Friday, 28 February 2014

Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust

Two volumes in. One third of the way through this extremely long work, or series, or whatever it is. And it's hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that's keeping me interested. I am, but it's hard to say why. It's not the plot - there is barely any. It's in translation, so I'm sure I'm missing some of the nuance of the original. It's not so much the characters - other than the main one, the others are mostly sketches, and the main character is self-absorbed to the point of being irritating.

And yet.

There is something here, a richness of prose, a capturing of small moments, a lingering on the everyday that is exquisite. He describes moments I recognize but have never seen in prose. He describes moments far outside my experience. And deftly, weaves them all into the tapestry of a life. Even if it isn't an exciting life, or so far, a particularly productive one. There is the feeling here that all lives are worthy of notice, no experience too evanescent or frivolous or fleeting to evade his pen.

So far, however, the narrator is a very self-absorbed young man. Within a Budding Grove chronicles his love for Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Swann's wife, Odette, a former kept woman turned wife, whose past keeps her from the best society. And then, after that relationship has soured, it turns to his stay on the seashore, and his subsequent attraction to Albertine.

But it's mostly about the narrator. It's interesting, his insistence on being sensitive, and yet how far away that is from my own experience of being sensitive. For him, it takes the form of an almost total self-absorption, a fixation on his own body and his own emotions. While I can't plead innocence from thinking about myself, my experience has been more weighted towards an oversensitivity to the emotions of those around me, which is not what the narrator here experiences. In fact, he often assumes things about the people he's talking about based on his own expectations which the narration undercuts.

It's a strange mixture of callow and oversensitive. And he blunders around, not being a very good friend, being too obvious as a suitor, missing many of the social nuances around him, which he, as a narrator, shakes his head over ruefully, obviously looking back from a distance and wincing at the overeagerness of his youth.  If the character verges on irritating, the narrator, who is and is not the same person, puts it all into context that makes it more bearable.

There are also a lot of interesting bits in here about class consciousness, nobility and merchant class, and the ways in which each mistakes the perceptions of the other, expecting them to be the same as their own. So the middle-class dismisses the conscious simplicity of dress of the aristocracy as a sign of poverty, while the aristocrats assume the middle-class knows exactly who they are and are paying them all due homage.

I feel like I've done an inadequate job of capturing this book, and the greater work as a whole. But it's hard to get a grasp on. And I'm enjoying my leisurely trek through its pages.

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