I may be slow, but I am persistent. Thus, more than eighteen months after finishing Du côté de chez Swann/Swann’s Way, I have finally read the last page of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs/Within a Budding Grove. A few months ago I met a woman at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and we got to talking about Proust. She said, “you will really like Le Côté des Guermantes, that’s where things start happening.” I protested faintly but I could not deny that A l’ombre… is somewhat lacking in discernible incident.
The first section concerns the activities of the Narrator who is now in his teens, beginning to think about his place in the world. His great obsession is Gilberte Swann, the daughter of his parents’ old friend Swann and Swann’s wife Odette. He plays with Gilberte (plays? surely too old for this?), visits the Swann household, observes with great care the luxury of the house and especially Madame Swann’s elegance. He begins to understand Madame Swann’s dubious place in society, since she was a courtesan before she married Swann. The Narrator is also finally permitted to go to the theater to see the great actress Berma perform — not what he had hoped, as it turns out. In fact as the Narrator’s world widens he begins to understand how his expectations affect his experiences.
Part Two takes us to the seaside resort of Balbec, which the Narrator visits with his grandmother – not without a great deal of familiar anxiety as to his health and the logistics of getting there. Hotel life, observed with Proust’s eagle eye, is deeply fascinating, from the pretensions of the manager to the crushing grandeur of the baron de Charlus, whom we meet for the first time. I deeply appreciated the scene where his nephew the godlike Saint-Loup, the Narrator’s fast friend, introduces them and Charlus offers his two fingers to shake, without looking him in the eye. Humiliating politeness from “mon oncle Palamède!”
Finally, we reach the long section when the Narrator becomes involved with the “little band” of girls who haunt Balbec. They are not aristocratic — far from it — and not actually terribly interesting. In fact the Narrator is haunted first by the group, and decides more or less blindly which girl it is who interests him the most. His favor falls on Albertine — it was Albertine he liked best? He spends a great deal of time with the girls, lolling around on the cliff tops, playing silly girl games, neglecting his grand friend Saint-Loup… and then the summer is over. Once again, completely different from what he expected. Once again, time has escaped him.