Wednesday 3 June 2020

Book review: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust (1924)

I bought this – along with the other novels in the set (‘In Search of Lost Time’) – sometime after June 2013. The sticker on the back of the volume says it was bought from Folio Books in Brisbane (I was living in southeast Queensland at the time). The price was $22.95.

This translation is different from the one made in 1924. This one was completed in 2002. I read the first book in the series, ‘The Way by Swann’s’ (1922), in 2014. At the time, I was at first put off by the prose but, persisting with it, I caught the bug. I started the second book in the series, and put it down after reading a bit of it, but now I understand what the writer was trying to do, and think it equally as good.

The novels came out initially in French in the years 1913 to 1927 (there’s more information about the series’ publication history on Wikipedia); Proust died in 1922. If you use Google Translate on the title of this book, it appears as: “in the shade of the young girls in bloom.” The original French is “À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”. (The adjectival construction – preposition plus noun – “en fleur” means “blooming” and “fille” can be translated either as “daughter” or “girl”.) Some other English translations might be possible but you risk sounding either ridiculous or salacious.

The novel is not only about youth, although from the outset there is a kind of one-sided romance affecting relations between the teenage narrator and Gilberte – she appears to treat him like a friend, but we are not given access to her thoughts – the daughter of Swann and his wife Odette (both of whom we met in the first book in the series); the narrator is smitten by Gilberte and tries to spend as much time with her as possible. The place of the protagonist in the world is situational for the reader and he is in his teens. At times you hear the voice of an older, more experienced man who tells the story of the youth from a time that is located in the future relative to the time of the main part of the narrative. In both cases the social milieu of France at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, as in the case of ‘Swann’s Way’, forms the axle upon which the narrative turns, with a clever switch from Paris to a small coastal town, Balbec, in the second part. Among other details, an aspect of the Dreyfus case (1894-1906) is mentioned in this latter part of the novel, helping to orient the reader. The Second Empire (which ended in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, an event mentioned in ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’), was already old fashioned at the time when the teenager is stalking Gilberte. 

The switch to Balbec is clever because it takes the narrator out of his natural element, and allows for more discussion of strangers, which, in turn, allows for more character development. You see the narrator interact with new people and places, in different situations, in much the same way that, to add colour to an action movie, the filmmakers suddenly transport their protagonist to Morocco or Moscow, although in this novel the action has the flavour of real life, and not of fantasy. Proust furthermore, in order to achieve comic and psychological effects, combines real-life people with invented characters. When he is young the narrator is aware of his world in a way that only comes with a degree of maturity, but he is just old enough for this to be true. His relative youth is a source of drama in the novel and the time lag that separates the two points of view – the young protagonist and the older narrator – functions as an index of the book’s universality. 

The passing of time changes everyone’s life, and so we can empathise with the narrator as he remembers events from his past and records them for our amusement. His epigrammatic divagations combine artfully (I’ll talk about this in more detail later in this review) with snatches of realistic dialogue – in these ways it’s like Jane Austen amped up to eleventy. Its discursiveness however sets it apart from what had come before. Though I hesitate to make authoritative pronouncements with regard to 19th century literature one character I can think of, with which to link the boy, is the protagonist of Italo Svevo’s ‘Una vita’. The first draft of Svevo’s novel was submitted to the publisher in 1888 with the title ‘L’inetto’ – “inetto” translates as “inept” or “incapable” – and the book was eventually published (funded by the author himself) in 1892.

Both Svevo and Proust continue to be read profitably a century after their novels first appeared on the market. In the novel of the latter author currently under discussion, Monsieur Norpois, the smooth-talking government functionary who sits like a bookend at the outset, would – were he a notable in 21st century Paris – enthusiastically applaud the success of Proust’s oeuvre as long as he wasn’t required to actually read the thing. M. Norpois is as different from the narrator of the novel as a cassowary is from a sparrow. At the beginning of the book how M. Norpois treats the narrator – in what appears to be an avuncular, patronising fashion that is both intimate and aloof, and which might be due to his close relationship with the narrator’s father – is meant to orient the reader in the drama, but in the first 30 pages more happens that is revealing of the narrator’s mind than happens in a score of woke middle-market crime thrillers. 

