Sunday, August 8, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Two: Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Marcel has matured much between Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove. I found myself able to push through Swann's Way with some ease only because the child-neuroaesthete* steps aside (and back in time) for over 200 pages to narrate the story of Swann (an older, more well-manicured neuroaesthete) falling in love with Odette de Crécy, a social-climbing common courtesan. Swann's fits of jealous anxiety are clearly designed to mirror young Marcel's fits of longing, first for his mother, then for Gilberte, daughter of Swann and Odette. But by Within a Budding Grove, though Marcel still thinks all too often of Gilberte, his desire has become sexual. After an impromptu wrestling match in the early pages of the novel, during which he experiences orgasm without quite realizing it (a passage I must admit I find far more compelling than that of the madeleine; call me a boor), Marcel begins to visit Gilberte at home, and transfers his obsession from the capricious girl to her more worldly mother.

Not long after (two years pass with a page turn), he leaves Paris for Balbec, a seaside resort town, with his grandmother. Sent there for his health, Marcel indeed achieves new heights of physical robustness, lusting interchangeably after various members of a "little band of girls" vacationing at the same resort. He eventually singles out their ringleader, Albertine Simonet, for his intrepid sexual advances (which meet with her vehement rebuff). Once Albertine leaves (not long after the rebuff), the band dissipates, and Marcel lurks around the half-closed hotel at the season's end.

The other object of Marcel's obsessive affection is Saint-Loup, nephew to his grandmother's friend, the noble Mme de Villeparisis. Writing now from the perspective of having read ahead slightly, Marcel's affection for Saint-Loup will transfer to his aunt the Duchesse de Guermantes, in The Guermantes Way, but until then, Marcel's affection for Saint-Loup, without ever overtly expressing sexuality, seems to foreshadow the author's homosexuality. He writes about Saint-Loup's breezy manner, his fine—if scandalously informal—attire, the figure he cuts walking across the beach, and the messy affair the young man has with a mistress in Paris. At this stage in his personal development, Marcel desires Saint-Loup by desiring to be like Saint-Loup, making do with desiring to be near Saint-Loup. Letting on, perhaps, homosexual tendencies of his own, Saint-Loup takes Marcel as his dear friend.

At this point, I will address something to which I alluded in my post on Swann's Way, which is the pronunciation of the author's name. It was around the time of my reading of Within a Budding Grove that I began to notice that, when I said "I'm reading 'Proost,'" people looked at me with some confusion, until I clarified, "Prowst," and they said, oh, yes. In fact, I had mentioned to my Francophile friend, who had just spent the last six months in Paris, that I was reading 'Proost,' and he responded, in an academic tone I assumed was ironic, "Uh, I believe it is pronounced 'Prowst.'" I laughed, because I thought he was mocking the many who mispronounce the name, but he did not laugh with me, leaving me with an empty sense of dread. Had I been mispronouncing Proust myself? Wikipedia tells me just what I like to hear: I'm right. "French pronunciation: [maʁsɛl pʁust]" in which the upside-down R is like "red" and the "u" is like "zoo."

If this entry seems to stop abruptly where it only ought to pause, I've successfully passed to you the sensation one feels when coming to the end of Within a Budding Grove. Thus, one must have The Guermantes Way on hand to pick up immediately, as if only turning a page between chapters. The two are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, I will need to get through 600 more pages of reading before offering you the next installment; sincere apologies.

*Yes, a made-up word, eliding "neurasthenic" with "aesthete," both of which apply and seem to be regularly co-symptomatic.

1 comment:

Don Malcolm said...

Hoping that you are coming back sometime soon with further reports on Proust and whatever else has been occupying you over the past six weeks since your last post.

It would be a shame if this is ended, as you've just entered into the noblest enterprise that can evolve from such steadfast dedication to the world of imagination: the creative neologism (cf. "neuroaesthete," which is the essential impulse--albeit with so many possible manifestations--that drives all forms of modernism).