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Sea, sex and fun: the Narrator goes wild

October 29, 2010 8 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (part II) by Marcel Proust. Also translated as Within a Budding Grove.

Why did I choose such a modern title for this post? Because humanity is immortal and permanent. The Narrator is not so different from all adolescents. He takes liberties with his family, his hormones are raging and restless and he wants to have fun with friends. 

This volume opens with the Narrator’s departure from Paris. The parting from his mother is painful but he will survive it easily. This good-bye also means leaving definitively childhood to become a young man, able to spend a summer away from home. The Narrator’s relationship with his grand-mother is really touching, made of nice attentions and cruel behaviours. He is fond of her but starts to challenge her choices. As all adolescents have experienced it, he is sometimes ashamed of her:

Tandis que j’entendais ma grand’mère, sans se froisser qu’il l’écoutât son chapeau sur la tête et tout en sifflotant, lui demander avec une intonation artificielle: «Et quels sont… vos prix?… Oh! beaucoup trop élevés pour mon petit budget», attendant sur une banquette, je me réfugiais au plus profond de moi-même, je m’efforçais d’émigrer dans des pensées éternelles, de ne laisser rien de moi, rien de vivant, à la surface de mon corps — insensibilisée comme l’est celle des animaux qui par inhibition font les morts quand on les blesse, — afin de ne pas trop souffrir dans ce lieu. While I heard my grandmother, who shewed no sign of annoyance at his listening to her with his hat on his head and whistling through his teeth at her, ask him in an artificial voice, “And what are… your charges?… Oh! far too high for my little budget,” waiting upon a bench, I sought refuge in the innermost depths of my own consciousness, strove to migrate to a plane of eternal thoughts — to leave nothing of myself, nothing that lived and felt on the surface of my body, anaesthetised as are those of animals which by inhibition feign death when they are attacked — so as not to suffer too keenly in this place

Who has never felt that way as a teenager? Some little remarks are spread along the novel, showing that he is no more the nice obedient boy but a young man who wants to do as he pleases. For example, he would not follow his grand-mother’s advice on clothing, when he would not have discussed it before.  

The title of the novel refers to young girls in flower. Who are they? At the beginning, they are all the girls the Narrator passes by during his carriage promenades with his grand-mother and her friend Madame de Villeparisis and who arouse desire in his body and his mind, overwhelmed as he is by the hormonal chaos of adolescence. The sexual metaphor is pretty clear here:

Mais ce n’est pas seulement son corps que j’aurais voulu atteindre, c’était aussi la personne qui vivait en lui et avec laquelle il n’est qu’une sorte d’attouchement, qui est d’attirer son attention, qu’une sorte de pénétration, y éveiller une idée But it was not only to her body that I should have liked to attain, there was also her person, which abode within her, and with which there is but one form of contact, namely to attract its attention, but one sort of penetration, to awaken an idea in it.

The translation is prude as “attouchement”, which has a clear sexual meaning in French, has been translated by “contact” instead of “touching”. Later in the novel, the young girls in flower will be Albertine and her friends. The Narrator relates their afternoons together, and the flirty relationship he has with Albertine and her friend Andrée. Please note that all the girls whom the Narrator fancy have a man name taken in the feminine form –Gilbert/Gilberte, Albert/Albertine, André/Andrée. Proust was a homosexual and I suppose it is not a coincidence.

The whole experience of flirting is not so different from what all adolescents live through. Only technological means differ. It is made of time spent together, stealthy touching and out-of-control imagination. Let’s watch Albertine and the Narrator:

Ainsi un jour Albertine avait dit: «Qui est-ce qui a un crayon?» Andrée l’avait fourni. Rosemonde le papier. Albertine leur avait dit: «Mes petites bonnes femmes, je vous défends de regarder ce que j’écris.» Après s’être appliquée à bien tracer chaque lettre, le papier appuyé à ses genoux, elle me l’avait passé en me disant: «Faites attention qu’on ne voie pas.» Alors je l’avais déplié et j’avais lu ces mots qu’elle m’avait écrits: «Je vous aime bien.» Thus one day Albertine had suddenly asked: “Who has a pencil?” Andrée had provided one, Rosemonde the paper; Albertine had warned them: “Now, young ladies, you are not to look at what I write.” After carefully tracing each letter, supporting the paper on her knee, she had passed it to me with: “Take care no one sees.” Whereupon I had unfolded it and read her message, which was: “I love you.”

The English are the first to use a prudent and timid ‘I like you’ when meaning more when the French will tell a sometimes slightly untruthful “I love you”. And here, for once, in French, it is actually written ‘I like you’ (“Je vous aime bien”) and the translator chose to write ‘I love you’! In French, ‘I like you’ doesn’t mean ‘I love you’ at all but it sure means ‘Let’s be just friends’. The Narrator will understand “I love you” though, with devastating consequences for his ego.

