Proust 2020/2021: Within a Budding Grove (pp. 661–730)

Ongoing Theme of Seriality / Multiplicity

Continuing the theme that I called “monotonous” in my previous post, the closing pages of Proust’s second volume analyze, at least twice, the Narrator’s capacity [1] to distinguish the young women of the little band from each other (“Loving helps us to discern, to discriminate,” he claims [666]; he learns, too, to relish the “infinitely little differences” in each individual face [717]) and [2] to experience them intensively, “the whole of the group of girls, taken . . . all together” (676); “. . . the sight of one of them filled me with a pleasure in which was included . . . that of seeing the others follow her in due course” (715).

The narrator’s experience of Albertine follows a similar formula: “The same was true of Albertine as of her friends” (718). Each day seems to distinguish her from the Albertines of previous days: “On certain days . . . On other days . . . At other times . . . But most often . . . sometimes . . . or it might happen . . . each [one] of these Albertines was different, as is each appearance of the dancer whose colours, form, character, are transmuted according to the endlessly varied play of a spotlight” (718–19). To know Albertine—to know the little band—is thus a dual project: extensive and intensive. Extensive, in so far as the Narrator can describe distinct appearances; extensive, too, in so far as his memory forgets, selects, magnifies, recalls, discovers, recreates faces that often differ from the real faces he encounters on any given day (675–77). But intensive insofar as each recreated / reencountered face always already entailed “a whole cluster of faces juxtaposed on different planes so that one does not see them all at once” (678). The experience of Albertine—like the experience of the little band—is also indelibly marked by “a miraculous element” or “fragrance” experienced in his first memories of them that no differentiations or familiarizations could eliminate (723).

Extensive and intensive. Simultaneously. Difference and repetition. Multiplicity and singularity.

What does it mean to experience one person the same way we experience a group? What model of individuality does Proust conceptualize here? How do they structure his meditations on love, time, memory, pleasure, desire, depression, anxiety, space, rooms, nature, art, and illness?


Pg. 666: “Later on these girls would lose that note of enthusiastic conviction which gave a charm to their simplest utterances . . .”

Pp. 667–68: “. . . if one were to speak of the pictures of one of Elstir’s friends, Andrée, whose hair was still ‘down,’ could not yet personally make use of the expression which her mother and elder sister employed: ‘It appears the man is quite charming!’ But that would come in due course . . .”

Pg. 708: “At a much later point in this story, we shall have occasion to see this kind of contradiction expressed in clearer terms.”

Pg. 713: “And perhaps this impression [of respect for Albertine’s virtue] was to have serious and vexatious consequences for me later on, for it was around it that there began to form that feeling almost of brotherly intimacy, that moral core which was always to remain at the heart of my love for [her].”

The Sea

More than once, the Narrator uses the sea as a figure that clarifies his experience of the little band. Capturing the plasticity of youth and adolescence, he explains,

. . . hence we feel, in the company of young girls, the refreshing sense that is afforded us by the spectacle of forms undergoing an incessant process of change, a play of unstable forces which recalls that perpetual re-creation of the primordial elements of nature which we contemplate when we stand before the sea.

pg. 633

And later:

To be quite accurate, I ought to give a different name to each of the selves who subsequently thought about Albertine; I ought still more to give a different name to each of the Albertines who appeared before me, never the same, like those seas—called by me simply and for the sake of convenience “the sea”—that succeeded one another and against which, a nymph likewise, she was silhouetted.

pg. 720

And, yet again, a few pages later:

. . . when I saw that it was the name “Balbec” which [my friends in Paris] were obliged to put on the envelope, as my window looked out not over a landscape or a street but on to the plains of the seas, as through the night I heard its murmur, to which, before going to sleep, I had entrusted the ship of my dreams, I had the illusion that this life of promiscuity with the waves must effectively, without my knowledge, pervade me with the notion of their charm, like those lessons which one learns by heart while one is asleep.

pg. 727

Of course, this final passage prefaces the strange conclusion to this volume: the Narrator in bed late into the morning, a “defensive scheme” of curtains keeping most (but not all) of the sunlight out, imagining his friends (the little band) gathering outside his window to hear a concert—told later, by Albertine, that they had “looked up” at his window “to see if [he was] coming down” (729). When the music begins, the tide accompanies the music—a “gliding surge of a wave” audible in the intervals (729).

