The 14-Minute Marcel Proust


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

The two-minute 'Shadow'

Marcel makes quick work of Gilberte Swann. As with Swann before him, the more desperately he loves the girl, the less interest she displays in return. So he decides to put his love on ice, while maintaining his friendship with her parents.

Then, two years later, it's off to Balbec. (By my calculus, Marcel is now sixteen, and still astonishing dependent on his mother and grandmother.) He spends a seemingly endless summer at a grand hotel on the Normandy coast, watching strange places and people become familiar to him. He becomes an improbably close friend of the Guermantes aristocrat, Robert de Saint-Loup, and of the painter Elstir (whom we met as a foolish young man belonging to Madame Verdurin's "little clan" in Swann's Way). He also meets the Baron de Charlus, who deigns to make a move on him, an overture which only mystifies Marcel.

More important than any of these is his acquaintance with the "little band" of girls whom he describes as adolescent, and who sometimes behave that way, but who surely are older. Indeed, two of them seem to be sitting for the bac or high-school leaving exam, which Proust passed — in economics and mathematics — just as he turned eighteen. (There is also the matter of the book's title: some argue that "en fleur" is a reference to the menarche, which in 1900 was about fourteen for European and North American girls. Indeed, according to his grand-niece and biographer, that's why Scott Moncrieff chose to bowdlerize Proust's title for the book.)

Marcel focuses his adoration, first on one, then on another of these young women, but it is obvious to everyone except him that Albertine Simonet will be the love of his life.

Evolving characters, revisiting the past

One of Proust's great themes (and talents!) is showing character and how it may change over time. In the second volume of his masterwork, he deals with friendship, including the curious sort of friendship that is carnal love. How do we bridge the gap between the stranger and the dear person he or she will become, as friend or lover? First up: Gilberte Swann, whom Marcel first adores and then, after considerable pain, trains himself to ignore. Then there's Robert de Saint-Loup, so marvelous that the modern reader wants to kick him in the pants. And of course there is Albertine, the obsession toward which Marcel has been working all this time.

He is equally adept with the pretentious and social-climbing Bloch, whom we met in Swann's Way as a "precious youth," greatly admired by the narrator. That admiration has now been qualified. Just as the homosexual Proust is often harsh in his treatment of "inverts," so does he, the son of a Jewish mother, verge on anti-semitism in his ridicule of Bloch's family, especially the uncle, Nissim Bernard. (Bloch's first name is Albert, though I confess I had to look it up. Nor does he have much in the way of physical characteristics. He's a year or two older than Marcel, though they were schoolmates at one time.)

As the title suggests, memory is a major theme of In Search of Lost Time. The author's understanding of memory is clearly stated in this second volume, in the words of James Grieve for the Penguin Proust:

[T]he greater part of our memory lies outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn's first fires, things through which we can retrieve ... last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears have dried, can make us weep again. Outside us? Inside us, more like, but stored away.... It is only because we have forgotten that we can now and then return to the person we once were, envisage things as that person did, be hurt again, because we are not ourselves anymore, but someone else, who once loved something that we no longer care about.

This is what Roger Shattuck calls Proust's "binocular vision." Forgetting is as important as remembering! The crumb of madeleine dipped in herbal tea does not return us to the past: rather, and despite what Proust seems to be saying above, we bring the separation with us. It is this double vision that makes the experience so poignant.

The new translations

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower For the Penguin/Viking In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, James Grieve swings a bit wilder than Lydia Davis did for Swann's Way. Where Scott Moncrieff translated petite bande (of girls) with "little band," Grieve uses "little gang," which to my ear sounds a bit too tough. Then there is the astonishing conversation between Bloch and Marcel, referring back to an occasion when Marcel was walking in the Bois-de-Boulogne with Gilberte and her mother. Along comes Bloch, who takes his hat off to Odette without eliciting any recognition from her in turn; then, afterward, she mystifies Marcel by referring to Bloch by another name.

