Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust, translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright

Where does one start? During the last few weeks my reading has been disrupted by a burst water main, various home repairs, a bout of minor illness and of course by work. I started Within a Budding Grove during a long weekend where I thought I’d have uninterrupted time to enjoy it. I wasn’t so fortunate. In fact there were times in which a week would pass and I wasn’t able to read a single page.

It’s lucky then that Within a Budding Grove is a masterpiece. It’s lucky that Proust is an extraordinary writer. Without the sheer quality of the book I’d have had to abandon it part way through (which I have done once before). As it was though each time I dipped into it I was refreshed by it. That sounds trite, but the truth sometimes is.

I wrote about the first volume of In Search of Lost Time here. In this volume the narrator discovers girls. That may not sound like a lot with which to fill over 600 pages. Proust joins it though with the exploration of art, the gap between dream and reality, a superb portrait of upper-middle class Parisian life in the late 19th Century, a healthy dollop of satire, and with a thousand other things some of which I’m sure I missed.

Besides, as anyone who has been through adolescence knows, the discovery of sex could fill 6,000 pages. The miracle of Proust is that he finds new things to say about what must be the oldest of subjects.

I’ll turn to the plot, such as it is, in a moment. First though I wanted to note something which is becoming increasingly obvious to me. Reading Proust is inescapably personal. As I read I remembered incidents from my own life. It made me think about how I had felt in adolescence and about my small disappointments. It made me think about some of the ways I act. Proust tells a story, and he tells it well, but he also holds a mirror up to me as a reader and that for me takes his work beyond the merely good. This is great art. I’ll come back to what I mean by that.

Within a Budding Grove (in the French, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) is in two parts. In the first the narrator, in his early 20s but by modern standards emotionally much younger, falls in love with Gilberte who does not appear to love him in return. She is the daughter of Swann and Odette, whose story was told in the first volume. Gilberte is pretty and the narrator is obsessed with her but the reality is that he is in love with being in love. This is infatuation, fevered and intense. Here they mock-fight over a letter:

She thrust it behind her back; I put my arms round her neck, raising the plaits of hair which she wore over her shoulders, either because she was still of an age for it or because her mother chose to make her look a child for a little longer so as to make herself seem younger; and we wrestled, locked together. I tried to pull her towards me, and she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I were tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse; immediately I snatched the letter from her. Whereupon, Gilberte said good-naturedly: “You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling a bit longer.”

The narrator is emerging from childhood in other ways beyond the sexual. He starts to appear in society in his own right. He has his own income and is beginning to form his own ambitions.

As he is gaining independence, the narrator starts to realise some of his earlier goals. He attends the theatre and sees the famous actress Berma perform. He has dreamed of her for years. He has memorised the plays she is most famous for. When she appears in a revival of a play he already knows by heart he is so excited at having a ticket he is almost unable to attend, sick from anticipation.

The performance is a disappointment. Nothing can live up to the expectations the narrator has formed. Similarly when he meets the writer Bergotte, a major influence on the narrator’s idea of his own style, he finds him not at all what he expected. Bergotte doesn’t even look like a writer. Despite this and despite some discouraging remarks from an influential friend of his father’s the narrator still determines to become a writer himself. He loves writing as he loves Gilberte, not the reality of the thing loved but the dream of it.

Everything here is beautifully observed, and often extremely funny. Proust is at home describing a tea party as he is the uncertainty of wondering whether a friendship could be something more. He is as comfortable examining theories of art as which homes will open their doors to Mme. Swann and which will not. A passage where the narrator accompanies Mme. Swann and her entourage on her daily stroll is too long to quote here, but a marvel of description. In her blog Book Around the Corner described Proust as “the Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.” That’s spot on. Take this little vignette:

The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him in a deck-chair facing the esplanade, sheltered from wind and sun by the bandstand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him by way of diversion, one of her little absences which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed to her quite long enough but which she repeated at fairly frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection.

There is so much of love in that passing description of a minor character; one who barely recurs in the narrative. On a different note here’s an example of one of Proust’s many asides. I liked it for its continuing relevance. Proust writes about a very particular time and place, but his comments are frequently universal.

… whenever society is momentarily stationary, the people who live in it imagine that no further change will occur, just as, in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone, they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been “great changes.”

In the second part of this volume the narrator goes on holiday to the seaside, to Balbec. There, after some disappointment when he sees the famously beautiful local church which fails to live up to his imagining of it, he is dropped into the stiffly social world of his hotel.

