This year I read the second volume of the work, Within a Budding Grove. This volume covers the narrator’s early experiences of romantic love. In the first half of the novel he falls in and out of love with Gilberte Swann, the young daughter of Charles Swann, the protagonist of the first novel. In the second half the narrator, now two years older, falls in love with Albertine Simonet, who is one of a group of young girls he meets while vacationing at the beach. One translation of the title of this volume is In the Shadow of Young Girls, which captures the theme a little better.
As I read the novel I came across a few passages that, in the spirit of John Oliver, capture some life lessons that us non-Parisians of the 21st century can learn from. Here are three I’ve attempted to paraphrase in a crude sort of way:
- We are prisoners of our illusions – one question the novel dances around is why a well-connected and sophisticated man such as Charles Swann would marry beneath him. Although charming, his wife, Odette, doesn’t move in the same social circles that he was once accustomed to and has a bit of a checkered past. One answer to this is demonstrated by the photograph of Odette that Swann keeps in his room. “It required the vitiated taste of a surfeited lover to make Swan prefer to all the countless photographs of the ‘definitive’ Odette who was his charming wife the little photograph which he kept in his room and in which, beneath a straw hat trimmed with pansies, one saw a thin young woman, fairly plain, with bunched-out hair and drawn features.” In other words, Swann had created a vision of Odette that didn’t correspond with reality.
- Go easy on your past mistakes – Towards the end of the novel the narrator meets the painter Elster. Now a well-respected man with refined taste, it seems that he was once regarded as a bit of a buffoon. In response to the narrator’s question about his past, Elster responds, “There is no man, however wise, who has not at some point in his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he was indeed to become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which the ultimate stage must be preceded.”
- Keep it simple – Finally, there is the narrator’s friend Bloch, who is a bit of a comedic character in his own right. One of Bloch’s problems is that he makes things overly complicated. “Like many intellectuals,” the narrator writes, “he was incapable of saying a simple thing in a simple way.” He puts off Albertine by saying of her that, “She is outstretched on her couch, but in her ubiquity she has not ceased to frequent simultaneously vague golf-courses and dubious tennis courts.” As you can no doubt tell from the first two life lessons above, Proust himself is not entirely innocent of this charge.