Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Within A Budding Grove (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
"In this second volume of In Search of Lost Time, the narrator turns from the childhood reminiscences of Swann's Way to memories of his adolescence. Having gradually become indifferent to Swann's daughter Gilberte, the narrator visits the seaside resort of Balbec with his grandmother and meets a new object of attention—Albertine, "a girl with brilliant, laughing eyes and plump, matt cheeks.""

--The review--
As with volumes 1 and 3 of In Search of Lost Time, the second, Within A Budding Grove, is not without its merits and, in addition to the sheer beauty of the language used, again toys with some interesting semantic issues in the second part of the volume and confirms previous suspicions that Proust makes it easier for us to visualise places than people.

What is clear, though, is the growing irritation at Marcel's behaviour and personality that steadily increases throughout the volume. For want of a better phrase, the man acts like a total pansy; this act wears thin after several hundred pages. However, it could be argued that Proust cleverly replicates the maddening temperament that overtakes us all when in the sights of unrequited love. This makes the volume become quite blurry in its similarity, and while this dreamlike quality is perhaps Proust's trademark, it can make it difficult for the motivation to continue to be consistently maintained.

The politics of France at this time and of the high society that Marcel is beginning to be aware of and to inhabit are not laid on so heavily in this volume as in volume three; this is a blessing rather than a curse, as it, in its own special way, probably helps to render this volume more accessible.
Proust also successfully chronicles the nature of teenage obsession with certain interests and people; upon reading, we too are transported back to those same feelings of intensity, which are more important to us than Marcel’s specific situation. The word “Berma” could be replaced with any other word; this, if you like, is another in the sequence of the reader's own madeleine moments. Equally, there is relevance to be found in Marcel’s meeting with Bergotte, the author that he idolises; the idea that perhaps we should never meet our heroes is arguably ever truer in an increasingly celebrity-obsessed Western world.
Although Proust has had accusations of anti-Semitism levelled at him for his portrayal of Bloch and his family, this to me is unfounded; the impressions and opinions expressed here are likely an honest social portrait of the time, rather than setting out to be deliberately malicious. He, along with other authors such as Enid Blyton and Hergé, are to be valued rather than condemned for such representations; rather than making their work into nothing more than museum pieces, they are important living parts of history.
But in spite of all of these various positive aspects, the reader still longs for more movement in terms of characterisation and momentum in the plot, to match in some small way the massive voyage of self-discovery and mapping of history that is taking place. Really all that the reader has is the image of a character who is not enamoured with any specific female but whose attentions constantly flicker; in love with the idea of being in love, he comes across as little more than fickle and silly.
And yet it is perhaps this interior evolution of character which encourages the reader to continue; in spite of the volume's deep flaws, it is not enough to be completely off-putting.

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