Proust’s “Within a Budding Grove”

The second novel in the series of seven has plenty of slog areas – tedious sections of rumination and digression. In automotive terms, the dwell angle – the delay between firing points – is immense at times. We pause and deliberate, feeling the delay and the opposing expectation of our own reader habit to keep moving on with the story. I felt a sense of repetition, of being caught in a day-after-day loop. Meanwhile Marcel dishes on the aristocrats and has muted experiences at a beachside hotel in Balbec. The effect, likely intentional, is almost as if I too were staying there, alienated and unhappy over the duration of my visit.

I am not sure we can say this lengthy book is all about seeking young girls in flower or budding romance. It’s more about Marcel’s previous big romantic flop in Paris with his first love Gilberte and his subsequent train & beach trip with grandmama to the Normandy coast. There’s a lot of description about isolation, discomfort, and other complaints. As is the tendency with Proust, we are given golden gifts of insight and wisdom amidst the unhappiness, as if that is the prime circumstance for producing such reflections.

Best early section is the actual train trip to Balbec. Best late section is the last block of a hundred pages that include Marcel’s encounters with Albertine and the “gang.”  The last fifty pages are thematically strong (pastries, memory, love, hawthorn leaves). The writing is genius.

At the seaside hotel (which takes up the middle book) the narrative is largely about society – see and be seen. The In-Crowd is often on display at dress-up time in the dining room, a room the narrator depicts as a giant fish tank. Inside they act out their privileged games while everyday folk pass by outside, pause and look in blank wonder through the glass.

Things are not always so stuffy. In the peak of summer, the hotel opens its windows and the guests step in and out on way to the terrace or beach. Marcel does not do the beach. His grandma places him on an upper floor VIP suite lined with glass bookcases that reflect the sunny sea. Marcel dislikes it. He is sickly and cautious.

Eventually some friends (Bloch, Robert, and Charlus) stir him loose. Marcel’s instinctive yearning for romance and sex gets him on the prowl. The object of his affection turns out to be Albertine, who he spots on the boardwalk. We only see her in the last hundred pages or so.

Proust ups the tempo. Things get interesting when our narrator befriends painter Elistir and finally hooks up with the girl he’s been obsessed with, the one from the cadre of girls cruising the beach boulevard. Albertine proves to be outspoken, charming and frank. Her middle-class dialog is a long-awaited breath of fresh air to an otherwise stultifying cast of aristocrats. We get a detailed examination of the games young lovers play, and the turn of Marcel from naive admirer (in the past with Gilberte) to male predator (of Albertine), still holding to childish love fantasies but acting (often not so subtly) with cunning and manipulation. As it develops, she is not that different, just more honest.

proustbook1I switched midbook from the newer Penguin translation to the older 1982 Vintage Press volume (the silver and black set by Moncrief and Kilmartin). Larry McMurtry’s use of this older set led me to it. It reads more majestically and to me sounds better tonally. It is not plagued by 21st century colloquials and clipped phrases. The print and typesetting is far easier on the eyes.

The McMurtry formula for reading Proust: ten pages a day for a year equals over 3500 pages, the approximate total length of all seven novels. I read at a slower pace.

Number three is next: the Guermantes novel.  Meanwhile, I got a copy of the movie “Time Regained,” which is summary-like and weird, but a nice visual accompaniment. It’s based on the book of the same name, the last novel in the series. Not all parts are understandable at this point. There is a powerful scene of Marcel recalling his memories of Swann’s wife Odette when a certain piano concerto is performed.

*My modest report on the first novel “Swann’s Way” is here.

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