(Here is Michael Norris’s follow-up to an earlier post, Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines.)
Reading the beginning of the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is like slipping into a comfortable armchair in front of a blazing fire on a cold, damp November afternoon. As the story begins, we meet the Marquis de Norpois, a diplomat and colleague of the protagonist’s father. Sitting in our cozy chair, we are warmed and amused by Proust’s sketch of this worldly, self-important ambassador, who talks in cliched diplomatic language, but nonetheless convinces the protagonist’s father that it would be good for the young M. to go to the theatre and see the actress Berma in a production of Racine’s Phedre. He also assures M.’s father that a career in letters would not be bad a bad thing for M. to pursue, thus saving our hero from the diplomatic future that his father had in mind for him. Now, our minds wander far above the constraints of a mere armchair. Guided by Proust’s words, they drift into his world of dukes, duchesses and barons — and in this volume particularly — its young girls. The original English title was Within a Budding Grove, but newer translations carry a more literal and meaningful name: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. The hero is now an adolescent, and he experiences his first taste of the obsessive love that will soon engulf him.
And it is adolescence and especially adolescent love that serves as the main focus for this second volume. First, Marcel falls in love with Gilberte Swann, the lovely daughter of Swann and Odette, who is now Madame Swann. Swann has changed. He now cultivates relations with the low-level functionaries and bourgeoisie that populate Mme. Swann’s salon with the same avidity he once reserved for the Guermantes and the Prince of Wales. Young M. tries to get an invitation to the Swann’s home through the good graces of M. de Norpois, but Norpois refuses (through malice?) to do what would have “given him so little trouble, and me so much joy”. Eventually our young protagonist is invited to Gilberte’s home, and becomes an intimate of the Swanns. He loves Gilberte intensely, but the more he loves her, the less interest she seems to have in him. Suddenly, inexplicably, he terminates the relationship, and refuses to see Gilberte anymore, although he still pays visits to Mme. Swann. And he suffers terribly from the end of the relationship, from the end of love. This is a theme that will repeat itself throughout the work. At the end of a love affair, the protagonist, as Swann did before him, envelopes himself in remorse and despair, and only time and habit (Proust’s word) will free him from the grips of the love that has died.
Eventually, external events save M. from his morose brooding over Gilberte. The family decides that it would be good for his health if he were to make a trip to the seaside town of Balbec. The hero, who is very sensitive emotionally, is at first disoriented by the strangeness of his hotel room and by the new people he encounters, but he recovers, and soon begins a summer idyll on the beach, ensconced in the comforts of the Grand Hotel. He is accompanied by his grandmother, an old-fashioned and practical lady, who believes in the benefits of fresh air, and who constantly quotes from the 18th century book of correspondence, The Letters of Madame de Sevigne. . The letters reveal the love of Madame Sevigne for her daughter, and mirrors the same love that M.’s grandmother has for her daughter, his mother. They then encounter the Marquise de Villeparisis, an old friend of his grandmother’s, who drives them about the Norman countryside in her carriage and provides the protagonist with his first relationship with an aristocrat, albeit a less brilliant and more eccentric member of the nobility than those he will meet later on.
He also becomes friends with another member of the aristocracy, Robert de Saint-Loup, a soldier and relative of the Guermantes. Robert, despite his upbringing, is a leftist who reads extensively, and admires M. for his intellect. He also has his own Proustian love problem in the person of Rachel, a struggling young actress and former prostitute. M. calls her Rachel quand du seigneur (Rachel when from the lord) because he saw her once in a brothel and she reminded him of the character of Rachel in an opera by Halevy. At the time, M. could have had her for twenty francs, while Saint-Loup is now expending many times that amount to keep her. Their relationship mirrors that of Swann and Odette: Saint-Loup is hopelessly in love despite their difference in social class, while Rachel is constantly unfaithful to him.
Additionally, while mingling with this aristocratic group, Marcel has his first encounter with the strangely-behaved Baron de Charlus, who at certain times and places is a paragon of charm and politeness and at others is insolent and incredibly rude. The Baron will take an increasingly larger role as the tale progresses. He is perhaps the most bizarre and interesting of all Proust’s aristocratic creations.
Saint-Loup takes M. to marvelous dinners at a restaurant called Rivebelle, where they drink and eat, and where M. dreams of possessing the women he sees there. One evening at Rivebelle, they encounter the artist Elstir, who appeared in Swann’s Way as the young painter known as Biche, a frequent visitor to the salon of the Verdurin’s. He has now gained considerably in fame. Saint-Loup and M. write him a letter from their table, and he invites them to visit him at his studio.
The visit is postponed, however, because M. has again fallen in love. This time it is not one girl, but “a little band” of five or six attractive girls who go about together, and who M. tries to connect with, to no effect. He finally makes good on his visit to Elstir and finds, to his surprise, that Elstir knows the little band, and particularly their leader, Albertine Simonet. M., after an introduction from Elstir and several false starts finally gets to know the little band and becomes a member, walking with them happily on the cliffs above Balbec and picnicking by the sea. He is torn between Andree and Albertine as to which girl he loves the best, but as the novel moves forward, Albertine enters more and more into his life. This volume ends, however, on the discordant note of M. attempting to kiss Albertine while she is alone in a room at his hotel, and she rebuffs him.
Love is the thus the major theme of this volume, but another recurring Proustian theme is well illuminated here also. This is the idea that how we imagine something before we come to know it is often more beautiful or brilliant than its reality. Then when we experience the reality, we are disappointed. And sometimes, we reevaluate and come to a third conclusion. The classic example of this in the whole of In Search of Lost Time comes at the beginning of Young Girls in Flower. M. has wanted to see the actress Berma, and has dreamed of her performances for years. Her classic vehicle is the play Phedre by Racine, and the young protagonist has memorized every line from this play and imagined the brilliance of Berma’s performance in each scene. Finally, through the urging of M. de Norpois, his parents allow him to attend the theatre and see Berma. But he is disappointed in her performance, which seems flat to him compared to what he had imagined. He comes home depressed. But in discussing the performance with Norpois, and reading a review in the papers, he realizes that the performance was truly brilliant, and that he has to consider art not only from the perspective of his imagination, but also that of the artist. Likewise, he pays a visit to the Church at Balbec, which he had again given a magnificent build-up in his mind, only to be disappointed with the real thing. But in talking about the Church later, with Elstir, he comes to realize the beauty in its carved figures that he had dismissed as rustic and rude. Through a tempering of his anticipation, and in discussions with artists such as Elstir, he begins to develop a nascent critical sense for art.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower ends with the end of the summer season. The weather is starting to become stormy and cold, and most of the other guest have left the Grand Hotel. The hero and his grandmother pack up their things and head back to Paris. Where more adventure awaits.
(Image of “Gilberte Swann Watching Marcel” from Resemblance: The Portraits by David Richardson.)