For decades the title of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time was translated as Within a Budding Grove, because the actual title was deemed too suggestive for English speaking ears. The narrator, not named, is describing his early adolescence and his intoxication as he is immersed in the company of girls entering adolescence themselves. Most readers, like the narrator, will be years past the age when flirtation was new to us and youths were our peers, but Proust, the author and presumably the narrator, powerfully evokes those emotions for us as he shares passages from his youth.
As the first volume, Swann’s Way, closed, the narrator, a nervous, sickly boy, is drawn out of his cloistered world every afternoon to the promenade of elegant Parisian courtesans in the Bois de Boulogne, in particular Mrs. Swann, mother of Gilberte, the beautiful girl with whom he is infatuated. Like the first volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower has little plot. The young narrator courts Gilberte at her parents' home in Paris. He spends the summer at a seaside resort in Normandy and gains the company of a group of young girls to whom he is attracted. He makes a close friend. But, as we all know, negotiating love for the first time involves volumes of calculation and strong emotion. Proust’s unsparing observation of his own feelings and behavior, and the people and places he encounters, makes his constricted plot and settings seem infinite.
Fin de Siecle Paris was before the day when one would self-identify as gay, but we know, most knew, Proust’s primary loves were men. As we read In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the reader may remain open to an interpretation that Proust is describing the narrator’s feelings for other boys, not girls. After all, he gives them names which are nearly boys names—Gilberte, Albertine, Andree—and the theme of homosexuality has already been introduced in both volumes.
In the end, as Proust probably intended, it matters little. The novel is about discovering the exhausting pain and exultation of discovering love. And even more so, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is about the writing itself. Just as one can admire a painting, a van Gogh, for example, for the brush strokes, one admires Proust for his metaphors, which pile one upon another into a glittering portrait.
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