These allusions to the sea recall the Narrator’s shifting desires re: the sea (which I note in my previous post), that is, the shift from his desire to observe the stormy seas of Balbec to the experience (completely entailed with the little band) of the calm, sun-filled seas. Bound up with this cluster of desire and imagery and sound and light are the aesthetic lessons he learns from Elstir as well, lessons that also pertain to the survival of something singular across the various repetitions of translation and adaptation and recreation from canvas to canvas.

Narrator as Creep

So. Okay.

The stuff about the “ductile” “flesh” of “the very youngest girls” is creepy. “They are . . . continuously moulded by the fleeting impression of the moment. It is as though each of them was in turn a little statuette of gaiety, of childish earnestness, of cajolery, of surprise, shaped by an expression frank and complete, but fugitive. This plasticity gives a wealth of variety and charm to the pretty attentions which a young girl pays to us” (662). Thematically, these reflections on young girls fits with the concepts of seriality and multiplicity above, and yet there is something about “the aurora of adolescence” that bothers me, since it associates girls (from the earliest of ages) with an attentiveness the Narrator himself will expect as the expected (even if sometimes withheld) labor of women.

These assumptions about girls and women—which structure the Narrator’s theories of love and desire—recur in the strange scene in Albertine’s bedroom. Preparing for a temporary departure from Balbec, Albertine conspires with the Narrator to have him visit and spend the night in her hotel room. “You can come and sit by my bed and watch me eat, if you like, and afterwards we’ll play at anything that you choose . . . [W]e can spend the evening together” (697). Emboldened by this invitation, which he interprets as permission “to kiss her” as she sits in bed (700), he is not deterred by her cry, “Stop it or I’ll ring the bell!” (701). He’s surprised only when she actually pulls “the bell with all her might” (701).

What lessons does the Narrator derive from this experience?

1). Carnal possession is impossible (701).
2). He was duped by some fundamental aspect of Albertine herself—”a charm which remains somewhat mysterious”; “. . . she was [just] one of those people from whom, before the age of love and much more still after it is reached, more is asked than they themselves ask, more even than they are able to give” (702–03).

In fact, the Narrator later elaborates an explanation for this befuddling encounter: “. . . it quite annoyed [Albertine] to be so attractive to people, since it obliged her to disappoint them” (706). In other words, she enjoyed giving people pleasure—inviting a young man to her room, for instance—though it inevitably meant she’d have to let him down . . . and pull the bell. “She was genuinely distressed by her failure to gratify me,” he explains (711) even as he seems unable to understand that, at this point in their friendship, she desires his company but not his kisses. “I’ve known lots of young men who were every bit as friendly [as you], I can assure you. Well, not one of them would ever have dared to do such a thing . . . Oh, you men!” (712–13).

How do we read this moment? Are we readers meant to see what the Narrator misses? That he acted inappropriately? That he is not merely duped by the fundamental charm of a young woman? To what degree does the novel’s interest in the involuntariness of love and memory again provide an alibi for a parochial, masculine point of view that often passes itself off as universal? Or capable of universalizing? How fundamental to Proust’s account of love is the frustration of a drive to possession? How fundamental is feminine attention and availability? How fundamental the masculine expectation of this attention and availability? How fundamental the brooding, woeful fascinations with the inaccessible (become accessible)?

Or, on the other hand, to what degree should we be amused by a deep masculine stupidity that undermines the profundity of the novel’s philosophy?

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