The hotel is Paris in miniature; divided by class and money. The upper classes ignore the middle. The middle form exclusive little social circles within themselves and pretend that they did not wish to attend the salons of the upper classes (to which they were not invited). The staff show differing levels of deference according to their perception of the station of those they serve. The poor press against the windows at night, looking in on a world full of distinctions they cannot see and a luxury they cannot attain.

Like any extended summer holiday of youth, nothing really happens but it happens intensely. At first the narrator is unhappy and homesick. Later he makes a new friend and reencounters an older one, Bloch.

Bloch is another beautifully observed character. He is more worldly than the narrator (Bloch takes him to his first whorehouse, where the narrator loses his virginity), but less socially adept. Bloch is a good friend, but not a flawless one.

Bloch is Jewish. The narrator is not. The narrator thinks nothing of this difference, but others do and through their reactions and comments Proust makes apparent the casual and widespread anti-Semitism running through French life of this period. It’s a theme I understand the next book develops further.

The narrator falls in love with every girl he sees. The less he sees of her in fact, the more he falls in love. A glimpse of a woman from a moving carriage lets him fill in what he can’t see with imagination.

Let but a single flash of reality – the glimpse of a woman from afar or from behind – enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes, and we imagine that we have recognised it, our hearts beat, and we will always remain half-persuaded that it was She, provided that the woman has vanished: it is only if we manage to overtake her that we realise our mistake.

I noted that quote, but there’s several on this theme. It’s that constant thread of imagination against reality. The dream of Berma, of Bergotte, of the Balbec church and of every passing farmgirl is the same dream. It’s the dream of the perfect other which once encountered will give meaning and beauty and comfort.

The narrator daydreams of running off with a girl who sells fresh milk to train passengers at a crossing. He hopes to meet some willing country girl who will let him explore her inner self, and he convinces himself that what he wants is not just physical (not just).

I know how he feels. I spent much of my own life stunned by the beauty of women I hadn’t properly seen. At the narrator’s age I would routinely see someone, partly, from the top floor of a bus or across a tube platform and be desperate to meet them. The few occasions I did then run into them they rarely looked much like the image I had formed. My brain took a scant few details and filled in the rest from desire. I conjured futures from an arm downed with light brown hair; from the curve of a hip.

I said Proust was personal.

As he spends his days by the sea the narrator gets slowly drawn into the world of the hotel, and of Balbec. Social doors open for him and opportunities beckon. Then, however, he sees walking alongside the beach a band of girls. They are young, confident, beautiful. They look liberated and rebellious. If he could only meet them then surely one of them, it scarcely matters which, would be as interested in him as he is in them.

… the interplay of their eyes, animated with self-assurance and the spirit of comradeship and lit up from one moment to the next either by the interest or the insolent indifference which shone from each of them according to whether her glance was directed at her friends or at passers-by, together with the consciousness of knowing one another intimately enough always to go about together in an exclusive “gang,” established between their independent and separate bodies, as they slowly advanced, an invisible but harmonious bond, like a single warm shadow, a single atmosphere, making of them a whole as homogenous in its parts as it was different from the crowd through which their procession gradually wound.

He spends days waiting where they walk in the hope of casually running into them. He avoids expeditions with his grandmother (whom, with the easy resentment of adolescence, he treats at times quite badly though he still loves her profoundly), because he fears missing them. He gives huge thought to deducing the patterns of their appearances so he can put himself in their path.

At school I would walk a mile out of my way to talk to a girl I liked, pretending I happened to be going the same way regardless of the inconvenience. I doubt I was alone in that. The level of unnecessary invention at that age is staggering.

What’s wonderful here is the intensity of it all. All the emotions are raw; the friendships and the loves. A passed note holds unbearable significance. A brief touch of the hand has more meaning read into it than a thousand scholars could discover in a thousand obscure texts. The narrator meets an artist (I’ll have a separate post about that hopefully later this month) whose work affects him profoundly but it means nothing against the chance of meeting Albertine, one of the band of girls who finally takes note of him.

I said earlier that this is great art, and that I would expand on that comment. Proust has a daunting reputation. The full six volume work is huge, it lacks chapters and each volume represents hundreds of pages of introspection, digressions on art and psychology, and detailed social comment. It doesn’t look like an easy read. It isn’t particularly.

Proust isn’t though a difficult read either. Yes, it’s dense stuff and yes it needs a bit of attention (the more it gets the more it repays), but it’s incredibly well written and that makes it easier to keep going than you’d expect. It’s often very funny and a joke is rarely that far away.

