In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) (Penguin Classics, 2004)
by Marcel Proust [translated from the French by James Grieve]
Having left off my earlier post on/love letter to In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower with a nod to that extraordinarily lyrical scene where the narrator renders homage to the memory of Mme Swann sauntering along the Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne one fine day in May, "at the glorious height of her own mellow and still-delectable summertime" (215), I thought it might be worthwhile to take an extended look at more of Proust on time and memory. After all, that's one of the reasons we read the guy, right? Even though Part II begins with an off the cuff announcement by the narrator acknowledging his own dislocation in time due to the impact that painful memories of his happier days with Gilberte are having on his present day reality--"life being so unchronological, so anachronistic in its disordering of our days" (221)--one of the things that's so alluring about this parenthetical confession from an artistic standpoint is how it ties in with several other perspectives on time and memory and the literary representation of time and memory from various stages of the narrator's life. Three examples of how this problem is creatively engaged in the text follow.
Going back to the early scene where his father essentially abandons encouraging him to pursue a diplomatic career so that young Marcel can take up a life in literature unimpeded by his family's opposition, for example, the narrator writes that this happy news nonetheless made him worry for two reasons.
The first was that, though I met each new day with the thought that I was now on the threshold of life, which still lay before me all unlived and was about to start the very next day, not only had my life in fact begun, but the years to come would not be very different from the years already elapsed. The second, which was really only a variant of the first, was that I did not live outside Time but was subject to its laws, as completely as the fictional characters whose lives, for that very reason, had made me feel so sad when I read them of them at Combray, sitting inside my wickerwork shelter (55).
I like this sequence for at least a couple of reasons, the first having to do with the somewhat unfortunate reminder that I was once so young myself that I surely considered myself on "the threshold of life" without realizing my life had already begun. A nice--if bittersweet--touch, that! I also appreciate it for the way that the adult narrator merges his then-youthful awakening to the concept of not living outside Time in a way that draws attention to the character's sentimental regard for the fate of the fictional characters encountered in his wickerwork shelter. This conflation of a person's reading life with one's emotional life outside of literature is something I can rather pathetically relate to, of course, so suffice it to say that the writing really got my attention when the correspondance was extended to a larger concern with mortality in the lines that immediately follow.
Theoretically, we are aware that the earth is spinning, but in reality we do not notice it: the ground we walk on seems to be stationary and gives no cause for alarm. The same happens with Time. To make its passing perceptible, novelists have to turn the hands of the clock at dizzying speed, to make the reader live through ten, twenty, thirty years in two minutes. At the top of a page, we have been with a lover full of hope; at the foot of the following one, we see him again, already an octogenarian, hobbling his painful daily way round the courtyard of an old-people's home, barely acknowledging greetings, remembering nothing of his past. When my father said, "He's not a child anymore, he's not going to change his mind," etc., he suddenly showed me myself living inside Time; and he filled me with sadness, as though I was not quite the senile inmate of the poorhouse, but one of those heroes dismissed by the writer in the final chapter with a turn of phrase that is cruel in its indifference: "He has taken to absenting himself less and less from the countryside. He has eventually settled down there for good," etc. (55-56)
While any novel called In Search of Lost Time might be expected to deal such with themes, this treatment of time in a text organized in part as a written suspension of time has a lot to say about what's possible from a temporal standpoint when representing "reality" in literature. This is one of the philosophical sides of Proust the thinker that really gets to me just as much as Proust the wordsmith or Proust the visually evocative portraitist of Mme Swann.
In a much later scene, at a time in which the love-hungry Marcel is now fixated on making the acquaintance of Albertine Simonet and the other young girls in flower in her inner circle of Balbec friends and companions, the looming shadows of mortality from the earlier episode seem to have dissipated in the salty seaside air. Still, there's another striking analysis of how our attempts to try and fix a moment in time are often disturbed by the emotions of the moment. In this passage, Marcel speaks of the various things that form the mundane build-up to his much-anticipated introduction to his future love interest at a party given by the painter Elstir:
Being obliged, in order to come eventually to a chat with Mlle Simonet, to follow a route that was not of my own design, which reached a first destination in front of Elstir, before leading me to on other groups of guests, to whom I was introduced, then along the buffet, where I was handed, and where I ate, strawberry tarts, while pausing to listen to music that had just begun to be played, I found myself giving to these various episodes the same importance as to my introduction to Mlle Simonet, which was only one among their sequence, and which I had by now completely forgotten had been, a few minutes before, the sole object of my presence there. Does not the same happen, in busy everyday life, to our truest joys and greatest sorrows? We stand among other people, and the woman we adore gives us the answer, favorable or fatal, that we have been awaiting for a year: we must go on chatting; ideas lead to other ideas, making a surface beneath which, rising only from time to time, barely perceptible, lies the knowledge, very deep but acute, that calamity has struck. Or, if it is happiness rather than calamity, we may not remember till years later that the most momentous event of our emotional life happened in a way that gives us no time to pay attention to it, or even to be aware of it almost, during a fashionable reception, say, despite the fact that it was in expectation of some such event that we had gone to it (450-451).
