My Year With Proust #2: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom

"A la sombra de las muchachas en flor" Marcel Proust:

Teenage hormones galore! Be warned! In this second instalment of Marcel Proust’s trip down memory lane, we follow his various endeavours to be with his two loves, first Gilberte Swann and later Albertine Simonet. Not being too proud to avoid being pathetic at times, Proust manages despite Charles Swann’s reluctance to become one of Gilberte’s best friends and a favourite of her mother’s. Through endless tea parties with him as the only boy among girls and women, he pines and yearns for Gilberte to confess her love for him. He builds thousands of imaginary castles in the sky and forgets everyone else but those who can help him to her. Everything evolves around Gilberte despite her actions and personality. She is a headstrong girl, spoiled by her parents, and most of the time show little to no interest in Proust at all. Sometimes it even seems like she is using him and her temper often flies at him. It is however hard to say whether it is justified or not, since such a pining young boy always trying to be alone with you is, in my experience, one of the most annoying things in the world (The Book Thief agrees). So I will give her some slack on that part.

The first half shows the evolution of his relationship with Gilberte from pining at a distance over close confidante to Proust himself ending it. Still it does not seem like Proust has matured that much. Even after ending it, he is still hopeful and yearning, just slightly more proud so not willing to forgive Gilberte’s last harsh actions. He is rather sulking and passive-aggressive at this part. Along the relationship with Gilberte, the reader gets an intimate view into the domestic life of Swann and his wife, who was his mistress in the first instalment. All the fashions, trends, etiquette, and hierarchy at the turn of the century. Meetings with politicians of the day, old princesses from the time of the Empires, and discussions of art in all its forms. This is where the lost past come to life, where you see the clockwork in its detail and really begin to understand Proust’s characters’ place in society and how it works.

The second half takes us from Parisian society to that of a luxury seaside resort as Proust’s health is still declining and he spends several months at the fictional town of Balbec with his grandmother, whom is quickly becoming quite a heroine of mine. Superbly describing the anxieties of coming to a new place and knowing no one and how it gradually becomes familiar, Proust is at his most poetic when by the sea. Having admired a group of young sporty girls at a distance for most of his stay but never daring to think he could get to know them, he is suddenly thrown into their group and becomes a confidante. Having been more or less in love with all the girls at intervals, he eventually settles his heart on Albertine. Albertine shares similar characteristics with Gilberte but where she had her father’s position and money to secure her, Albertine only has a great-aunt and no real connections in society, and must rely on her friends’ generosity and charity. Proust tries hard to become her favourite and tries the old trick of pretending not to care but at the next moment going back to his pining and obvious longing. He grows bolder throughout the summer though and even close to indecent by seeking her out at her room at night!

Throughout the novel Proust describes friendships and how they develop and go awry; especially when girls come into the periphery. More than other things it is through these male friendships that we witness Proust’s maturing and what he seeks in life. From the no-good Bloch to the Marxist aristocrat Saint-Loup, Proust describes them with a candid eye for detail and psychology. We are angry with Proust when he deliberately avoids Saint-Loup after getting in with the girls. It makes him seem fickle and untrustworthy. This will be interesting to read the consequences of in the third instalment after everyone has left the seaside resort and returned to Paris. Despite that, this second part of In Search of Times Lost continues the beautiful writing of the first part and the not-always-so-subtle references to sex can be quite hilarious after a page or more with flowing poetics about the sea and windows. The characters make the story though and the vast difference and non-judgmental way of Proust’s writing makes you long for more. Luckily there is a lot left…

{Note: If you wish, I have a dedicated Pinterest board for Marcel Proust’s classic filled with images which reminds me of the books or the era}

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About Ann-Cathrine 38 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.