In a Budding Grove: Proust Teaches Us How to Read Proust

As a young boy and adolescent, the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece is an avid reader and is a particular devotee of the books of an author called Bergotte.  As a consequence Proust gives us some insight into what he thinks about writing,  literature and other creative endeavors that require talent and genious.  When the narrator meets his hero, he remarks about the author’s style of writing:

The true variety is in this abundance of real and unexpected elements, in the branch loaded with blue flowers which shoots up, against all reason, from the spring hedgerow that seemed already overcharged with blossoms, whereas the purely formal imitation of variety (and one might advance the same argument for all the other qualities of style) is but a barren uniformity, that is to say the very antithesis of variety, and cannot, in the work of imitators, give the illusion or recall the memory of it save to a reader who has not acquired the sense of it from the masters themselves.

Proust has an interesting mix of real and fictional authors throughout his story.  For readers and critics who try to understand why Proust invents this fictional author, Bergotte, and, in vain, attempt to guess on whom he is based, Proust provides the answer in his narrative.

And for those who fret over genre, and how to categorize his lengthy, meandering, difficult, masterpiece—to which a countless number of adjectives have been applied in the attempt to label it—Proust offers this:

The reason why a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him.  It is his work itself that, by fertilising the rare minds capable of understanding it, will make them increase and multiply.  It was Beethoven’s quartets themselves (the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteen and Fifteenth) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging the audience for Beethoven’s quartets, thus marking, like every great work of art, an advance if not in the quality of artists at least in the community of minds, largely composed today of what was not to be found when the work first appeared, that is to say of persons capable of appreciating it.  What is called posterity is the posterity of the work of art.  It is essential that the work (leaving out of account, for simplicity’s sake, the contingency that several men of genius may at the same time be working along parallel lines to create a more instructed public in the future, from which other men of genius will benefit) should create its own posterity.

I enjoyed Swann’s Way more than I can appropriately express in a post.   The way in which he gives us Swann’s account of his painful relationship with the courtesan, Odette, by taking on Swann’s point-of-view was riveting, to say the least.  As I began Volume II, In a Budding Grove, I had expected that in the chapter entitled “Madame Swann at Home” that I would, in turn, get Odette’s point-of-view and learn more about how their marriage came about.  But Proust only gives us Mme. Swann’s story through his narrator’s eyes.  That’s not to say that he isn’t successful at writing female characters—quite the opposite, in fact.  I’ve enjoyed Mme. Swann’s story just as much, if not more, than Swann’s himself.  Proust doesn’t, however, dare to step in her place and write from her perspective.  Even after 800 pages of text I am still learning from Proust how to read Proust, that is, to throw all expectations I’ve gained from my previous reading out the window.

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10 responses to “In a Budding Grove: Proust Teaches Us How to Read Proust

  1. LOL Melissa, these days there would be people who’d criticise Proust for ‘daring to step into her place’ and that only women should write from a woman’s PoV!

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    • It’s not that I thought he should do that. My point was that with another author that’s what I would expect. But Proust is different. All expectations are thrown out the window.

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  2. Liz

    I’m really enjoying your Proust journey – you are inspiring me to start my own. Are you happy with the edition and translation that you have chosen – would you recommend it?

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  3. Nathaniel Parr

    Regarding Proust’s writing of women, I have a few thoughts on it. As you know, many male authors are very rightly criticized for writing female characters that are flat, one-dimensional, or serve only as a foil or device or screen for the male lead to project onto. In many books by men, we don’t really get to know the female characters as complex individuals, our experience of them is so limited by the male’s perspective.
    Proust subverts this expectation in a fascinating way. Odette may be the best example, but I think you’ll also see this in later female characters, too. Through the narration, we see the mental processes of the male protagonists reducing and objectifying and projecting onto their female foils. We know that Swann’s or Marcel’s concept of Odette is limited and imperfect, or later Marcel’s of Albertine, and we are well aware of the narrator’s construction and idealization of her. Sometimes he is even aware of it himself and comments on it.
    So, we mostly see the leading women as vessels for male hopes and fears, but deliberately and consciously so, that it suggests via contrast the complexity and interiority that our narrators are failing to observe. As you said, Odette is a well-developed, distinctive, singular character, but I have lamented that we don’t get to know her better. Just as you said you hoped we’d get to hear the story from her point of view, I have wished we could know what she really thought or felt about various things. But, it is a deliberate choice to leave that mostly obscure, as the male leads ultimately failed to perceive her for who she “is.”
    That’s another recurring theme in these books – whether we can really know or be known by others or whether we’re always too limited by our own perspectives and by habit.

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    • Very well said! I had hope we would get more of Odette’s perspective but I think he made the right choice by not taking on her point of view like he does Swann.

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      • Nathaniel Parr

        Yes, I think it was deliberate. I’m left wondering if we really know Odette very much at all, and I think that’s what he intended. The dip into Swann’s perspective to tell the story of Odette was, I think, setting up parallels for Marcel to reenact later in his own love life, suggesting a sort of cyclical time within life, which is probably related to the idea of habit.

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      • It also, quite brilliantly, leaves a tension in the novel. Why does Odette want to marry Swan? What changes her mind? Etc.

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      • Thanks so much for your comments!

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  4. Nathaniel Parr

    I totally agree regarding the tension with regard to Odette’s story. I thought that one of Proust’s strongest moves was the decision to tell the whole Swann/Odette back story and then reveal that they ended up together years later, without revealing what happened to bridge that gap. I didn’t see it coming at all and was floored by it – he tells the whole arc of their relationship rising and then falling apart, and then now he is older and wiser and he’s with Madame Swann – and wait, she’s the same person? What a narrative twist.

    I think it’s a great question, what we’re to take from his choice to tell the story this way. You’re right, we never really do know what goes on in Odette’s mind, and I think that’s part of what he’s trying to show – her own reasons may surprise us all. Also, the arc of their original story was a familiar one: love lost gained and lost. Perhaps he wanted to subvert that narrative by showing that life can still take unexpected turns in time and there is not always a satisfactory explanation. I’ve definitely found that to be true in my life.

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  5. Swann’s Way is not my favorite book of In Search of Lost Time since I have little patience with that kind of tortured passion. So, I never wished I had to read Odette’s side of the story.
    That’s part of In Search of Lost Time’s mystery: you never know what the women think. Françoise, his mother, his grandmother, the Duchess of Guermantes, Gilberte, Albertine… We only see things through the Narrator’s eyes and actually, that’s how we live our lives. We don’t have access to other people’s mind, we can only assume or imagine their thoughts. We’re never privy of their thought processes. (not even with your own children)

    I really enjoy following your exploration of Proust.

    Wait until you reach The Guermantes Way, the high society parties, Proust’s sense of humor (he is SO funny), the unvaluable insight on the Dreyfus affair.

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