When I picked up Swann’s Way earlier in March, I had no idea that 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of its publication. Now in hindsight, I’m all the more excited with this serendipitous selection for a Read-Along. And what discoveries I’ve made reading Proust!
Six months later in September, I started Vol. II Within A Budding Grove, allowing myself and any fellow reader two months to finish this 730 page volume.
I reiterate, I’ve encountered thickets blocking the way through the budding grove, but I must say, the enjoyment I’ve reaped from slashing and plowing through it is greater than my frustration. All in all, coming out of it feels like finding my way through a corn maze. Out I come dazed but gratified.
I’ve posted some thoughts on Part One of Within A Budding Grove here. This latter part is about Balbec, a seaside resort the adolescent narrator travels with his Grandmother to stay for the summer to recuperate his health. Like his memories of Combray, Proust’s description of Balbec is detailed and colourful. He relays to his reader his journey, the scenery, the Grand Hotel they stay in, its guests and their social hierarchical interactions, his new-formed friendship with the painter Elstir who introduces him to the band of girls the young narrator admires but is too shy to greet on his own, Albertine, Andrée, Rosemonde, Gisele…
The original title of this volume is In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) which I think is spot on. But, the budding grove is an apt metaphor too for his adolescent self discoveries of love and passion. And in one hilarious scene with Albertine, Proust has shown he can be a writer for Saturday Night Live any time. Too long to quote here but well worth the read. (p. 700-701 in case you want to skip the first 699 pages.)
And young Marcel is ever in-touch with his own feelings for these girls, especially Albertine. Here is his honest analysis:
At the start of a new love as at its ending, we are not exclusively attached to the object of that love, but rather the desire to love from which it well presently arise (and, later on, the memory it leaves behind)… (p. 676)
Ahh… romancing a desire and a future memory.
What about Gilberte, Swann’s daughter, with whom the young narrator is so obsessed earlier? To his credit, young Marcel has a full grasp of his own psyche. Why? It’s all a matter of Habit, he reasons. Since Gilberte has snubbed him, he needs to forget her and let go of any form of Habit reminding him of his previous life in pursuing her. This trip to Balbec takes him away from the familiar and replaces his memories of Gilberte, and a static existence, with fresh experiences and revitalized senses. Getting out of his home in Paris and going away might just be the best medicine:
… one’s days being paralysed by a sedentary life, the best way to gain time is to change one’s place of residence. My journey to Balbec was like the first outing of a convalescent who needed only that to convince him that he was cured. (p. 301)
Even before he gets to Balbec, while on the train stopping at a station, the sensitive and observant narrator is already filled with delight as he sees a young milk-girl carrying a jar of milk walking to the train at the break of dawn:
She passed down the line of windows, offering coffee and milk to a few awakened passengers. Flushed with the glow of morning, her face was rosier than the sky. I felt on seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and of happiness. (P. 318)
My own memories of the changing hue on those Bohemian Waxwings come to mind. Proust has effectively conveyed the power of association, the linking of words on a page to the reader’s own memory and the joy it had once elicited.
Proust insists that In Search of Lost Time is not autobiographical, but said “The pleasure that an artist gives us, is to introduce us to another universe.” No matter, his writing relates closely to his life experiences, parallel universe if you will.
Balbec is the fictitious reconstruction of Cabourg, a seaside resort town in the Basse-Normandie region of France where Proust frequented between 1907-1914. While Proust explores voluntary and involuntary memories in his long work, he could well be weaving memories with imagination, fusing fiction with real life experiences, creating an intricate tapestry.
Lydia Davis, translator of the most recent edition of Swann’s Way (The Way by Swann’s), offers this insight: “this novel is not autobiography wearing a thin disguise of fiction but . . . fiction in the guise of autobiography.”
Whichever way you slice it, it’s still as delicious as madeleines dipped in tea.
Some Relevant Links:
CLICK HERE to a webpage on Cabourg where you can see the video of The Grand Hotel, with Proust’s room still being kept there.
Photo Source: franceculture.fr
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