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This review is from: In Search Of Lost Time, Vol 2: Within a Budding Grove: Within a Budding Grove Vol 2 (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
...and that rush of memories. I read the first volume of "In Search of Lost Time" which is normally titled in English, (Swann's Way) some 25 years ago. Truly great literature should impact one's life, and certainly the first volume did. I vowed to visit the town depicted, which has hyphenated its name, Illiers-Combray, in honor of this masterpiece. I've done so, at least five times, visited Aunt Leonie's home, and literally taken the "Swann's Way" walk, the relatively short distance from her home to the lovely and normally unoccupied Pré Catelan park, which should be an essential part of anyone's memory of this work. It can become a place of "pilgrimage." I reviewed (Swann's Way) in early 2012; in doing so I did a straight line project based on reading one volume of the six, every 25 years, and readily realized I would not complete the entire novel unless I changed my pace. And I did, finishing this volume just under the wire in 2012, and committing to read volume three in the first part of 2013... this novel really is such an essential read.
Reading Marcel Proust seems to call out for a special venue. I kept thinking of a hot-tub. Relaxed and soothing, certainly unhurried. His style of endless run-on sentences, with 10 and 20 qualifying phrases, seems to demand a leisurely read. I would have hated to think I had a deadline and a paper due on the book, as in a school assignment. Some passages I read two and three times, just for the sheer joy of his uniquely descriptive prose. And no doubt I'll pick up the book in the future, and read those passages again.
The novel is set in the era commonly called "La Belle Epoque," in France, just before the truly man-made, with the emphasis on that gender, catastrophe of World War I. In part, it is a novel of drawing room society and the endless machinations involved in establishing and maintaining a "pecking order." What woman, for example, will refuse to even be introduced to another? That can all be a bit tiresome, but isn't that also how the contemporary corporate and political worlds work? Part of that society is the fictional writer Bergotte, who is apparently modeled on the real-life Anatole France. And there was a wonderful section on the narrator's anticipation and thrill in seeing the actress Berma in a production of Racine's "Phedre."
The core theme of this volume is the yearnings and infatuations of first loves. For me, the utterly astonishing aspect of this is that, as is well-known, Proust was a homosexual. Yet he seemed to capture heterosexual love, and in particular, the many subtleties by which a woman can knowingly entice a man, better than any other author. And he also captures the many obsessions a man can develop for a particular aspect of a woman's body, demeanor, or even attire. How, oh how did he see and understand so deeply into something he must not have intrinsically felt? In the first part of the book, his very first love is for Gilberte, whose likeness appears on the cover. Parents and supervision are very much in evidence, and it brought back a flood of memories (a la, le madeleine?) concerning those days of long ago. Obsessions and slights were never reconciled, as they so often aren't, and therefore life moves on. In his case, the second half of the book details the narrator's summer at the Grand Hotel at Balbec (modeled on the real town of Cabourg) on the Normandy Coast. It is there that he develops new loves and new longings, with a group of young coming-of-age women, who are not so subtly alluded to by the volume's title.
For a novel that nominally does not have much action, there are some intensely memorable and evocative scenes. There is the 10-page or so description of Mme. Swan taking her "constitutional" near the Arc de Trioumph, in her mauve dress, with parasol and admirers. There is the grand entrance of Robert St. Loup en Bray, at the Grand Hotel. There is a memorable scene in which the diners at the Grand Hotel, behind the large plate windows, are described as being in an aquarium, observed by the working class outside. And I wondered if this inspired Pasternak to depict a similar scene in Doctor Zhivago  [DVD]. Yet another concerned how the narrator was enticed, and then rebuffed by Albertine.
There are so many quotable sections; I will confine myself to only one, which illustrates how erotic a simple handshake can be: "The act of pressing Albertine's hand had a sensual sweetness which was in keeping somehow with the pink, almost mauve colouring of her skin. This pressure seemed to allow you to penetrate into the girl's being, to plumb the depths of her senses, like the ringing sound of her laughter, indecent in the way that the cooing of doves or certain animals cries can be. She was one of those women with whom shaking hands affords so much pleasure that one feels grateful to civilization for having made of the handclasp a lawful act between boys and girls when they meet...I could have conveyed by certain pressures of hand on hand; for her part, how easy it would have been, in responding by other pressures, to show me that she accepted; what complicity, what a vista of sensual delight stood open!" Wow, the way Proust describes a handshake with a woman, well, it might satisfy a man for an hour or so.
Proust also had the insight to realize that in his first loves, he might be in love with his mind's image of a woman, rather than the reality that she is. I felt that he also overrated nubile charms, and underrated the joys obtained from the more mature and experienced. Overall, a most satisfying read, and one that deserves a special 6-star rating.