Monday, 2 November 1998

Marcel Proust: Within a Budding Grove (1919)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 154

The second volume of the massive Remembrance of Things Past tells of the adolescence of Proust's narrator; hence the title. Each part of this novel tells the story of a love affair, both extremely typical of adolescence and particularly of the rather hot-house society of late nineteenth century France in which it is set. There are common features to both love affairs, the first with Gilberte, daughter of M. Swann and Odette who feature strongly in the first volume of the series, Swann's Way, and the second with Albertine, who will go on to feature prominently in the rest of the narrator's life. In both cases, the affair begins with worship from afar, continues as the narrator gets to know the object of his desire, receiving with what perhaps seems an exaggerated joy the slightest imagined sign of favour and being cast down by the slightest sign of indifference. It is the somewhat monomaniacal obsession with the beloved that gives the reader a feeling that there is something unhealthy about the narrator's internal psychology. He lives his entire life looking for a way to gain an extra glimpse of his beloved, and carries out extremely tortuous plots in order that this can be done in a way which seems "natural". The distractions provided by Albertine's group of friends makes that affair seem slightly less obsessive. Neither affair has a prominent physical aspect, though both have moments of physical contact beyond that permissible in society at the time.

An argument over nothing leads to the break with Gilberte, giving rise to a period of feigned indifference which gradually turns into real indifference. Proust's analysis and portrayal of the process of forgetting here is one of the cleverest and best done parts of his long work about memory.

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