Out of the Budding Grove

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.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

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.

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Proust in Cabourg copy 1
Photo Source: franceculture.fr

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.”

Right.

Whichever way you slice it, it’s still as delicious as madeleines dipped in tea.

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Some Relevant Links:

The TLS blog: French literary anniversaries, part 4 – Du côté de chez Swann

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.

Proust in Cabourg

In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers, from The Modernism Lab at Yale University

Photo Source: franceculture.fr

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Swann’s Way Part I: Combray

Parts 2 & 3: Swann In Love

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Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Half way through reading In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove, I’ve discovered a key to enjoying Proust. Just as it’s best to eat madeleines by dipping them in tea before putting the moistened petite cakes in your mouth, the most enjoyable way to read Proust is lying in bed with an unhindered mind. In this most relaxed state, I’m at ease to stroll leisurely through a budding grove, or the thickets of a genius’s mind.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

So far, I’ve gone passed the narrator Marcel’s painful struggles with adolescent, unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter Gilberte. In contrast, his crush for Mme Swann has been appreciated and normalized. Unlike the cool and aloof Gilberte, Mme Swann welcomes Marcel into their home warmly, including him in their family outings, and their home gatherings with their friends, thus allowing him an opportunity to meet his literary hero, the writer Bergotte.

And here’s the passage I’m most impressed by, so far. The man Bergotte is very different from the writer Marcel has encountered in his ‘divine writing’. The man appears to be very common, inarticulate even, and devoid of eloquence, a man who spent his childhood in a ‘tasteless household’. Marcel is shocked by this discovery, and scrambles to come to terms with such dissonance. In a most ingenious analysis, the young Marcel comes to this conclusion:

But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them… To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface… is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. (p. 175)

As I read these few pages, Jane Austen came to mind. A writer who had lived her short life mainly in a rural setting, her associations parochial and far from ‘high society’, and yet could transport herself and thus her readers to a different world from her mundane social environs. Her imagination soared as it took flight with her incisive observations of human nature.

… the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror… genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected. (p. 175-176)

The adolescent Marcel’s disillusionment with the discrepancy between the man and writer Bergotte leads him to an uplifting insight:

The day on which the young Bergotte succeeded in showing to the world of his readers the tasteless household in which he had spent his childhood, and the not very amusing conversations between himself and his brothers, was the day on which he rose above the friends of his family, more intellectual and more distinguished than himself; they in their fine Rolls-Royces might return home expressing due contempt for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his modest machine which had at last ‘taken off,’ soared above their heads. (p. 176)

Yes, more Proust’s words than mine on this post. Many other highlighted passages and surprising delights, but will have to wait till I’ve come out of the budding grove the end of November. If you’re interested, you’re welcome to join me in a read-along of In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: Within A Budding Grove.

CLICK HERE to my wrap-up post: Out of the Budding Grove

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Related Posts:

Proust Read-along Swann’s Way Part I: Combray (Featured in ‘Freshly Pressed’)

The Swann and Gatsby Foil

What Was Jane Austen Really Like? Reading Tomalin and Shields

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

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Another Proust Read-Along

… as if we’re not busy enough?

Truth is, reading Proust calms me down. Maybe because I’ve to slow down, really slow down, to savor, and decipher. These two have become a fused enjoyment for me while reading Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way.

After finishing that, I quickly ordered the next volume Within a Budding Grove, but have since put it aside… until now, thanks to Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza, who read Vol. I with me. She’s right, of course, as she wrote on her invitation post for Vol. II:

‘No one should read Proust alone.”

So here we are, embarking on another Proust Read-Along, In Search of Lost Time Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

Yes, this is a slow read, as always on Ripple Effects. We plan to finish and post our thoughts on November 30. I just might add in a mid-way post around end of October.

You are invited to join us for another slow and enjoyable ride.

If quantifying makes it easier to grasp, counting the days in October and November, and the 730 pages in my Modern Library Classic edition, you only need to read about 12 pages every day. A very doable plan.

Those of you who have read it all… how about a re-read now?

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First Post for Vol. II:

Half Way Through A Budding Grove

My posts on Vol. I, Swann’s Way:

Part 1: Combray (my ‘Freshly Pressed’ post)

Wrap-up: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

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Proust Read-Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

“He knew perfectly well as a general truth that human life is full of contrasts…” Swann’s Way, P. 510

While plowing through Part 2, ‘Swann In Love’, I happened to reread The Great Gatsby. Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new movie adaptation, I’m sure many more are doing the same. And oh what interesting contrasts Swann and Gatsby make.

