Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 19, 2009

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

ProustVolume 2 of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust – Translated by James Grieve

I began this book on March 6th and finally finished it May 17th. It is a strange thing for me to be so caught up in a book, and yet struggle so much to finish it. Somehow though it seems fitting – there should be no rush to reading Proust.

In this book we pick up where Swann’s Way left off – with Marcel (I called him ‘the boy’ in my notes for a long time, then abruptly started calling him Marcel) still completely obsessed with Gilberte. One of the strongest themes in the book for me was the idea of not so much being in love with a person, as being in love with love. Marcel’s epic relationship with Gilberte comes to it’s painful end and he finally gets to leave Paris and travel to Balbec, where he spends the summer buzzing from one lovely flower of a girl to the next.

While I find myself alternately despising and feeling sorry for Marcel, in this second volume I couldn’t help identifying with him frequently. I think he is roughly the same age as me in this book, and it seemed that he was learning things about life that I’ve just begun to understand and even helped to clarify my own foggy thoughts on a few matters.

Several episodes were particularly interesting to me. When Marcel finally gets to go out to the theater and see a famous actress in a classic role, he gets very excited and builds up what the experience will be like in his own mind, and then is disappointed and puzzled by what he actually sees. Of course it is always dangerous to dream too well about something you’re looking forward to, and I’ve certainly shared Marcel’s disappointment. The more interesting thing to me happens when he goes home and tries to discuss the performance with a man he considers to be an intellectual. He has trouble articulating his opinion.

‘”Well, yes, I was listening as hard as I could, to see what was so great about her. I mean, she’s very good…”‘

Marcel didn’t in fact think she was anything special, but when M. de Norpois launches into his own opinion of her astonishing talent, Marcel nods along and eventually convinces himself so thoroughly of the truth of what the Marquis says, that he believes it to be what he himself had thought all along.

I wrote in my notes, I can relate to not understanding what all the fuss is about, or through lack of comparison or experience not understanding why something is famous or considered great. I’ve definitely sought the opinions of others in order to better comprehend why something is popular, taking their opinions for my own when I lack the information to establish my own. Not always a good thing, and certainly not totally satisfying.

It’s all part of the learning process though, and Proust introduces two different examples of how a young person can be helped or hindered by the older, more experienced people around them. M. de Norpois discards any thoughts voiced by Marcel that he doesn’t agree with. On the other hand, when Marcel meets a favorite author, he has a lively exchange of opinions with him on the subject of the play he saw. Bergotte doesn’t agree entirely with Marcel, but he doesn’t disregard the boy’s opinion – therefore their discussion builds Marcel’s confidence while M. de Norpois only made him feel small and silly.

Another episode that intrigued me was the tragic termination of Marcel’s love for Gilberte. After many trials (mostly of the mind and soul) and a stroke of luck, he finally is able to endear himself to Gilberte’s parents – M. and Mme. Swann. From that point on he is welcome in their house, and goes to see Gilberte almost every day, believing himself to be utterly in love with her. For her part she is kind to him and generally enjoys his company, but I never got the feeling that she returned his affection to the extent that he hoped. Marcel, though, believes that this perfect life and his love can be in danger from nothing. Then they have a bit of an argument – a case of careless words, and hurt feelings that leaves Marcel shocked with the knowledge that perhaps Gilberte doesn’t love him. He resolves never to see her again.

‘…when such a sadness comes right at the moment when we are basking in the full delight of being with that person, as was my case with Gilberte, the sudden depression which replaces the broad, tranquil sunlight of our inner summer sets off within us a storm so wild that we doubt our ability to weather it.’

At the time I read this section, I had just had a disagreement with my boyfriend over something very silly which had been resolved only after a day of intense unhappiness. This passage came as a somehow soothing explanation for what I had experienced:

‘In love, happiness is an abnormal state, capable of instantly conferring on the pettiest-seeming incident, which can occur at any moment, a degree of gravity that in other circumstances it would never have. What makes one so happy is the presence of something unstable in the heart, something one contrives constantly to keep in a state of stability, and which one is hardly even aware of as long as it remains like that. In fact, though, love secretes a permanent pain, which joy neutralizes in us, makes virtual, and holds in abeyance; but at any moment, it can turn into torture…’

The truth in this statement begs the question, why then do we bother to go on trying to love, knowing as we do that we are often made miserable through our efforts? I’m with Marcel here – I don’t yet have an answer, and I guess until I do I’m not going to stop trying to find the balance between joy and pain.

