I didn’t know who some of the characters were, their place in Proust’s world was adequately explained. So in other words, if you haven’t read Proust yet, or you’ve only read bits, then don’t be put off of this book as it illuminates a particular accessible thread that runs through Proust’s work. The author acknowledges that while “there are many ways of approaching a novel as complex as La Recherche,” she elected to “shed light on subjects as varied as Proust’s literary affinities, his passion for the classics, his curiosity about contemporary writers, and his knack of finding astonishingly apt quotations to put in the mouths of his characters.” And so for around 160 pages, the author appears to have great fun picking out just how books and reading fit into Proust’s masterpiece. Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands. Two hundred characters inhabit the world he imagined, and some sixty writers preside over it. Certain of them, like Chateaubriand and Baudelaire, inspired him, while others, Mme de Sévigné, Racine, Saint Simon, and Balzac enhanced his personages.

The author explores Proust’s early reading life and how books “enabled him to escape the narrow confines” of his world (I’m sure most of us can relate to that), and the influence of Baudelaire and Ruskin on La Recherche before moving onto the contributions of Racine and Balzac’s work. I was delighted to learn that Proust was influenced by Balzac, and yet theirs was not an overwhelmingly positive reader-writer relationship. Anka Muhlstein notes that Proust “never claimed to be fond of the great nineteenth century novelist,” and instead Proust’s noted favourites were Racine, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Baudelaire. Proust considered Balzac’s work to show a “certain lack of elegance,” and “an obsession with the ways in which money is made.” At the same time, however, Muhlstein argues that Proust was an avid reader of Balzac and admired him for his use of re-appearing characters and “audacious treatment of sexual deviation.” And I’ll admit a certain gratification to learn that Proust greatly admired Dostoevsky, and when once asked which was ‘the most beautiful novel he ever read,” he selected The IdiotDostoevsky is worked into La Recherche in several ways, including through the analysis of his work in the “literature courses the Narrator inflicts on Albertine.”

The author argues that Proust “establishes a hierarchy” for the book’s characters with some being ‘good’ readers and other characters being poor readers, either for the choice of reading material or for their utter lack of understanding of the material at hand. According to Muhlstein, “every bad reader exemplifies a distinct moral or intellectual shortcoming,” so we see Professor Brichot (“Proust has little regard for academics“), Mme de Villeparisis and Mme de Brissac who are all sadly lacking as readers. Oriane, Duchess of Guermantes, on the other hand, uses books to wield “a wonderfully subtle form of domination” over others in her social circle, while Baron de Charlus, (inspired, argues Muhlstein by Balzac’s Vautrin) is so obsessed with literature that he acts out parts of Saint Simon’s memoirs.

A life without books was inconceivable for Proust. Not surprisingly, he made literary taste and reading habits a means of defining his characters. Everybody in La Recherche reads: servants and masters, children, parents and grandparents, artists and physicians, even generals. Conversations at dinner tables and among friends are mostly literary.

I’ve always thought that if I wrote fiction, I’d have great fun creating characters who were composites of people I really couldn’t stand as well as a few I’d really liked. In other words I’d have a sort of literary and social revenge, so I throughly enjoyed reading about Proust’s characters as good, bad, or indifferent readers.

 Another marvellous aspect of the book is the way glimpses of Proust peer through the pages. We see Proust not just as a writer, but also as a reader–someone for whom reading was a serious business. We learn about how as a child “he cried at the end of every book and was unable to go to sleep, desolate at the idea of leaving the characters he had grown attached to.” But this is Proust in childhood. Anka Muhlstein shows an adult Proust writing La Recherche applying all that was dear to him and yet also playing with those ideas through his characters.

It’s always interesting to know who authors were influenced by, who their favourite writers and their favourite books were, and the fact that Proust read & was influenced by Balzac, in spite of his flaws, tells me that I’ll really like La Recherche when I get to it, and I sense that reading Monsieur Proust’s Library has not only prepped me for The Big Read, but will also help me enjoy the novels when I finally get to them.

 Review copy

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Filed under Muhlstein Anka, Non Fiction