Both are deeply in love, yearning for a woman who seems to be utterly elusive. Gatsby frantically maximizes to attract Daisy; Swann willingly minimizes to reach Odette. From a poor background, Gatsby grabs whatever means he can to build his wealth; Swann whose niche belongs to high society, has to pretend that he is nobody special, stooping to ‘a lower social sphere’ (P. 285) to be near Odette.

That distance is more than social. Swann is willing to forsake his cultured tastes of art and music, to lay aside even his own research and writing on Vermeer (Odette: I’ve never heard of him, is he alive still? P. 279). Swann is willing to lay down his interests and privileges for a woman who is uncouth in the sophistication of high society, who has superficial views and flashy tastes, and alas, even promiscuous.

However, love transforms all deficiencies and blemishes into ethereal beauty. Here’s how Swann visualizes Odette. To him, she is like Sipporah, Jethro’s daughter, Botticelli’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel:

Zipporah, Jethro's Daughter by Botticelli

Following Odette to her ‘little nucleus’ at the Verdurins, Swann downplays his association with prominent people and tries not to be so outspoken with his knowledge and opinion about art and music.

When he is alone with Odette, he has taken her values and interests:

he tried at least to ensure that she should be happy in his company, tried not to counteract those vulgar ideas, that bad taste which she displayed on every possible occasion, and which in fact he loved, as he could not help loving everything that came from her, which enchanted him even. (P. 348)

Is this measurement of incompatibility in tastes inherently snobbish? Yes, Swann (or Proust) is sensitive enough to analyze this in depth. What is ‘taste’ anyway, or the intellectual beliefs with which he has been raised from the days of his youth?

… the objects we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of period and class, is no more than a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined. (P. 350)

So, all for love of Odette, Swann is willing to give up going to the Jockey Club, lunching with the Prince of Wales, or his love of Holland, or a visit to the Versailles (‘which bored her to tears’):

And so he denied himself the pleasure of visiting those places, delighted to tell himself that it was for her sake, that he wished only to feel, to enjoy things with her. (p. 350)

Those colorful shirts Gatsby has hoarded, Odette would have loved them, just like Daisy, and his mansion too… if only Swann had resided in a more prestigious address, somewhere ‘more worthy of him’ instead of his house on the Quai d’Orleans. (P. 346)

Odette’s fondness of Swann begins to wane as Forcheville enters into the picture. She becomes even harder to get. Swann is burned with jealousy, anger and bitterness. Yet he cannot forget her. His love even grows stronger for her, despite receiving an anonymous letter defaming her. Why,

People often say that, by point out to a man the faults of his mistress, you succeed only in strengthening his attachment to her… he had begun to desire the possession — as if that were ever possible — of another person. (P. 517)

Perhaps that is a mark of love: the demand for exclusivity. This is exactly what Gatsby wants Daisy to admit, that she has never loved Tom, that she has always loved him. “Oh, you want too much,” she cried to Gatsby.

But Swann is more fortunate. He knows he must gain back Odette’s full and exclusive devotion and somehow he does. I’m glad to read in Part 3 that eventually Odette does become Mme Swann. I’d be curious to know how that comes about. (Proust’s strategy to get us go on reading the next volumes?)

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Part 3 is an enjoyable and much swifter read as the narrator remembers his childhood in Paris drown in unrequited love (so far, not sure about how this unfolds later) for Swann and Odette’s daughter Gilberte. Because of his love for Gilberte, the boy is infatuated with M and Mme Swann as well. His crush on the elusive Gilberte parallels Swann’s love for Odette in their earlier days.

The last sentence in Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, like that in The Great Gatsby, ends with a haunting remark on memory and the past:

The places we have known… were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

There are much more to be said, but nothing can replace the actual experience of reading Proust first hand. From March to May as I plowed through Swann’s Way, there had been up’s and down’s. Numerous times long sentences entangled, yet the very next moment could be so beautiful and lucid it dissipated all frustrations. I now look forward to Volume II.

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Thanks for joining me in this Read-Along. Finish or not, you’re welcome to share your thoughts. Throw your two pebbles into the pond and make some ripples. If you have written a post, do let me know so I can link it here.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

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CLICK HERE to my post on Part 1 of Swann’s Way: Combray

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