Friday, June 21, 2013

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (Marcel Proust)

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust
Read: 23 February to 17 March 2013
4 / 5 stars

Oh, adolescence. Is there any period of time more frustrating, conflicting and downright disappointing than that too-long span of gawky limbs and endless opportunities for embarrassment? When one's body is alien territory, when one is faced with an onslaught of wholly unfamiliar impulses, when the head and the heart and all of the hormones are battling for control over a vessel that just wants things to make the kind of black-and-white sense they did in the blissfully naive days that are just out of arm's reach but already rapidly fading memories, constantly pushed farther and farther away by the systematic remapping of a formerly recognizable world.

Both Proust's narrator -- still imbued with vestiges of an innocence that can only take root in a childhood shaped by terminal sensitivity -- and his vulnerable heart stumble cautiously and cluelessly beyond youth's idyllic safety zone into the uncharted realm of life after puberty: He is, indeed, alone in the umbra cast by blossoming young girls who have gained his affections but will not share the warmth of their vernal lights with him. One of Proust's most obvious successes with this volume is the familiar poignancy he gives to the fumbling initial efforts of gaining another young heart's favor because, really, did any of us understand the objects of our blindly obsessive desires at that age? Reading this book was like going through all those terrible milestones all over again, only with each misstep beautifully rendered and every confused failure examined with an enviably erudite melancholy that still captures the fatalistic immediacy of all those awful lessons' first cuts.

From the beginning, his understanding that the world he had not long ago regarded with a child's certainty was now turned on its head was apparent, as the feverishly anticipated chance to see his favorite actress results in the kind of shattering disappointment specially reserved for those times when an impossibly idealized dream becomes a vapid reality. This is only the first in a series of crushing blows, though: The narrator's dreams of literary greatness are effectively dismantled by his father's colleague; a beloved writer has little in common with the literary persona he has come to adore; his first taste of love sours with his beloved's cooling interest and cruel neglect; the church at Balbec simply does not live up to his expectations.

But the necessary dethroning of old favorites and the tarnishing of long-upheld ideals make way for the man the narrator is to become, just as childhood's magic sooner or later drains from all those things that once so enthralled our younger selves. It is imperative that the narrator grow tired of such things so he can make new discoveries: His happiness is no longer derived solely from the sensory delights of a delicious feast, the beauty of nature, his mother's love, the wonder of the arts -- though the echoes of these things do reach the core of his soul to move him with their familiar stirrings of joy when they prove to be at their most resplendent moments. With age comes discrimination: As one can no longer live in a constant state of marvel distracting him from the myriad things to be discovered both within and without him, he also must learn what is truly worth his awed regard.

Like all teenagers, the narrator gradually distances himself from his family, focusing on the friendships and infatuations that define life on the brink of adulthood. And, like every teenager I ever knew, some of those friendships are based on convenience rather than a mutual affinity for each other's company. The deepening bond between the narrator and Robert serves as a beautiful foil for the narrator's desperate attempts to tally the redeeming qualities within Bloch, a back-home chum whose coarse manner and general inability to recognize his own countless flaws make his presence difficult to bear even at a reader's safe distance. The two dueling personalities embody the narrator's own wavering balance between youthful indiscretion and the discrimination of experience, highlighting the decay of the former as it becomes unreasonable to cling to such childishness to any longer. Just as not every girl the narrator fancies will return his interest, he no longer has to subscribe to the youthful notion that he ought to be friends with everyone.

Proust's writing is the real star of the show here, with a sumptuous language that just drips poetry from each page. His insights prove time and again that human nature is constant across the ages, even though people themselves are in constant states of adapting to both interior and exterior forces. What I found the most remarkable, though, was the way he takes the tired tradition of similes to positively novel heights by playing two almost diametrically opposing elements against each other to fully express the emotional resonance of a seemingly insignificant moment: A household cook's reverence for her cuisine is likened to Michelangelo's dedication to his art; the fading hope of restoring a broken relationship is akin to the panicked desperation of a wounded man who has drunk his last vial of morphine; "[j]ust as the priests with the broadest knowledge of the heart are those who can best forgive the sins they themselves never commit, so the genius with the broadest acquaintance with the mind can best understand ideas most foreign to those that fill his own works." They take what could be bloated ravings exaggerated to the point of nonsense and translate them into a personal relevance that paints a more accurately vivid representation of a personality than bland narration ever could.

This is people-watching at its finest, a tour of humanity with an unusually tender soul leading the way through his own emergence into adulthood and his discovery of the world around him.

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