Volume 2 of Marcel Proust’s giant novel, In Search of Lost Time, is a joy to read.
I don’t know if it’s the strength of James Grieve’s translation or the mere exuberance of Proust’s writing, but In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is a masterfully engaging, witty and involving read. It is clever without being difficult, it is modernist without being pretentious, it is literature that wanky, literary types like myself are meant to like, and for once, FOR ONCE, I am with the gallery. Proust is fucking amazing.
I really enjoyed Swann’s Way when I read it in September, but much preferred the sections about Swann and his wife, Odette, than I did the sections about the narrator as an irritating child.* This time round, though, I was filled with nothing but joy. There were no passages I found dull, there were no storylines I didn’t care about, there were no central characters who I felt were detracting from the fun bits of the book. All of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is fun, because it’s about the nameless narrator pursuing a range of love affairs and discovering the joys that can be found in love.
This is, I suppose, a “coming of age” novel. Within this text, the narrator goes from a child to a man. In a traditional sense he “becomes a man” by losing his virginity to a prostitute, but he is still a weak individual by the end who doesn’t work and requires the supervision of his grandmother and a full time servant when he travels to the seaside for the benefit of his health. He may escape the obsessive and oddly intense relationship he has with his mother, but he is not independent, and nor does the reader feel that he will ever grow into a balanced, mature individual.
And that is where a lot of the novel’s fun comes from. The narrator is very quick to spot and list the faults of others, but seems unable to perceive his own shortcomings, which often mirror those of his friends and family. In this book he pursues Swann’s daughter, he pursues Albertine Simonet, he falls in love with milkmaids he sees from a train, he intensely desires a woman he meets only once, he sees lust and desire in every woman’s eyes, he is desperate for a relationship, for an affair, for a kiss and (often) for a shag. This is high art discussing something simple – teenage kicks.
The narrator gets drunk, he wrestles with a woman and ejaculates in his pants, he makes wild, sudden plans of elopement with someone he’s barely spoken to, he makes a friend, he tries to find himself a mentor, he has grand, literary visions, he accepts he is a disappointment to his parents, he befriends the family members of women he lusts in the misapprehension that this will make him more attractive to them… A lot happens, I suppose, but none of it is of any real consequence, but all of it is readable and charming and FINE.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is achingly gorgeous. Art drips from every page, French aristocratic society at the end of the nineteenth century is evoked with blistering visibility. Most sentences are beautiful or witty, most characters are flawed and complex and engaging, and the narrator is the epitome of this. You can easily fault the novel for its privileged worldview, or for the anti-Semitism spoken by some characters that isn’t directly condemned, but Proust was writing of the world he knew – which was rich and bitchy and self-obsessed. And a little bit racist.
This is a glowing novel, exquisite writing discussing universal themes. This (again, perhaps because of the translation) is easy to read, is incredibly funny and kept me engaged throughout. I’m looking forward to The Guermantes Way at some point in the near future!
* Generally, I don’t enjoy child characters in anything.