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.