Proust never misses an opportunity to make meaning by advancing the plot. If someone is mentioned even once in the text, there will be a reason – not immediately apparent, perhaps – for it, and their name will want to reappear at a later point, or even in one of the other books in the series. So while there is no fat in this novel, at the same time the author’s dense, allusive prose intricates itself with your imagination with a rich suggestiveness that is nigh unbearable, each concatenated clause tramping on the heels of the one it follows as rapidly as a moving column of soldiers, though the barrier they are meant to scale – the present moment – always retreats before them. The prose is so complex and redolent with secondary, tertiary and quaternary meanings that you struggle to make sense of it. Its difficulty constituting its primary charm: the looping, languid paragraphs resembling nothing as much as the meandering passage of thought itself, a spiralling formation that, like a child, refuses to terminate unless it’s guaranteed freedom to move at a moment later in time. The plot’s a hook to engage the reader’s attention and though in itself it achieves this goal – the novel effectively retails in ideas related to such issues as the objectification of women, chauvinism and inequality – it wants to come to grips with the very nature of consciousness, a thing – its beating heart fluttering on the pavement of Time’s diurnal like a bird knocked unconscious having flown pell-mell into a window, on the other side of which lie your dreams – which it tries to pin down on the borders of memory.

Because of the extreme length of the sentences this book will have a different effect on each reader, as they raise up, like ghosts, images and feelings that sit deep within your mind, which has hardly managed to come to terms with one clause before another is offered up for perusal. In the delay, in the spaces between clauses, your mind is still active, but suspended, as though it were on a bridge of words. The author himself signals to precisely this moment when, on page 104, he writes:
[Swann] explained that the room where [Gilberte] sometimes went was the linen-room, offered to show it to me and promised that, whenever she had to go there, he would make sure she took me with her. With these words and the relief they brought me, he suddenly bridged for me one of those dreadful chasms within the heart, which put such a distance between us and the woman we love. It was a moment when I believed my affection for him was even stronger than my affection for Gilberte.
And on page 105, we get this:
It was on one of those days that [Mme Swann] happened to play the part of the Vinteuil sonata with the little phrases that Swann had once loved so much. Listening for the first time to music that is even a little complicated, one can often hear nothing in it. And yet, later in life, when I had heard the whole piece two or three times, I found I was thoroughly familiar with it. So the expression ‘hearing something for the first time’ is not inaccurate. If one had distinguished nothing in it on the real first occasion, as one thought, then the second or the third would also be first times; and there would be no reason to understand it any better on the tenth occasion. What is missing the first time is probably not understanding, but memory. Our memory-span relative to the complexity of the impressions which assail it as we listen, is infinitesimal, as short-lived as the memory of a sleeping man who has a thousand thoughts which he instantly forgets, or the memory of a man in his dotage, who cannot retain for more than a minute anything he has been told. Our memory is incapable of supplying us with an instantaneous recollection of this multiplicity of impressions. Even so, a recollection does gradually gather in the mind; and with pieces of music heard only two or three times, one is like the schoolboy who, though he has read over his lesson a few times before falling asleep, is convinced he still does not know it, but can then recite it word for word when he wakes up the following morning. 
Like the chasm in the narrator’s heart, Proust’s sentences provide a bridge over to our own memories. The gaps between one image, one impression, and the next is wide, and there are many to cross; the mind skips, like a stone flung from a verge across a calm body of water. More than a doorway to another world, the book – like one of Haruki Murakami’s tunnels – gives access to your own. Proust hasn’t written one novel, he has written seven billion individual novels. 

Each has the same title and is a coproduction, in fact the name “Proust” becomes your name for the time it takes to read a page and you still have the same name for the next, but this “Proust” is an amphibious creature, and a fiction itself, existing only as long as you continue to read. As for whether one must equate Proust’s narrator – even though he wants, in his youth, to be a writer – with the author himself, I believe it is unnecessary. The use of this type of character allows Proust to explore such things as subjectivity but it also gives him access to a wide range of social spheres so that he can make his novel "big". Since Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du mal’ had appeared (at least a decade before Proust’s birth), the position of the author relative to his or her audience had been under discussion. ‘Au lecteur’, a powerful poem by Baudelaire, directly addresses this aspect of the public sphere, and since then the author-as-protagonist has become a common trope (cf Knausgaard’s series of novels, ‘My Struggle’, which came out in Norwegian between 2009 and 2011). Its reverse is reader-as-author, and I talk about this in a recent review of Anthony Macris’ 2019 miscellany ‘Aftershocks’.  

The colouring of Norpois at the end of the novel, like how the older narrator relates to his younger self, means that this character is full of ambiguity. It is like with people: you might like someone 90 percent of the time but for the remainder you are disappointed. In fact, nobody comes off smelling like roses – the narrator is unreliable, just as Bloch, who is Jewish, says things with a distinctly anti-Semitic cast. Proust intends to confound and puzzle where other authors tend to lead and reassure. For Proust it is evident that all must be free to make up our own minds: he won’t decide for the reader, in advance, who is “good” and who is to be censured. And, furthermore, to make a bald calculation – like solving a mathematical problem – whereby Proust uses his narrator to talk about his own life might be to commit a logical solecism, though not having completed the whole series, and never having read a biography of the author, on this point I reserve my opinion. 

1 comment:

dylanwolf said...

Arrrghhhh! BOOK TORTURE. Use a bookmark!