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3.11.03

Your Proust Excerpt for Today

One of the most captivating parts of Marcel Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu is the final section of the second volume, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur [In the shadow of the blossoming young girls] (Moncrieff's translation is called, blandly, Within a Budding Grove). This section is subtitled, in Moncrieff's translation, Seascape with Frieze of Girls, a phrase which creates an indelible image in my mind, again a way of creating and elevating memory by association with art. The descriptions of the band of girls the narrator encounters during his stay in the hotel at Balbec are lyric and beautiful and incarnate adolescence in an inimitable way. Perhaps Proust had in mind something like the image below, from the eastern side of the Parthenon frieze, showing girls in the Panathenaic procession.
Detail of frieze from the east side of the Parthenon, Athens, now in the Louvre
Balbec is a fictional beach town based on Proust's many vacations to the Grand-Hôtel in Cabourg, a real place that is well worth a visit. You can actually stay in a room (the Chambre souvenirs Marcel Proust), which has been decorated to match the careful description of the narrator's room in the hotel in the novel. I have made some corrections to Moncrieff's translation at points where I think it strays too far from the original. However, it is probably impossible to capture the insolence of the girl's mean-spirited and clipped remark about the old man, but a modern American equivalent might be something like "Old dude's bringin' me down with his half-dead self."

And were they not noble and calm models of human beauty that I beheld there, in front of the sea, like statues exposed to the sunlight upon a Grecian shore? Just as if, in the heart of their band, which progressed along the shore walk like a luminous comet, they had decided that the surrounding crowd was composed of creatures of another race whose sufferings even could not awaken in them any sense of fellowship, they appeared not to see them, forced those who had stopped to talk to step aside, as though from the path of a machine that had been let loose and which you should not expect to avoid pedestrians, and if some old gentleman of whom they did not admit the existence and thrust from them the contact, had fled with a frightened, furious, headlong or ludicrous motion, they were even happier to look at one another laughing. They had, for whatever did not form part of their group, no affectation of contempt; their genuine contempt was sufficient. But they could not set eyes on an obstacle without amusing themselves by crossing it, either in a running jump or with both feet together, because they were all filled to the brim, exuberant with that youth which we need so urgently to spend that even when we are unhappy or unwell, obedient rather to the necessities of our age than to the mood of the day, we can never pass anything that can be jumped over or slid down without indulging ourselves conscientiously, interrupting, interspersing our slow progress—as Chopin his most melancholy phrase—with graceful deviations in which caprice is blended with virtuosity. The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him on a folding chair, facing the shore walk, sheltered from wind and sun by the band-stand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had just gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him, to distract him—little absences during which she left him alone and which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed long enough to him but which she repeated at frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal, should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection. The platform of the band-stand provided above him a natural and tempting springboard, across which, without a moment's hesitation, the eldest of the little band began to run; she jumped over the terrified old man, whose yachting cap was brushed by the nimble feet, to the great delight of the other girls, especially of a pair of green eyes in a doll-like face, which expressed for that act an admiration and a merriment in which I seemed to discern a trace of timidity, a shamefaced and blustering timidity which did not exist in the others. "Oh, the poor old man; he makes me sick; he looks half dead," said a girl with a croaking voice and with a half-ironic tone. They walked on a few steps, then stopped for a moment in the middle of the road, with no thought whether they were impeding the passage of other people, in a council, an aggregation of irregular shape, compact, unusual and shrill, like birds that gather on the ground at the moment of flight; then they resumed their leisurely stroll along the shore walk, above the sea.Et n'étaient-ce pas de nobles et calmes modèles de beauté humaine que je voyais là, devant la mer, comme des statues exposées au soleil sur un rivage de la Grèce? Telles que si, du sein de leur bande qui progressait le long de la digue comme une lumineuse comète, elles eussent jugé que la foule environnante était composée d'êtres d'une autre race et dont la souffrance même n'eût pu éveiller en elles un sentiment de solidarité, elles ne paraissaient pas la voir, forçaient les personnes arrêtées à s'écarter ainsi que sur le passage d'une machine qui eût été lâchée et dont il ne fallait pas attendre qu'elle évitât les piétons, et se contentaient tout au plus si quelque vieux monsieur dont elles n'admettaient pas l'existence et dont elles repoussaient le contact s'était enfui avec des mouvements craintifs ou furieux, précipités ou risibles, de se regarder entre elles en riant. Elles n'avaient à l'égard de ce qui n'était pas de leur groupe aucune affectation de mépris, leur mépris sincère suffisait. Mais elles ne pouvaient voir un obstacle sans s'amuser à le franchir en prenant leur élan ou à pieds joints, parce qu'elles étaient toutes remplies, exubérantes, de cette jeunesse qu'on a si grand besoin de dépenser même quand on est triste ou souffrant, obéissant plus aux nécessités de l'âge qu'à l'humeur de la journée, on ne laisse jamais passer une occasion de saut ou de glissade sans s'y livrer consciencieusement, interrompant, semant, sa marche lente—comme Chopin la phrase la plus mélancolique—de gracieux détours où le caprice se mêle à la virtuosité. La femme d'un vieux banquier, après avoir hésité pour son mari entre diverses expositions, l'avait assis, sur un pliant, face à la digue, abrité du vent et du soleil par le kiosque des musiciens. Le voyant bien installé, elle venait de le quitter pour aller lui acheter un journal qu'elle lui lirait et qui le distrairait, petites absences pendant lesquelles elle le laissait seul et qu'elle ne prolongeait jamais au delà de cinq minutes, ce qui lui semblait bien long, mais qu'elle renouvelait assez fréquemment pour que le vieil époux à qui elle prodiguait à la fois et dissimulait ses soins eût l'impression qu'il était encore en état de vivre comme tout le monde et n'avait nul besoin de protection. La tribune des musiciens formait au-dessus de lui un tremplin naturel et tentant sur lequel sans une hésitation l'aînée de la petite bande se mit à courir: elle sauta par-dessus le vieillard épouvanté, dont la casquette marine fut effleurée par les pieds agiles, au grand amusement des autres jeunes filles, surtout de deux yeux verts dans une figure poupine qui exprimèrent pour cet acte une admiration et une gaieté où je crus discerner un peu de timidité, d'une timidité honteuse et fanfaronne, qui n'existait pas chez les autres. "C'pauvre vieux, i m'fait d'la peine, il a l'air à moitié crevé", dit l'une de ces filles d'une voix rogommeuse et avec un accent à demi-ironique. Elles firent quelques pas encore, puis s’arrêtèrent un moment au milieu du chemin sans s'occuper d'arrêter la circulation des passants, en un conciliabule, un agrégat de forme irrégulière, compact, insolite et piaillant, comme des oiseaux qui s'assemblent au moment de s'envoler; puis elles reprirent leur lente promenade le long de la digue, au-dessus de la mer.
Rereading this passage now brings to mind a very different encounter between youth and age on a beach, that of von Aschenbach and Tadzio on the Lido in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Von Aschenbach watches Tadzio come back out of the water at the call of his governess: "He turned and ran back against the water, churning the waves to a foam, his head flung high. The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the element—it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods." What von Aschenbach first admires when he sees Tadzio is his disdain for the world around him, exactly what sets the "petite bande" apart for Marcel, the petulance, single-minded and ignorant, of the blissful young.

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