Monday, May 26, 2014

"In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower" by Marcel Proust

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust. Translated by James Grieve. 558 pp. Penguin Classics. $20.00 (paperback).

I’m in the midst of reading Marcel Proust’s 3,000-4,000 page modern masterpiece, “In Search of Lost Time.” I recently commented on the first volume, “Swann’s Way,” and am now focusing on the second, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” which centers around adolescent love.

“Swann’s Way” concluded with Charles Swann’s tormented love for the courtesan Odette de Crecy. In the second volume, Odette is now Mrs. Swann, and the unnamed narrator has a brief romance with the Swanns’ daughter, Gilberte. This romance is a prelude to the infatuations the narrator has with a group of girls that he meets while vacationing for the summer with his grandmother at a seaside hotel in Balbec.

As always with Proust, the themes revolve around time and impermanence. The narrator reflects upon the old women these adolescent “young girls in flower” will become. He also conveys the shyness and excitement–and frustrations–of adolescent attraction.

As in the first volume, Proust draws unforgettable characters, including the narrator’s friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, a young aristocrat with leftist sympathies, and the artist Elstir, who loves expounding upon his aesthetic theories. Many of the characters at the Grand Hotel, including those on the lower echelons of high society, are social climbers with a penchant for spiteful observations and an acute awareness of their own standing.

James Grieve’s new translation clearly has the modern American reader in mind, with the narrator’s young girlfriends using such expressions as “lounge lizard,” “getup,” “buzz off,” “Isn’t he the limit?” and “cramming.” At times these expressions are jarring; one wonders whether Proust heard anything like their French equivalent. This, however, is a minor point in a translation that fully captures the beauties of the seascape in summer, as well as the passions and transitory nature of youth.

Written in memory of my mother, Dorothy Tone (1923-2006), on whose bookshelves I came upon the writings of Proust.


Michael J. Mand said...

I envy the time you have to read. In the past I've devoted much of my reading to non-fiction and biography. I shudder to think about what I might be missing.

Jeff Tone said...

I too have limited time. It's not about having a lot of time; it's about using whatever time you have. That applies to many things.