This is an extraordinarily honest book. It’s an utterly unflinching examination of a life and because while we are none of us alike we are none of us so utterly different either it’s hard not to find parts of one’s own life in that life. It’s a portrait painted with immense skill but also with compassion and wit. It’s a world entire, as we all are.

Proust addresses questions of life, of art, of literature and of mortality. I’ve barely touched here on a fraction of what this book contains. Bookaroundthecorner wrote three excellent blog posts on this volume alone, here, here and here. I haven’t even discussed M. de Norpois whom bookaround rightly focuses on in one of her posts.

If I had one message I’d want anyone reading this to take away it’s this: yes, this is challenging, but it is absolutely worth it. Put the time aside, ignore your overflowing drains, your racking cough and the press of emails and push yourself a little. It won’t be work. It’s not the book to read when you feel like a bit of light escapism, but with just a little dedication it gives back far more than it asks. It’s brilliant and I feel such frustration that I can write so much and still have managed to capture so little about quite how wonderful it is.

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22 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Modernist Fiction, Personal canon, Proust, Marcel

22 responses to “Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

  1. A beautiful review! I started reading Swann’s Way some years ago and went on to book two, but never finished. It was in my student days and I had such a lot of books I had to read, so Proust had to be put back on the shelf.
    But maybe I will enjoy him even more now, being a bit more mature…

  2. Bravo. As infectiously enthusiastic and eloquent as one might expect, and a barnstorming final paragraph! Yes, I will set aside the time, very soon. This has eaten a few months out of my deliberations, so thank you.

  3. *

    wait until you get to the last volume.:)
    i just love the sea passages and bergotte… do you know benjamin’s essay on proust? it’s a great piece of writing, both the benjamin and proust….

  4. Terrific post. I completely understand how writing about great literature is frustrating; it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface. But you give a good essence of the book and certainly make me want to take up the challenge.

    “holds a mirror up to me as a reader” – there were a lot of spot-on observations here but I’ve picked out this one because it’s one of the hallmarks of really good reads. There’s something immensely satisfying about discovering something that reflects your feelings and as you say, even your memories, in great writing from the past. So much of life is universal but we go around thinking the burden is all our own. But then as you say, the intensity of works like this is accurate too, so it’s wrong to disregard that.
    Final thought. I wonder if Proust’s habit of writing in bed helped with the personal side of things?

  5. leroyhunter

    I’m with Lee: bravo Max, an excellent piece.

    That idea of the half-glimpsed ideal other…it’s funny how something that is actually so common (and in fact banal) can also be so intensely personal and affecting. It’s incredible how Proust identifies and describes those moments or sensations. As with your first post, reading this reminds me of episodes that, once recalled, are clear and sharp despite not being at the front of memory.

    I’d been struggling to get through The Guermantes Way, mostly I think because I was afraid that the typical 40min commute burst of reading wouldn’t “do justice”. I happened to have a longer train journey recently, 2 hours each way, so I got stuck in and suddenly I was 100 pages further along. So now I just give myself a dedicated hour every few days and sink back into the book. Needless to say, it’s superb.

  6. Sigrun, thanks! It is worth restarting I suspect. I think a little life experience may be a real aid reading Proust. As I mentioned above though this is my second go at this volume. I started once before, it got interrupted by work and I had to give up. This time I just pressed on and it was worth it.

    Lee, Bookaround said something about wanting more than anything to make people want to read it. That’s where I am. People far better qualified than me have written far more on it, so all that remains is to give a personal response and encourage others. If you do give it a go please let me know how it works out.

    * I don’t know that essay at all. Do you know the title of it? I’ll do some googling later.
    On the sea, I deleted a quote about it, I couldn’t find a neat place to put it. I agree though. The descriptions too of the paintings blending sea, land and sky were superb too.

  7. mrtsblog, interesting final thought.

    It is curious how this can be so unique, so much about a particular person living in a time and society so very different to my own, and yet have so much that resonates. It resonated too with bookaround, from another background again. It reminds us that even though we are each alone, we are at least alone together.

    Leroy, thanks also. Proust’s precision is remarkable. Usually if one speaks of a book as unflinching we’re in Kelman or Bukowski territory. Here the narrator has a pretty sweet life, but the gaze examines even the most fleeting emotions within it and does so with a forensic accuracy.