Now, at Balbec, Bloch is anxious to discover her name, but Marcel is so puzzled that he doesn't oblige. Bloch then rattles on to claim an sexual romp with Madame Swann. This is how it appears in the original:

"En tous cas, tous mes compliments, me dit-il, tu n'as pas dû t'embêter avec elle. Je l'avais rencontrée quelques jours auparavant dans le train de Ceinture. Elle voulut bien dénouer la sienne en faveur de ton serviteur...."

In Within a Budding Grove, Scott Moncrieff translated this quotation in words superficially close to the original, though baffling to a 21st century American, who has never ridden a Zone (circumferential) railroad, nor heard "zone" used as a synonym for a woman's girdle:

"Whoever she is," he went on, "hearty congratulations; you can't have been bored with her. I picked her up a few days before that on the Zone railway, where, speaking of zones, she was so kind as to undo hers for the benefit of your humble servant...."

For the Modern Library edition, Kilmartin and Enright follow this language almost exactly, but Mr. Grieve translates much more freely:

"Well, anyway," he said, "you deserve to be congratulated—she must have given you a nice time. I had just met her a few days before, you see, riding on the suburban line. She had no objection to yours truly, and so a nice ride was had by one and all...."

For the Yale University Press edition of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, William Carter had the happy inspiration of using the American term "Beltway" for le train de Ceinture, which fits so nicely with the idea of Odette's taking off her "belt" — if Bloch is telling the truth and she did indeed take if off! (In Proust's time, the Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture or "little belt railroad" connected all the train stations of Paris but has since been abandoned.)

Much the same is true of one of my favorite passages of Proust's, which I have underlined in all my editions of the novel:

"It is one of the systems of hygiene among which we are at liberty to choose our own, a system which is perhaps not to be recommended too strongly, but it gives us a certain tranquillity with which to spend what remains of life, and also — since it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained to the best, and that the best was nothing out of the ordinary — with which to resign ourselves to death."

Isn't that lovely? (It's from the 1981 Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past, revised by Terence Kilmartin in light of recent French scholarship.) I read it aloud to a Harvard freshman whom my daughter brought home for Thanksgiving dinner, along with some other waifs and strays who lived in distant countries or had no home to go to. Edward admitted that he was disappointed by Harvard; having grown up in the ghetto, he'd hoped to enter an entirely new life at Harvard, only to arrive in Cambridge and find it full of over-bright, upward-striving youngsters exactly like himself. I don't know if Proust was any consolation, but Edward had indeed attained to the best. If he'd gone instead to City College, he might have spent the rest of his life wishing he'd aimed higher.

In my judgment, Grieve falls far short in his version:

"[T]herein lies one of the modes of mental hygiene available to us, which, though it may not be the most recommendable, can certainly afford us a measure of equanimity for getting through life and — since it enables us to have no regrets, by assuring us that we have had the best of things, and that the best of things was not up to much — of resigning us to death."

Recommendable? Equanimity? I don't think so!

Which translation to buy?

Altogether, I cast my vote for the Yale University Press edition of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Like James Grieve, William Carter often goes back to the original to improve Scott Moncrieff's sometimes musty language. To prepare for this reading, I downloaded the public-domain e-books, both in English and in French, so I could compare the language to that of Scott Moncrieff and, where it had changed, to the Proustian original. Really, there's scarcely a sentence that Mr. Carter hasn’t changed, always for the better and often getting closer to Proust’s

For example: when Marcel first enters the grand seaside hotel at Balbec, where he’ll meet those young girls in flower, he is awed by the majesty of the elevator boy. He tries to placate him with chatter, but “il ne me répondit pas.” Scott Moncrieff rendered this as “he vouchsafed no answer,” phrasing which appears unchanged in today's Modern Library edition. Mr. Carter is more straightforward: “he did not answer me.” Just so!

To his credit, James Grieve also gets this right. But I cannot forgive him "the little gang" or his butchering of my favorite passage.

Buy the book on Amazon

A review of the Carter edition

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