Summer in Balbec

The Viking Penguin Edition of Proust Edited by Christopher Prendergast

The Viking Penguin Edition of Proust Edited by Christopher Prendergast

It has been beastly hot in Southern California, but I have been diverted from mere animal sweating by reading Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower as translated by James Grieve. Although his translation is considered the bastard orphan of the series as pictured above, I still loved it—after reading the authoritative C. K. Scott-Moncrieff translation twice.

Generally, it takes me a whole decade to go through the entire In Search of Lost Time, but it’s time well spent. I hope to tackle The Guermantes Way (again, for the third time) after my vacation; and I hope to live long enough for at least one or two more complete re-readings.

Many who have tackled Swann’s Way have been put off by its opening, in which young Marcel schemes for about fifty pages to have his mother come in to his bedroom and kiss him goodnight despite his father’s general disapproval of the practice. Then there are those long sentences that seem to go on forever—but which carry a significant amount of meaning in the process. Once you get over those two hurdles, the rewards come fast and furious.

Chief among those rewards is being in the mind of Marcel, the narrator. (He never gives his last name.) His hopes and desires are sketched with such intensity that few have experienced in this life. These relate to his family, his acquaintances, his heroes, his reading, his knowledge of art (just tracking the paintings he mentions is a full-time job), and his loves.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is mostly about his two main loves, Gilberte Swann and Albertine Simonet. In the first volume of the book, he reluctantly gives up on Gilberte, who has on occasion treated him contemptuously. Still, he hangs out with her parents hoping to demonstrate to the daughter that he is worthy of her attention.

In the second volume, Marcel is with his grandmother at the seaside resort of Balbec. There, he meets Robert de Saint-Loup, who becomes his friend, and the “little gang” of girls that become his obsession. Of the latter, Marcel toys with Andree, Rosemonde, and Gisele, but his real obsession is for Albertine. The book just stops short of the relationship with her actually commencing. (That, and Marcel’s anxieties about Albertine, are for the later volumes.)

Reading Proust takes a long time: I devoted two weeks to this book, but I loved every minute of it.