The year 2013 marked the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Numerous articles appeared in the popular press commenting on this anniversary of a masterpiece in the literature of twentieth century Modernism. By late November, the accumulation of these notices led me to an unexpected desire to read the gigantic novel again. By the start of 2014 opens, I was well past the midpoint of the seven-volume sequence. At that, my favorites moments had come, surprisingly to me, in the second volume, known in C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation as Within A Budding Grove.
I suspect that most of readers who given Proust a chance manage to complete the first volume, Swann’s Way. In this book, the “Overture” with its famous madeleine episode, sets up the themes of memory and desire that will dominate the entire work. The following “Combray” section goes deeper into the dreams and fears of the narrator, his desire to be an artist, and his fascination with the ancient ways of his country. For him, French culture and history are bound up in social relations, especially as they are expressed among the nobility who form the core of high society. But they also find expression in the peasantry and especially in the form of unattainable, voluptuous peasant girls whom he seeks on roadsides and in dreams.
“Combray” is a meditation on how subjectivity and imagination construct the world when experience is lacking. The latter half of the novel, “Swann in Love,” demonstrates how subjectivity and imagination are capable of defeating lived experience. The themes of desire, infatuation, and romantic ardor accomplish this in the character of M. Swann and his blind, foolish love of Odette de Crecy, the courtesan who will become his wife.
Those two stories, that of the young, dreamy narrator and the man in the grip of an obsessive love, come to flower in Within a Budding Grove. Swann’s Way, in the overall plan of the novel, prepares the way. It introduces the major themes and characters that will occupy Proust’s analysis for the remainder of In Search of Lost Time. But it is in Within a Budding Grove that the author first deploys the panoply of his creations with evident gusto, humor, and invention.
The narrator, now in Paris, has become enraptured with Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette. Like Swann before him, the young man creates an idealized object of his love that only occasionally bears a resemblance to the actual girl. Like Swann, he suffers agonies for his foolishness; unlike Swann he ultimately renounces the suffering and cures himself of his infatuation and his misery.
In the second half of the novel, the narrator accompanies his grandmother on an extended visit to the seaside town of Balbec. Here again, his imagination has run well before him: he has constructed for himself highly romanticized visions of a storm-tossed coast, and of the old church with its “Persian” affect and archaic sculptures. And, naturally, his first reaction to the entire experience is one of disappointment and frustration when simple reality does not replicate his fevered dreams. Indeed, his imagination is quite literally linked to his ill-health, for an excess of emotion almost always results in physical debilitation.
But his grandmother is a great believer in the salutary effects of fresh air, sunshine, and exercise, and she has brought the boy here in part to improve his delicate condition. Just as the sun burns the mist off the sea in the morning, a series of encounters and friendships beyond the narrator’s imagining clear away the romantic dreams of youth.
The aristocratic Guermantes clan has figured large in the narrator’s imaginings since the days in Combray when his family would walk through the countryside near their estate. At Balbec, he is befriended by Robert de Saint-Loup, who offers him quite literally undreamed of experiences of masculine camaraderie. These stand in stark contrast to the previously dominant feminine relations with mother, grandmother, aunts, and the girls of his voluptuous dreams. With Saint Loup he experiences for the first time a friendship that draws him out of his sickliness and into an approximation of real strength.
The second friendship is that of the painter Elstir, who is presented as a man of striking and original genius. He is an artist whom the narrator quickly comes to understand is capable of transforming experience, a man whose art reveals a truth that had been not only unseen but more critically, unimagined.
And finally, there is Albertine with her “little band” of friends, espied upon the seashore, silhouetted in the brilliant sunshine, vibrating and mysterious. Their sensuous vivacity overwhelms him, and their physicality as they disport themselves on the beach seizes him with an immediacy that jolts him out of his accustomed dreaminess. His relations with the little band mirror the conviviality and vitality of his relations with Saint-Loup and his companions in the army at the nearby town of Doncières.
These adventures “in the shade of flowering young girls” (a more literal translation of the novel’s French title, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) as well as with Saint-Loup form the narrator’s transition from the solipsistic imaginings of youth to a maturing engagement with society. Ultimately, both Albertine and Saint-Loup will disappoint the narrator; it is the example of only Elstir that will guide the narrator to what Richard Howard in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of In Search of Lost Time describes as that which “is triumphant, is enduring, is successful”: the artist’s creation. But for the moment, in a flowering adolescence, we can enjoy in Within a Budding Grove the sense, for the first time, of Proust in flower.