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Here are the first two volumes of Proust’s monumental achievement, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove. The famous overture to Swann's Way sets down the grand themes that govern In Search of Lost Time: as the narrator recalls his childhood in Paris and Combray, exquisite memories, long since passed—his mother’s good-night kiss, the water lilies on the Vivonne, his love for Swann’s daughter Gilberte—spring vividly into being. In Within a Budding Grove—which won the Prix Goncourt in 1919, bringing the author ...
Here are the first two volumes of Proust’s monumental achievement, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove. The famous overture to Swann's Way sets down the grand themes that govern In Search of Lost Time: as the narrator recalls his childhood in Paris and Combray, exquisite memories, long since passed—his mother’s good-night kiss, the water lilies on the Vivonne, his love for Swann’s daughter Gilberte—spring vividly into being. In Within a Budding Grove—which won the Prix Goncourt in 1919, bringing the author instant fame—the narrator turns from his childhood recollections and begins to explore the memories of his adolescence. As his affections for Gilberte grow dim, the narrator discovers a new object of attention in the bright-eyed Albertine. Their encounters unfold by the shores of Balbec. One of the great works of Western literature, now in the new definitive French Pleiade edition translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.
1. FOR DISCUSSION OF SWANN'S WAY
What exactly happens when the narrator dips his madeleine into his cup of tea? Why do you think the sentence comparing the experience with Japanese paper flowers has become one of the most famous in literature? There is a second description of this original incident in the house of Aunt Leonie in Combray, how does this add to the magic of the experience?
2. Who is the narrator? Is he a young boy awaiting his mother's kiss or a middle-aged man remembering his mother's kiss?
3. What was the significance of that particular night that his mother stayed with him? Is there a suggestion that his relationship with his parents might have changed and that henceforth he, the child, would be in control? Do we find signs of this later in the novel?
4. In bed that night, his mother read him François le Champi by Georges Sand. Might there be any significance in this book that the author had given his hero to read on so significant a night? (This will employ a little further research and is not self evident in the novel. A member of the group might be appointed to Google François le Champi)
Ask each member of the group to read out loud that passage or paragraph when it first became apparent to them that this is a comic novel. Examples might include Aunt Léonie's hypochondria or Legrandin's pompous evasiveness.
6. Discuss the different members of the narrator's family—who are they? What is their relationship? Describe the different character-traits that make each one unique as an individual. For example, the grandmother loves fresh-air and long walks and turns her face upwards to catch the rain drops; her twin sisters on the other hand…..
7. Without spoiling the plot, it can be revealed that most of the characters introduced at Combray are to play important roles in the development of the novel. Proust believed that the reader's perception of the different characters should change, as in real life, as they grow older or circumstances change. Discuss how we perceive the various characters who are introduced in this first volume: Francoise, Aunt Leonie, Legrandin, Swann, Vinteuil and his daughter. What about the daughter's friend? Who is Charlus? Why does Swann never bring his wife or daughter on social visits?
8. What are the differences between the two families "walks"; the Méséglise (or Swann's Way) and the Guermantes Way? These two "Ways" play an important role throughout the novel; what different ideas or values might they represent?
9. What is the significance of the "Guermantes"—as a name as a family? What does it represent to the narrator?
10. Legrandin presents himself as a revolutionary, hating all the aristocracy and yet when he meets some landowners outside church, his behavior is obsequious. Discuss this contradiction. The narrator says that they saw a "Legrandin different from the one we knew"—what might he have been suggesting?
11. Why will Legrandin not introduce the narrator's father to his sister? Discuss how Legrandin avoids doing this.
12. What happened with the church steeples at Martinville?
13. Swann in Love:
In what way is Swann in Love different from the other three sections of the volume and how does it relate chronologically to the others?
14. Discuss Swann's position in society, how the narrator's family perceives him and how this reflects upon the different "classes" in French society at that time.
15. Charles Swann is one of the most central characters in the whole novel. What are his faults and weaknesses—what are his strengths and qualities? Is he a sympathetic character—do we like him?
