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A summer in Balbec

October 27, 2010 10 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers, Part II. by Marcel Proust. Also translated under the title “Within a Budding Grove”

Writing about Proust is not easy, even intimidating. All the flat words you are going to put on his work are like decorating a masterly crafted gold bracelet with fake gems. Well, I’ll live with it.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (II) takes place in Balbec – in fact Cabourg, Normandy. Two years after his break-up with Gilberte, the narrator stays at the Grand-Hôtel with his grand-mother, among a crowd of bourgeois and aristocrats. We find here the pattern of In Search of Lost Time, made of introspection and description of the outside world. In this volume, we follow the narrator in his discovery of Balbec, his new friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup and his new acquaintance with Albertine and her girl-friends. The narrator is still exploring art. We had met Vinteuil for music and Bergotte for literature in Swann’s Way and A L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (I). Now, he introduces us to Elstir, who looks like Monet to me.

His first night at Balbec echoes the fearful nights pictured in Swann’s Way, when he was a child at Combray. The description of how it feels to spend a first night in a new room is really true to life and creates a bond with the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. To me, the main themes are social satire and adolescence.

Proust excels in social satire. The description of the bourgeois staying in the same hotel is a pure sample of French sense of humour, with its patented hint of nastiness. I don’t know how an author can be more French than Marcel Proust. If Balzac is the painter of the petty, greedy and narrow-minded bourgeoisie, Proust is the one of its ridiculous snobbery. At the Grand-Hotel, bourgeois and aristocrats thoroughly and cautiously avoid melting. The aristocrats ignore the bourgeois and the bourgeois pretend to snob the aristocrats out of choice, not to be obliged to sheepishly acknowledge that they would die to be acquainted with them. Like in Swann’s Way, servants are the only members of the working class. We meet the incredible Françoise again, as she followed her master to Balbec and Proust delights in describing the employees of the hotel, such as the lift, the headwaiter, and their social life. Proust brilliantly dissects the different but coercive set of rules which govern relationships in the working class, the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. His sense of humour blossoms in this scene, where the Princesse de Luxembourg, unexpectedly runs into the narrator and his grand-mother:

Même, dans son désir de ne pas avoir l’air de siéger dans une sphère supérieure à la nôtre, elle avait sans doute mal calculé la distance, car, par une erreur de réglage, ses regards s’imprégnèrent d’une telle bonté que je vis approcher le moment où nous flatterait de la main comme deux bêtes sympathiques qui eussent passé la tête vers elle, à travers un grillage, au Jardin d’Acclimatation Indeed, in her anxiety not to appear to be a denizen of a higher sphere than ours, she had probably miscalculated the distance there was indeed between us, for by an error in adjustment she made her eyes beam with such benevolence that I could see the moment approaching when she would put out her hand and stroke us, as if we were two nice beasts and had poked our heads out at her through the bars of our cage in the Gardens. (NB)

 (NB) What is translated as “The Gardens” are indeed the “Jardin d’Acclimatation”, a garden with plants and animals located in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. It still exists and has a wonderful Japanese Tea House.

 This volume is also a fresh description of the upper classes way of life from La Belle Epoque with their carriage promenades, their games and lunch and diner habits.

Tout au plus nous attardions-nous souvent à causer avec elle [Mme de Villeparisis], notre déjeuner fini, à ce moment sordide où les couteaux traînent sur la nappe à côté des serviettes défaites. At the most we would linger, as often as not, in the room after finishing our luncheon, to talk to her [Mme de Villeparisis], at that sordid moment when the knives are left littering the tablecloth among crumpled napkins.

This is the essence of France, with its several-hour lunches and endless conversations around a table. I can picture it really clearly since our family meetings and lunches with friends still resemble that.  I saw Renoir’s paintings such as Le Moulin de la Galette when I was reading about the narrator’s afternoons with Albertine and her friends.

I don’t remember books where French aristocrats take long walks in the country. For me, sport and outdoors activities have been invented by the British, just like tourism. The bourgeoisie in Proust, as it was noticeable with Odette before, is inspired by the British way of life. It’s fashionable and for example, Odette does her best to say “Christmas” instead of “Noël” and use as many English words as possible. Albertine and her friends do sports and eat sandwiches, which is, the narrator says “a form of food that was novel to me”. This tendency still exists, especially in Paris. The other day, I attended a work meeting where the CFO on stage was struggling not to use English words is his speech. He failed.

What also strikes me in the novel is the casual ostracism towards Jews, shown for example through the episode of the diner at the Blochs’. Anti-Semitism seems a normal behaviour, or at least a widely spread behaviour, just like calling black people “nigger” was accepted at that time. Here is Albertine, about the Blochs sisters:

«On ne me permet pas de jouer avec des israélites», disait Albertine. La façon dont elle prononçait israélite au lieu d’izraélite aurait suffi à indiquer, même si on n’avait pas entendu le commencement de la phrase, que ce n’était pas de sentiments de sympathie envers le peuple élu qu’étaient animées ces jeunes bourgeoises, de familles dévotes, et qui devaient croire aisément que les juifs égorgeaient les enfants chrétiens. “I am not allowed to play with Israelites,” Albertine explained. Her way of pronouncing the word —‘Issraelites’ instead of ‘Izraelites’— would in itself have sufficed to shew, even if one had not heard the rest of the sentence, that it was no feeling of friendliness towards the chosen race that inspired these young Frenchwomen, brought up in God-fearing homes, and quite ready to believe that the Jews were in the habit of massacring Christian children.

 This kind of sentences makes me ill at ease. It reveals anti-Semitism as a commonplace in the French society and warns us that the fertile ground for the Dreyfus Affair is there –not to speak of the shame of Vichy during WWII.

Proust introduces us to new characters that will be important in the following volumes. Robert de Saint Loup will be his best friend, the Baron de Charlus will be the hero of Sodom and Gomorrah and Albertine will be the star of his future love life. He brings his characters one by one, showing how the whole work was already in his head, from the first volumes. 

Like I said before, adolescence is a major theme in this summer in Balbec and will be described in another post.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

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