jueves, 26 de septiembre de 2013

Swann's Way & Within a Budding Grove - Marcel Proust

In april, I blogged about my intent of reading In Search of Lost Time in 2013. My goal was ambitious, and now I know it was overly so. While it is doable, I have realized I need time to enjoy Proust.

Marcel Proust whiled away the first half of his life as a self-conscious aesthete and social climber. The second half he spent in the creation of the mighty roman-fleuve that is In Search of Lost Time, memorializing his own dandyism and parvenu hijinks even as he revealed their essential hollowness. Proust begins, of course, at the beginning--with the earliest childhood perceptions and sorrows. Then, over several thousand pages, he retraces the course of his own adolescence and adulthood, democratically dividing his experiences among the narrator and a sprawling cast of characters. (Source)

Three quarters of the year have already passed, and I have just finished the first two volumes of ISOLT, Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove. Now I should write a review-of-sorts, but this novel surpasses my writing skills. I will gush about it instead.

Swann's Way starts with the famous sentence "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure" (For a long time, I went to bed early) and goes on for pages about the act of going to bed, memories of chilhood bed rituals and that split-second feeling of disorientation one feels when waking up, accentuated by being away from home. Elegantly, Proust has just introduced many of the themes he is going to develop in his larger-than-life novel - memory (involuntary vs. voluntary), habit, sensorial experiencies, pleasure, love and perception of others. 

The first half of this first volume, Combray, deals with the Narrator's childhood memories, mainly during his stays at Combray, and it's my favorite section of the book. We are introduced to the main characters - the Narrator, his family, their servant Françoise, Charles Swann, the Guermantes and their social milieu. I was tempted to put hawthorn (aubépines) in that list, since the Narrator is so fond of them. Actually, the imagined conversations between the narrator and hawthorn flowers offer the only pieces of direct dialogue in the whole book. It is mostly devoid of plot, but it is lyrical and superbly written. It will sent you down memory lane - I found that many times my mind had drifted and wasn't paying attention to the text. However, I was still experiencing Proust, since I had been inundated with my own childhood memories. Proust does that to the reader.

Cattleyas, the key to Odette
In the second part of Swann's Way, Un amour de Swann, the Narrator (I guess the older Narrator?) recounts Charles Swann's suffocating love affair with Odette de Crécy. I didn't like this as much as Combray and I have to admit I had some difficulties in picking the book up after I had put it down. At first, it was somewhat disjointed, but I ended up enjoying it. The Verdurins' little clan (le petit noyau) was comical and embarrasing at the same time, and made for a very interesting background to the dramatic love affair. And as a contrast, Proust offered the non-existant Vinteuil sonata. Swann's Way then goes back to the young Narrator's story and ends with him, now a teenager, meeting Gilberte, Swann and Odette's daugther.

The wonderful thing about Swann's Way (and the rest of the novels, I guess) is that Proust built a plausible world, complete with its own music, literature, art and historic events, but so similar to ours that it is easy to mistake the fictional world for the real one and the fictional Narrator for Proust. Unless you're really well versed in all of those subjects, it's a Herculean task to identify the real allusions and references (I found bookdrum really helpful). It struck me how akin this is to alternate history novels in terms of world-building. Proust created his own mythology! And this enabled him to have a flexible time-lime. We know the Narrator's childhood passes some time in mid 19th century, but it is impossible to draw a clear chronology, which goes hand in hand with the theme of the unreliability of memory. The man was a genius.

Within a Budding Grove is my favorite of the two volumes I have read so far. It was the one which won the Prix Goncourt after all. It starts with the on-and-off love affair between Gilberte and the young Narrator, whose story parallels that of Swann and Odette. It is even more claustrophobic and suffocating, bordering on obsession. 
Étretat, by Claude Monet. Possible inspiration for Elstir?

A couple of years after they break up, the young Narrator decides to sojourn in Balbec, a beach resort similar to Cabourg. I loved the array of characters that populated Balbec. It is, by far, the most modern section of ISOLT so far, since Balbec isn't so different from current seaside resorts - I highlighted many quotes in this section. Proust was an acute and astute observer - he made beautifully crafted senteces packed with wisdom and humor. One of the things that surprised me about ISOLT is how funny it can be - it was rather unexpected. 

At Balbec, the young Narrator enjoys the solitude of the resort and beaches, until her grandmother renews an old friendship with the aristocratic Mme de Villeparisis. In turn, the Narrator forms a friendship with her great-nephew Robert de Saint-Loup, with whom he goes to many dinner-parties. My favorite is, of course, Bloch's family dinner. Atrocious and funny at the same time. 

The Narrator also meets Charlus, Saint-Loup's uncle and supposedly Odette's lover, for the first time - a strange series of encounters. I hope this storyline gets more attention in the following books, because I don't know what to make of it. Was Proust saying the Baron de Charlus was gay? And finally, the painter Elstir and the young girls in flower: Albertine, Andrée, Gisèle, Rosemonde. La petite bande. I don't even know where to start with them. The novel starts building tension and there are plot turns and twists - is Elstir connected to the Verdurins? Will the Narrator kiss Albertine? There are love triangles and all sorts of love polygons. I found myself wanting to get back to the novel as soon as I could. This relatively fast-paced section comes to a conclusion at the very end of the novel, calmly and with grandeur, describing the final days of the Indian summer:

And after Françoise had removed her pins from the mouldings of the window-frame, taken down her various cloths, and drawn back the curtains, the summer day which she disclosed seemed as dead, as immemorially ancient as would have been a sumptuously attired dynastic mummy from which our old servant had done no more than precautionally unwind the linen wrappings before displaying it to my gaze, embalmed in its vesture of gold.

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