Half way through reading In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove, I’ve discovered a key to enjoying Proust. Just as it’s best to eat madeleines by dipping them in tea before putting the moistened petite cakes in your mouth, the most enjoyable way to read Proust is lying in bed with an unhindered mind. In this most relaxed state, I’m at ease to stroll leisurely through a budding grove, or the thickets of a genius’s mind.
So far, I’ve gone passed the narrator Marcel’s painful struggles with adolescent, unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter Gilberte. In contrast, his crush for Mme Swann has been appreciated and normalized. Unlike the cool and aloof Gilberte, Mme Swann welcomes Marcel into their home warmly, including him in their family outings, and their home gatherings with their friends, thus allowing him an opportunity to meet his literary hero, the writer Bergotte.
And here’s the passage I’m most impressed by, so far. The man Bergotte is very different from the writer Marcel has encountered in his ‘divine writing’. The man appears to be very common, inarticulate even, and devoid of eloquence, a man who spent his childhood in a ‘tasteless household’. Marcel is shocked by this discovery, and scrambles to come to terms with such dissonance. In a most ingenious analysis, the young Marcel comes to this conclusion:
But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them… To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface… is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. (p. 175)
As I read these few pages, Jane Austen came to mind. A writer who had lived her short life mainly in a rural setting, her associations parochial and far from ‘high society’, and yet could transport herself and thus her readers to a different world from her mundane social environs. Her imagination soared as it took flight with her incisive observations of human nature.
… the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror… genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected. (p. 175-176)
The adolescent Marcel’s disillusionment with the discrepancy between the man and writer Bergotte leads him to an uplifting insight:
The day on which the young Bergotte succeeded in showing to the world of his readers the tasteless household in which he had spent his childhood, and the not very amusing conversations between himself and his brothers, was the day on which he rose above the friends of his family, more intellectual and more distinguished than himself; they in their fine Rolls-Royces might return home expressing due contempt for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his modest machine which had at last ‘taken off,’ soared above their heads. (p. 176)
Yes, more Proust’s words than mine on this post. Many other highlighted passages and surprising delights, but will have to wait till I’ve come out of the budding grove the end of November. If you’re interested, you’re welcome to join me in a read-along of In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: Within A Budding Grove.