Reading Proust II

I thought I was going to set aside Proust for a little while. And I did. I got caught up on my magazines, read Edna O'Brien's lovely collection of stories Mrs. Reinhardt, and I had planned on rereading The Tin Drum, another big book; but just as I was about to plunge into Grass's novel, I felt Proust's magnetic pull. And so I started Volume II, the 700-plus pages that make up Within a Budding Grove.

The first half, entitled Madame Swann at Home, resumes the young narrator's fascination with the Swann family and, in particular, his obsession with Gilberte, Mme Swann's daughter. As we left off in Volume I, he still meets her every afternoon in the Champs-Elysee to play. Eventually he overcomes both her and her family's initial resistance, gets invited to their home, and becomes something of a regular fixture there, seeming at times to be more attracted to Mme Swann than to her daughter. Then (for the rest of Volume II at any rate) the narrator falls out irreparably with Gilberte: boy gets girl; boy loses girl.

The "at home" part of the title refers to Mme Swann's "at homes," a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering of society women; it's also the day on which Gilberte hosts her own tea parties to which the narrator is among the invited guests. Here's a favourite moment describing this time in the narrator's life:

...I would arrive in the zone in which the scent of Mme Swann greeted my nostrils. I could already visualize the majesty of the chocolate cake, encircled by plates heaped with biscuits, and by tiny napkins of patterned grey damask, as required by convention but peculiar to the Swanns.... And [Gilberte] would usher us into the dining-room, as sombre as the interior of an Asiatic temple painted by Rembrandt, in which an architectural cake, as urbane and familiar as it was imposing seemed to be enthroned there on the off-chance as on any other day, in case the fancy seized Gilberte to discrown it of its chocolate battlements and to hew down the steep brown slopes of its ramparts, baked in the oven like the bastions of the palace of Darius. (107)

In the second half of the book, Place Names / The Place, the narrator--older now, early twenties I'm guessing--and his grandmother travel to the coastal town of Balbec where they spend the summer in the Grand Hotel. It's here that he meets the aristocratic Robert de Saint-Loup. After some initial awkwardness, the two men become the best of friends, but when Saint-Loup returns to the barracks, from which he has been on leave, the narrator makes the acquaintance of what he often refers to as that "little band" of girls and, in particular, Albertine, another girl he falls in love with.

Not surprisingly, class is an important theme throughout the novel and in Volume II in particular. Friendship often seems like a disingenuous thing in the society to which we are privy, and we frequently see characters clamoring to get an introduction to so-and-so, not out of any genuine interest but as a means of elevating themselves socially. Snobbery is prevalent. In spite of having brought their servant Francoise, the narrator and his grandmother are not on the same social scale as some of the hotel's other guests and are initially isolated until the grandmother's friend, Mme de Villeparisis, arrives. Being seen with such a distinguished guest (Villeparisis turns out to be a marquise of the Guermantes family) does much to alleviate the narrator's own sense of isolation by opening up social possibilities. But in a world apparently full of masqueraders, not not everyone is convinced the marquise is who she says she is. In one particularly funny scene, the judge's wife, "who scented irregularities everywhere" (383), suspects Mme Villeparisis might not be as much of a marquise as "an adventuress" (383).   She says:

"I always begin by believing the worst. I will never admit that a woman is properly married until she has shown me her birth certificate and marriage lines. But never fear--just wait till I've finished my little investigation." (383)

Later, when the Princesse de Luxembourg arrives to pay a social call on Mme Villeparisis, the judge's wife reports to her friends, "I've discovered something" (383):

"Just listen to this. A woman with yellow hair and six inches of paint on her face and a carriage which reeked of harlot a mile away ... came here today to call on the so-called Marquise! ... I picked up her card. She trades under the name of the 'Princesse de Luxembourg'! Wasn't I right to have my doubts about her?" (384)

Although the judge's wife is hugely erroneous in her conclusion, the idea that things are never quite what they seem is another important facet of the book. The narrator's aristocratic friend St-Loup, for instance, who at first appears to be utterly snobbish, not only turns out to be extraordinarily warm and gentle (at least to the narrator) but also claims to be a Republican. In contrast, Francoise, who one would expect to be a Republican, turns out to be a Royalist. The narrator's dubious friend Bloch, who at one point voices antisemitic epithets turns out to be of Jewish background himself. The artist Elstir turns out to be the much-maligned M. Biche of the Verderin set from Volume I; and the artist's portrait of the actress he calls Miss Sacripant turns out in fact to be a portrait of the young Mme Swann, Odette de Crecy. Albertine, too, who the narrator supposes to a cyclist's mistress turns out to be a penniless orphan.

The world of appearances--the world of smoke and mirrors--extends also to the Swanns: Mme Swann gives off the air of someone of much higher class and education than she really is, while M. Swann takes something of an opposite approach in his attempt to hide the true extent of his affluent social connections (mostly seen in Volume I). And of course both put on the mask of faithfulness to the other.

And then there's that strange matter of the names Proust has given all the girls the narrator is attracted to, feminine derivatives of otherwise masculine names: Gilberte, Albertine, Andree. Given that we know that the autobiographical Proust was gay, is another mask, another illusion, at work here too? (Maybe we'll find out in Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah.) 

Even the narrator's beloved Bergotte, the writer who's had a profound influence on the narrator and who he assumes would be of similarly grand and imposing stature in real life, turns out to be a "youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard. I was cruelly disappointed" (165).

Again and again we encounter the narrator's disappointment in all he has high expectations of, a disappointment that is often later turned on its head by someone or something else. His initial disappointment, for example, after he has at last seen the famous singer Berma perform onstage is completely reversed when he reads a review in the newspaper in which he concludes (after one of the longest sentences I've so far encountered in Proust): "What a great artist!" (72). In another example, Elstir opens the narrator's eyes regarding the "Persian church" at Balbec in which the narrator also felt deep disappointment about, teaching him to see the "celestial vision ... inscribed there in stone" (575). These ever-changing visions, coupled with the inability to really know, understand, grasp, or see something as it really is is central to the whole book and the narrator's perpetual "search for lost time." When the narrator is away from Gilberte, for instance, he finds he can't remember what she looks like (although all the other ordinary cast of characters in his life readily appear in his mind's eye). Albertine's birthmark, too, sometimes appears to be in one place, then another when he conjures her up in his imagination. And of Albertine's character, he says "[she] struck me as somewhat shy instead of implacable; she seemed to me more proper than ill-bred.... But this was merely a second impression and there were doubtless others through which I would successively pass" (619)--impressions as ever-changing as the view of the sea outside the narrator's belvedere window in the Grand Hotel.

We often hear novels and even short stories described as opening up whole worlds; but Search, I've discovered, is a totally different kind of beast. Instead of a world, Proust has created an entire universe, one that is uniquely situated between old and modern worlds, between the 19th and 20th centuries, an era where horse-driven carriages and oil-lit lamps meet motor-cars, aeroplanes, and telephones.  Like Volume I, Within a Budding Grove is often filled with rapturous prose and Proust's hallmark long and winding sentences. But I have to admit that his endless and sometimes obfuscating philosophizing on just about everything drew me out of the story at times. But I've discovered that to read Proust--I mean really read Proust--and to deftly crest those enormous waves of philosophizing one needs time; not just an hour here, an hour there, but the dedication of long stretches of solid, back-to-back hours on a daily basis in order for Proust to dangle his hypnotist's pocket-watch and for one to fall, headlong and spellbound, into this vast and complicated landscape.