    I found the same thing with the commute. If I had time to read 20 pages I could, but it was much more work. If I had time to read 100 it zipped along. I think if I hadn’t had that first long weekend blown out I’d have found this much easier. It was having to read it in those smaller chunks that caused it to take me so long.

  8. Max: I mentioned that I tried this years ago and gave up. But my memories of the part I read of it are exactly as you describe–it evokes the personal. Great review, beautiful cover. Glad to see you back.

  9. Hello
    Your review is fantastic, it gives a really good flavour of the book. It is a wonderful picture of adolescence, when living things in imagination could be more important than actually living them. I really hope you’ll find the time to write about Bergotte and art in general.
    Nice personal comments. As you said before, Proust is personal for me too and I felt close to the Narrator despite time distance.
    You walked longer to see a girl, I had my toes almost frozen in winter listening to phisosophical reasonings I barely understood but I thought he was worth it. :-)

    I’d like to say something to others who would be tempted to read Proust and find it daunting. This is my second reading, 20 years after the first. I remembered the names of the characters, the places and the main events. I don’t remember the details of what happens in Sodom and Gomorrah, which is the next volume I will read but I know what to expect. I can’t say that from many of the books I read 20 years ago.
    Just this proves it is worth the effort.

    Thanks for the links, btw.

  10. Like you, I found that Proust’s introspection provoked similar thoughts in my own mind. And your excellent review brought them to mind yet again.

  11. *

    benjamin’s essay is called “the image of proust”

  12. I want to add my appreciation of this post.

    Over the weekend I re-read what is perhaps the most profound essay on the novel – Blanchot’s The Experience of Proust; even more profound that Benjamin’s. I wish it were online somewhere. FWIW, it’s in the collection called “The Book to Come”.

  13. *

    that’s true the blanchot one is a good one (there is a very good essay on joubert in that “book to come ” as well). jean améry is very good on proust too, probably as well more profound than benjamin, but in a different way than blanchot. not sure whether it is translated though (améry– zugang zu proust, werke volume 5). benjamin’s essay is important in its own right, informed by his knowledge of translating proust with franz hessel…i always felt there is an ambivalence in benjamin towards proust, that he struggled to come to terms with proust… that there was admiration etc on benjamins side, but also something in proust that blanchot was able to grasp better, to get a better mental hold on… has seen it better than benjamin… which maybe benjamin could not see because of his own struggle with proust.
    adorno isn’t so interesting on proust i thought…. that book by czapski again is quite good too… indecisive about the beckett one…

    just wish one day someone would write something on the last volume.

  14. I was going to get straight on to the second volume of Proust, but have instead picked up Jude the Obscure. A move which, in the face of your compelling enthusiasm, I now regret.

    On the strength of Swann’s Way alone your observations are equally just. Eyebrows are raised when one comments that Proust isn’t difficult to read. Individual sentences are not always easy, but it never seems difficult to continue. That moment of personal recognition isn’t always comfortable but it legitimises an involuntary introspection which is almost irresistible.

    Great job, Max. You have made me think about Proust from a different angle. Thank you.

  15. I read Proust when I was 20 and loved it. I stopped after this volume though, for no particular reason and haven’t gotten back to it. I would have to re-read the first volumes I guess. The biggest difference between me then and now is time. I think this is a book one should be able to inhabit for a certain period. It is a personal experience, I agree and that is what I enjoyed so much when reading it, the inner life and experiences, the memories it triggered. I think reading it now would clash so much with my personal life of the moment… I think I couldn’t do it.
    You captured it very well, indeed, I enjoyed remembering the reading experience through your post.
    I would also say that he isn’t difficult as such. I just think that for people who aren’t interested in their inner lives, feelings, dreams whatever, people who are more turned towards the outside world, it would be difficult to read. But when you can connect to him, it’s very easy.

  16. Steve, *, thanks for the comments on the essays. Interesting stuff.

    Sarah, I’ve not read it but from what I’ve heard Jude the Obscure won’t disappoint. I think you’re right about how the difficulty works. A particular sentence may not be easy, but continuing often is. He’s a surprisingly readable writer.

    Caroline, I agree with your comment too. If one isn’t internal in that way, at least a bit, it would just be nonsense. If that element of empathy is there though it’s very powerful.

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  21. Reading Proust is always such a great comfort!
    His long, eloquent yet tangly sentences lead those who follow them attentively towards great discoveries..

  22. opus911, if you follow my blogroll to Bookaroundthecorner there’s a rather handy resource of who’s blogging Proust. Well worth a look.

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