Monday, June 22, 2009

book notes: Within a Budding Grove (Proust)

Alright, on to more pleasant things! I've gotten through Volume II of In Search of Lost Time: "Within a Budding Grove", and am finding that the story is largely coming back to me, although there are numerous characters that I had forgotten. In general, if I remembered Volume I largely for the scene in which the narrator is a young boy waiting for his mother to come up to his room, I remembered volume II largely for the scene on the beach, when he first sees Albertine, his future wife as a young girl. For some reason though, I remembered this scene as occurring at the end of the book and occupying several pages.

In fact, the scene with the little band on the beach at Balbec is suprisingly short and inconspicuous, but it hovers into view throughout the last third of the book, the way memories of loved ones become dearer than the actual event, or the way we suddenly recognize a cherished friend in a crowd of strangers. When the narrator visits the studio of the painter Elstin, the art suddenly makes him aware of, "the possibility of raising myself to a poetical understanding, rich in delights, of manifold forms which I had not hitherto isolated from the total spectacle of reality." It's this ability to look back on the total spectacle of reality and pluck certain images and memories that will make the narrator a novelist one day. It's the basis of creating art, but for Proust, all remembering is creative, and actually all perception is creative as well. In this sense, the narrator, who spends so much time in this book observing and studying the face of his first love, Gilberte, like a jeweler walking around a diamond and counting the facets, is already a great artist and destined to be a great writer.

Not yet, though. This book details his childhood and adolescence, in which he spends much more time planning to write than actually writing. A Proust website once featured a contest to summarize Proust (a la Monty Python) in one sentence. My favorite was, "Mmmmmm, cookies!" But many of them summarized the six volumes as, "How Marcel became a great writer". That won't come until later- in fact, his name won't be revealed until later, and then just once. The temps perdu in the title refers also to the years he spent not writing. In a sense, it's the story of a writer who finally got around to writing.

This time through, I'm also noticing how much of this volume has to do with art and our appreciation of art. The key scenes for me are the narrator's highly anticipated chance to see the actress Berma in performance- he's a bit let down; his chance to dine with his favorite author Bergotte- I think there's a kinship there; and his friendship with the painter Elstin. Artists, and those with an artistic temperment, form their own class in Proust's novel. I would include Swann with this band, although his sensibilities are far decayed by this point.

This gets at the question of snobbery- Proust writes volumes about snobs and snobbish social circles, but there always seems to be a ironical distance to these scenes. He's a much funnier writer than he ever gets credit for. But there's a scene in "Within a Budding Grove" that, I think, tips his hand. The family is dining with the gas-bag Norpois, and our young narrator is put down by the older man for his admiration for the novelist Bergotte- a creation of Proust. The old ambassador criticizes this sort of writing as "art for art's sake", and certainly not suited for a world in which geopolitics have become as serious as they are in the Belle Epoque. The narrator is shamed into silence.

But, of couse, Proust sides with all of those beings whose artistic sensibilities place them outside of the crowd. When his snobs are most ridiculous is when they're talking about art they have no sense for. And when his heroes reach to the depths of themselves, it is most often art that helps them get there. It is this ability to create our lives- which consist only of memories, after all- through a poetical understanding, and to be helped in that lifework through art, that I believe Proust places at the heart of human existence.


Min said...

I am so impressed you are getting through Proust.. I tried many times and failed. Embarrassingly, I fell asleep every time I started reading, at about page 25 or so. It was too much like listening to someone talking about their dreams.. I can never get into those either. I also had this idea maybe I had a bad translation or something--reading it in the original language is probably so much better.

Rufus said...

I don't know- they say the new Modern Library translation is one of the best yet done. So that might help. But I guess you do have to get adjusted to Proust's rhythms. I can see where it can be a bit boring, especially since his narrator rarely seems to do anything! For me, once I got into the pace of it, I found it like listening to an interesting conversationalist whose memory is much more vivid than my own.

Incidentally, I'm reading most of it in English- I could only get a copy of the last book when I was in France! Proust's French is about as hard as it gets, but I'm hoping to one day read the whole thing in French. I'm a bit of a Proust nut, I guess.

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