As for Marcel, after systematically, patiently, ruthlessly fostering an indifference toward Gilberte – killing his love for her – he recovers from his heartache and goes off to Balbec where the pursuit of love is his daily activity, and what he learns about girls and friendship, art and society fills the remaining 312 pages of the book.

James Grieve wrote some interesting things in his introduction that my mind has returned to several times while I read the book. Again, as a young woman, I feel like I am exploring the world right alongside Marcel as he is:

‘…coming into an awareness of life as mystery, full of passions that baffle, appearances that conceal, illusions that seem to promise, impressions that tantalize. He has some inklings of the sheer unpredictability of beauty, the inability of words and names to capture the essences of things, the contradictions with which life replaces expectations, the discrepancy between impression and memory, his own sentimental fatalism.’

Also, this sum-up by Grieve of Proust’s work as a whole helped clarify a lot of what I was struggling to articulate when I finished Swann’s Way, and even now as I think back over In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower:

‘Proust’s real strengths lie in his analysis of the ordinary, his close acquaintance with feelings, the pessimism of his examination of consciousness, his diagnosis of the unreliability of relationships and the incoherence of personality, his attentiveness to the bleak truths he has to tell of time, of its unrelenting wear and tear, its indifferent outlasting of all human endeavor, its gradual annulment of our dearest joys and even our cruelest sorrows, voiding them of all that once made them ours. Life, as Proust tells it, is disappointment and loss – loss of time, as his title says, and loss of youth of course; loss of freshness of vision, of belief, and of the semblance it once gave to the world; and loss of self, a loss against which we have only one safeguard, and that unsure: memory.’

In this reading of Proust, for me right now, I find that while I can identify with situations and characters, and while I agree more often than not with the points Proust makes, I cannot totally accept his version of the world. I resist the fatalism, the pessimism. My entire being rises up and shouts, “No, that can’t be!’ in the face of statements like this:

‘Fulfillment is snatched from our grasp at the last moment; or, rather, it is fulfillment itself which nature, the malicious trickster, uses to destroy happiness. …nature creates its ultimate impediment to happiness by making it a psychological impossibility.’

I am young – I still have that ‘freshness of vision’, I still have belief. I can understand at some level that there may be a time in my life when I lose both, but this is not that time. I live and learn, and I do not regret. As the artist Elster, whom Marcel meets in Balbec, told him gravely:

‘”Wisdom cannot be inherited – one must discover it for oneself, but only after following a course that no one can follow in our stead; no one can spare us that experience, for wisdom is only a point of view of things.”‘

And that is only a very small part of all that this book contains! I was brought to tears by some parts, and laughed out loud at others. I despaired over the foolishness of Marcel, and then cheered him on pages later. I am thoroughly invested in his life and his world, and although I am going to wait until June to start the third volume, I am very much looking forward to it.


  1. Should we so readily accept a notion of love which causes so much pain and contains so much unhappiness, such a bitter-sweet mixture? Consider. We have been provided with a completely alternative, contrasting, and contradictory definition of love to set against the romantic love portrayed by Proust: a love which may have its own measure of pain, but which is never troubled by notions of self…nor the depths of loss and despair and doubt and jealousy. A love which has no need to defend itself, and is all freedom to give. Which definition of love will you choose. It is up to you.

  2. What a thoughtful and lovely response to In the shadow of young girls in flower – it makes me want to read it again! That process of building up one’s expectations, only to find, in the actual experience, something disappointing or unexpected, is one of the things I most associate with Proust. That tendency of humans to assume that the really sparkling parties are the ones they decided not to attend. I really relate, although I think once a person learns to recognize that process for what it is, s/he can laugh at it or come to avoid or at least anticipate it, rather than experiencing it in the crushing way Marcel does every time. I think so many of Marcel’s experiences are heightened, even exaggerated, because it takes him such a long time to become aware of these processes himself (convenient for Proust, who gets to explore them in greater depth than he could with a more self-aware protagonist). I think this is maybe MOST true in his evocations of love and sexual obsession – he doesn’t give much credence to the idea of moderation between lovers. Marcel never really learns to take responsibility for his fickleness or his out-of-control jealousy. I guess Proust didn’t have much moderation in his own love life, although it definitely exists for some of us. 🙂 I don’t think you’re unrealistic in your optimism, anyway. Thanks again for the notes; I look forward to your thoughts on The Guermantes Way.

  3. Oops, I meant to comment from here, so you’d know who I am. Sorry for the double-post!

  4. […] Previously: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and Swann’s Way. Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

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