Looking back, it seems that I spent a substantial amount of June reading the second volume of Proust’s massive novel sequence – called “Within A Budding Grove” in my translation. In the same way as the first book affected me, it’s taken me a while after finished to get my thoughts together – so all-encompassing is the writing that you come out at the end of the book feeling rather stunned (in a good way). But here goes.

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WABG is divided into two sections: “Madame Swann at Home” and “Place-Names: The Place”. The first charts the course of young Marcel’s friendship with the Swanns and of course their daughter Gilberte. Miraculously, his dreams come true and he’s invited to the Swanns’ house, becoming Gilberte’s special friend, but also it seems a kind of friend to Odette, who seems happy to spend time in his company. He also gets to meet his favourite novelist, Bergotte. But the course of love never did run smooth, and Marcel’s love for Gilberte somehow goes wrong – their emotions towards each other seem to change in a way that mirrors the earlier relationship of Swann and Odette. At the end of this section Marcel has somehow moved on, but not after recording in detail the ups and downs of the relationship.

The second section sees Marcel finally travelling to Balbec in the company of his beloved grandmother, and spending his summer by the sea. Here he has a number of momentous meetings – with the painter Elstir; his old friend Bloch; his wonderful new friend Saint-Loup; the moody and strange de Charlus; Mme de Villeparisis (who brings entrée to many levels of society); and most importantly, with Albertine and her group of girl friends, who dominate much of his time at Balbec.

Claude Monet, La Plage á Trouville,

Such a simplistic summary for what is an intense and involving piece of work! I think it’s definitely true that if you get through the first part of Proust you’ll be ok with the rest of it, because I found myself much more comfortable with the style and depth here. The writing is beautiful of course: Proust paints the most incredible word pictures. His rendering of Odette taking her springtime walk through the Bois is so incredibly precise, down to the ribbons on her clothing,;and you end the book with vivid images burned into the brain – the changing seas of Balbec; the landscape; the fluid group of young girls. Proust goes into immense detail but it is this that conveys the reality as perceived by Marcel

And this is something that it seems to me important to remember. With these books, there is no omniscient narrator – everything happening is filtered through Marcel’s perceptions and we are never sure if it is the Marcel of the time or the older Marcel who is really having these thoughts or making these distinctions – particularly as he will sometimes shove, somewhat jarringly, into the narrative reference to a future event of which we are not yet aware but which he has already experienced. Again, this gives the constant sense of shifting time and helps to reinforce one of the strongest themes in WABG, that of chance and seemingly random events bringing about what we wished for in unexpected ways – which can be something of a surprise, as Marcel always seems to be setting himself up to fail.

“….In the gentle breeze that blew around the column of playbills, I had recognised, had sensed the reappearance of, the eternal common substances, the familiar moisture, the unending fluidity of the old days and years.”

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This does mean as a reader I often ended up questioning myself about Marcel and his motives. He is an odd concoction really, and as many commentators have picked up, there is a curious agelessness about him; one minute he’s portrayed as a young rake visiting prostitutes, the next a fragile young invalid being undressed and put to bed by his grandmother, dependent on her presence through the wall. And he’s often attracted by older women, in a way that links back to his obvious mother-complex (as portrayed in the first book) – his fascination with Odette almost comes across as stronger than that for her daughter.

“But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through – awkward indeed but by no means infertile – is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.”

The bursting of the girls into Marcel’s life opens up his insular eyes to the possible pleasures of boating and going to the races; it is this contrast which makes us realise quite how restricted a life he’s lead. It is brought home starkly at the end how much of an invalid he actually is, having to rest in the mornings in order to be well enough to go out later in the day – something dealt with more discreetly throughout the book. Albertine and her friends represent young life and health, with their appetite for fun and games and their constant energy. Initially when meeting the young girls as a group, it almost seems as if it doesn’t matter which one Marcel falls in love with; and indeed much of the book is a meditation on love, whether it’s general or particular, and whether we really love the object of our desire or whether we simply are in love with being in love. Again, this harks back to Swann and Odette.

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As I read on, deeply involved in Marcel’s world, I did wonder whether he was actually that likeable a person! He’s very much a fickle friend, abandoning Bloch for Saint-Loup and then both of them for the girls. Is he as naive as he makes out, or just selfish? Characters’ motivations are always unclear – at one point Albertine invites Marcel to visit her when she’s in bed, then becomes angry when he tries to kiss her. Was she leading Marcel on or is she also naive? Or is this a class issue, and Albertine simple does not behave in a way Marcel would expect? Then again, Marcel seems to be rather cruel and indifferent to Andree who obviously has a liking for him.

One minor (or maybe not so minor!) point which hit me was the strangeness of the names of the various girls with whom Marcel associates – Gilberte, Albertine and Andree are all feminised male names. Is this significant, I wonder, or am I just reading too much into Proust. But then, part of me thinks you can *never* read too much into Proust, such is the depth and the complexity of his work. It’s not surprising whole books are written on the subject, and I can only scratch the surface here and record my impressions.

“Sunrise is a necessary concomitant of long railway journeys, just as are hard-boiled eggs, illustrated papers, packs of cards, rivers upon which boats strain but make no progress. At a certain moment, when I was counting over the thoughts that had filled my mind during the preceding minutes, so as to discover whether I had just been asleep or not (and when the very uncertainty which made me ask myself the question was about to furnish me with an affirmative answer), in the pale square of the window, above a small black wood, I saw some ragged clouds whose fleecy edges were of a fixed, dead pink, not liable to change, like the colour that dyes the feathers of a wing that has assimilated it or a pastel on which it has been deposited by the artist’s whim.”

Running through the book is the sense of change ; whether this is just because of seaside behavior, or because Marcel is getting away from the stuffy Parisian milieu in which he moves, is debatable. However, time seems to be moving on, people are loosening up a little and the old society strictures are not as binding as they were. Knowing as we do now the state of Proust’s own health, and the eventual fate of his life, confined to the cork-lined room, we can’t help but read the book with that knowledge in mind; it tinges the sense of freedom with sadness.

And speaking of cork-lined rooms. I really must again commend the wonderful website here which I’m finding essential as a companion to my reading of Proust – if you plan to do the same, I’d strongly suggest you take a look at it.

I’ve come to the end of my second volume of Proust somewhat breathless at the complexity and depth of his prose, and thoroughly involved in Marcel’s story. If nothing else, his writing is just gorgeous and some of his descriptions of the landscape, sea and sky around Balbec are the most evocative I think I’ve come across.

Reading Proust *is* a commitment best undertaken when you have time, and I think I shall leave the next book until the summer holidays. Nevertheless I do have quite a feeling of achievement – this is the furthest I’ve ever read into Proust’s work before and I’m loving the experience!

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