Friendship is also an important part of adolescence. Some friends  share with you that foggy time between childhood and adulthood and some are a way to assert you own choices and leave the family circle. In Balbec, the Narrator befriends with Robert de Saint-Loup, a friend we will hear of all along in the next books and who fits in the first category of friends, the ones with whom you share hopes, disappointments and parties. Robert and the Narrator go out for diner, get drunk, and watch women.

L’attente du dîner à Rivebelle rendait mon humeur plus frivole encore et ma pensée, habitant à ces moments-là la surface de mon corps que j’allais habiller pour tâcher de paraître le plus plaisant possible aux regards féminins qui me dévisageraient dans le restaurant illuminé, était incapable de mettre de la profondeur derrière la couleur des choses. The anticipation of dinner at Rivebelle made my mood more frivolous still, and my mind, dwelling at such moments upon the surface of the body which I was going to dress up so as to try to appear as pleasing as possible in the feminine eyes which would be scrutinising me in the brilliantly lighted restaurant, was incapable of putting any depth behind the colour of things.

Bloch is more the second kind of friends, the ones you do not totally like but are ‘cool’ or help you to indulge in your rebellious tendencies. That is how the Narrator gets acquainted with a Jew, which is as bold as hanging out with punks in the 1980s.  

Illness is what makes of the Narrator a different adolescent, though. Adolescents feel immortal. He cannot afford that feeling. He never really complains about his poor health but sometimes, at the corner of a sentence, we unexpectedly get to see how he suffers:

D’ailleurs, de plus en plus souffrant, j’étais tenté de surfaire les plaisirs les plus simples à cause des difficultés mêmes qu’il y avait pour moi à les atteindre. Des femmes élégantes, je croyais en apercevoir partout, parce que j’étais trop fatigué si c’était sur la plage, trop timide si c’était au Casino ou dans une pâtisserie, pour les approcher nulle part. Pourtant, si je devais bientôt mourir, j’aurais aimé savoir comment étaient faites de près, en réalité, les plus jolies jeunes filles que la vie pût offrir, quand même c’eût été un autre que moi, ou même personne, qui dût profiter de cette offre (je ne me rendais pas compte, en effet, qu’il y avait un désir de possession à l’origine de ma curiosité). Besides, as I grew more and more delicate, I was inclined to overrate the simplest pleasures because of the difficulties that sprang up in the way of my attaining them. Charming women I seemed to see all round me, because I was too tired, if it was on the beach, too shy if it was in the Casino or at a pastry-cook’s, to go anywhere near them. And yet if I was soon to die I should have liked first to know the appearance at close quarters, in reality of the prettiest girls that life had to offer, even although it should be another than myself or no one at all who was to take advantage of the offer. (I did not, in fact, appreciate the desire for possession that underlay my curiosity.)

This quote also gives us a glimpse at the perception Proust has of the dichotomy between body and soul. Due to his illness, the Narrator cannot forget his body, which is often seen as a burden. It puts his mind in chains because it grounds it to earth. Proust will eventually call his body a “fortress” where his mind is forced to live. This notion will be developed in the following volumes and particularly in the last one.  

In the end, Proust has an optimistic look on adolescence:

La caractéristique de l’âge ridicule que je traversais — âge nullement ingrat, très fécond — est qu’on n’y consulte pas l’intelligence et que les moindres attributs des êtres semblent faire partie indivisible de leur personnalité. Tout entouré de monstres et de dieux, on ne connaît guère le calme. Il n’y a presque pas un des gestes qu’on a faits alors qu’on ne voudrait plus tard pouvoir abolir. Mais ce qu’on devrait regretter au contraire c’est de ne plus posséder la spontanéité qui nous les faisait accomplir. Plus tard on voit les choses d’une façon plus pratique, en pleine conformité avec le reste de la société, mais l’adolescence est le seul temps où l’on ait appris quelque chose. But the characteristic feature of the silly phase through which I was passing — a phase by no means irresponsive, indeed highly fertile — is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us then to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we are barely conscious of tranquillity. There is hardly one of the actions which we performed in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to erase from our memory. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but youth was the only time in which we learned anything.

I share his views. Later, compromise is in everything. Our repeated slight renunciations are what we call ‘wisdom’, only to see them in a positive light. We progressively build ourselves a shell to live in and from time to time, the adolescent hidden in the most remote corner of this adult shell shows up and reminds us of whom we really are.

That was a little sad, sorry. I know there are a lot of quotes in this post, but I couldn’t help it. Why paraphrase something that has been so beautifully put? Of course, all I have written about In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is only a tiny part of this novel. The best way to know it better is to read it and, like Alice, let yourself fall in its Wonderland.

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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