In this snapshot of the "momentous" event that is about to take place for the narrator and of an event where the narrator's fate will largely be determined by forces beyond his control, we have--in contrast to the ethereal details we might expect from such an obvious romantic--a rather non-romantic description of the everyday moments that surround the high and low points in our lives. The scene is almost pedestrian, in fact--except for the attention that is drawn to how we replay such moments in our memories, overlooking the details not having to do with fortune or calamity. However, pointing out the way in which the scene feels true or false to the reader from a realistic perspective is only part of the equation as what takes place in our minds is just as much reality as what takes place in front of our eyes in many respects. This, at least, is what I think Proust's narrator is getting at here when he writes about his introduction to Albertine and says that "the pleasure, of course, I did not experience till a little later, back at the hotel, when, having been alone for a while, I was myself again. Pleasures are like photographs: in the presence of the person we love, we take only negatives, which we develop later, at home, when we have at our disposal once more in our inner darkroom, the door of which it is strictly forbidden to open while others are present" (451).
Studiously avoiding the fact that I don't really know where I'm going with all this nor know whether Proust has left us an Einstein-like general theory on time anywhere in his extended novel, I have to say that I'm finding reading In Search of Lost Time its own reward and writing about In Search of Lost Time at least partially rewarding in terms of publicly revisiting certain favorite scenes. On that note, I'd like to bid farewell to this post on Proust on time and memory with a fragment from a scene that harkens back to an earlier such scene in Swann's Way. For late in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, walking along a lane in the direction of Les Creuniers with the beautiful Andrée, the narrator discovers something that takes his mind off his plan to win himself a spot in Albertine's affections by showering her with praises to her friend and possible rival:
Then, halfway down the little lane, I stood still, as the soft flutter of a childhood memory brushed my heart: I had just recognized, from the indentations of the shiny leaves overhanging the threshold, a hawthorn bush, which since the end of spring, alas, had been bare of all blossom. A fragrance of forgotten months of Mary and long-lost Sunday afternoons, beliefs, and fallacies surrounded me. I wished I could grasp it as it passed. Andrée, seeing me pause, showed her charming gift of insight by letting me commune for a moment with the leaves of the little tree: I asked after its blossom, hawthorn flowers like blithe young girls, a little silly, flirtatious, and faithful. "Those young ladies left long ago," said the leaves, possibly reflecting that, for someone who professed to be such a close friend, I was very uninformed about their habits. I was a close friend, though one who, despite his promises, had lost touch with them for many years. Yet, just as Gilberte had been my first sweetheart among the girls, they had been my first among the flowers. "Yes, I know," I replied, "they go away about the middle of June. But it's a pleasure to see the spot here where they lived. My mother brought them up to see me in my bedroom at Combray, when I was ill. And we used to meet in church on Saturday evenings during the month of Mary. Are they allowed to go here too?" "Of course! My young ladies are actually much in demand at the nearest parish church, Saint-Denis-du-Désert." "One can see them now, you mean?" "No, no, not till the month of May next year." "And can I be sure they'll be there?" "Every year, without fail." "I'm just not sure I can find my way back to this exact spot..." "Of course you will! My young ladies are so gay, they never stop laughing, except to sing hymns--you can't mistake them, you'll recognize their perfume from the end of the lane" (500).
So much to love here in this little conversation between man and hawthorn bush! The rich prose, fragrant with poetry. The wish to latch onto something tangible in the evanescent. The commingling of an aesthetics of beauty with a sort of sensuous spirituality or mysticism. The eternal faithfulness of old friends. Proust is great at having his narrator reflect on time and memory through the lenses of novelists and darkroom photographers. But he's even better when Marcel reflects on time and memory through the lens of his own life story. Now approaching the 100-page mark in The Guermantes Way, I'm loving this novel like you wouldn't believe. (www.penguinclassics.com)