Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove (1919)

Okay, marathon not sprint, etc.

So, Within a Budding Grove. Or, if we prefer, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. We will, I suppose, have more to say about C.K. Scott Moncrieff's title in the future, but from my perspective, they range from Pointless But Harmless to Actively Bad. I'm sure I'm only the thirty thousandth person to point out that Remembrance of Things Past has considerably different connotations than In Search of Lost Time, being a passive rather than an active endeavor. Within a Budding Grove is okay in and of itself, but Proust's title has the advantage of actually giving you some idea of what the book is about. Okay, so you could say that Moncrieff's does as well, but it's at a higher level of abstraction, no question. I figure if you're going to deal with Proust at all, you might as well assume that he knew what he wanted to do.

Good lord. Anyway, what's it about? Good lord. Please don't ask impossible questions.

It's bookended with lengthy episodes of Girl Trouble: at the beginning, we have a lot more with Gilberte, the narrator's interest in whom is decidedly no longer pre-sexual if ever it was. He conceives this great love etc and then humorously sabotages it, figuring at one point that he needs to stay away from her for as long as possible to make her want him, not taking into account that this not-seeing business is eventually going to cool his own ardor.

Then in the back half—which is clearly mostly to what the title refers—he's staying with his grandmother in a seaside resort town, Balbec where he keeps seeing a group of teenage girls and becomes obsessed, in spite of never having spoken to any of them and having no idea who they are. So that goes on for a while, until, via unlikely coincidence, he gets introduced to them by a friend, paving the way for yet more obsessive maundering, his affections being protean until he finally fixes on Albertine (ominous musical cue). You first hear her name very early in the book, long before she's introduced, with no reason to think she'll become the narrator's major focus throughout the entirety of the book, but if you have even a vague idea of what's coming, it'll be like a goose walking over your grave. It seems like the same kind of frequently masochistic fixation that Swann had with Odette; one can certainly sense certain thematic concerns on Proust's part.

So that's most of it, although of course, there's a lot more, involving the social relations and hierarchies at Balbec, the narrator's relationship with his grandmother, his somewhat dissolute (male) friends, a LOT about art, and so on ad infinitum or close enough. It's really come home to me how immensely narcissistic Proust really is: I mean, sure, you say, he's writing the longest novel that anyone cares about; what do you expect? But not JUST for that reason: the thinly-veiled author-surrogate of a narrator is intensely self-absorbed and solipsistic, to the point where it becomes a little wearing. The fact that Proust is quite aware of this and readily admits it a number of times is neither here nor there. Still, we're making real progress here, though to the central question—will it ever stop?—I can only answer yo, I don't know.


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