16. Describe the trajectory of Swann's relationship with Odette and how his feelings change over time. Discuss the role played by the Verdurins in the relationship of Swann and Odette.
17. What is Odette's appeal to Swann and what do we know about her background? Are Swann's feelings of jealousy well founded? What do we know about Odette's lies?
18. Discuss the Verdurins: what is their position in society? Discuss their "little clan"; who are its members? What is their role? Who are the "bores"? Compare Swann with Forcheville and discuss why the Verdurins preferred the one over the other.
19. Discuss the musical party at Mme. de Sainte Euverte. Compare it with a musical evening at the Verdurins.
20. Discuss the joke about the Cambremer's name. What exactly is the joke? What does this joking exchange tell us about the relationship between Swann and Oriane, the Princess des Laumes?
21. Who is the Princesse des Laumes and how is she related to the Duchesse de Guermantes and to Mme. de Guermantes? What might have been the role and position of the aristocracy in the French Republic of the late nineteenth century?
22. Place Names: The Name:
What do we know about the narrator? What age is he—in the first section, in this final section? What do we know about his health? What do we know about his family and their household? Where do they live? Compare this with what we knew of the family in Combray.
23. What is the narrator's relationship with Gilberte? Compare his obsessive focus on Gilberte with Swann's earlier obsession with Odette. Discuss any similar patterns of behavior and be aware that many of these patterns are repeated throughout all seven volumes. What do you think this tells us about Proust's views of love?
24. Discuss the relationship between the narrator's family and Swann. How has it changed since Combray and how does this affect the narrator?
25. Compare the Swann of this last section with the younger Swann of the previous section and discuss ways he might have changed and the possible reasons why.
26. What do we know about Mme. Swann? Compare Mme. Swann of this section with Odette de Crecy of Swann in Love. How is Mme. Swann perceived in society?
27. Discuss the final section—who is the narrator in the Bois de Boulogne? What is his viewpoint and mood? What does he say about time?
28. FOR DISCUSSION OF WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE
Three of Proust's major themes are quickly developed within the first few pages of this second volume; the contradictory ways that individuals are perceived by society, the disappointment which invariably accompanies the satisfaction of our desires and, third, the unpredictable consequences of our actions. Find examples of each of these themes.
29. Use examples to discuss the differences between the way characters were described to us in the first volume and the way they are described in the second.
30. Discuss Norpois: his character, his way of speaking, his views on literature, how he is perceived and treated by the narrator's family; by the father and the mother. What do we learn, through Norpois about the Swann household?
31. Discuss the narrator's desire to go to the Opera and his interest in Berma. What stops him attending the Opera? Why? And how is this overcome? Describe and discuss his experience at the Opera and his subsequent feelings about Berma and her "acting".
32. Discuss and compare the roles that Norpois and Dr. Cottard play in getting the narrator invited to the Swann's home. What does this tell us about their characters?
33. Who is Bloch and what do we already know about him from Combray? Proust has been accused of anti-Semitism for his portrayal of Bloch and his family; does this seem a valid criticism?
34. Discuss the narrator's reaction on finally meeting the great author, Bergotte. Discuss other examples of disappointment in finally achieving our dreams—for example when the narrator first sees the Duchesse de Guermantes at church in Combray (in Swann's Way.)
35. Discuss the Swann household. Where are they positioned socially? Compare the salons of Mme. Swann with that of Mme. Verdurin. Why does Odette continue to invite a socially unimportant person like Mme. Cottard to her salon? (Hint: the narrator's mother has an explanation.)
36. Why does the narrator eventually stop frequenting the brothel where he had been offered the young Jewish girl, Rachel? Discuss the inheritance that the narrator receives from his Aunt Léonie and what he does with specific items. Discuss how this reflects upon Proust's sense of humor.
37. Discuss the relationship with Gilberte. Compare this with the relationship between Swann and Odette in the previous volume. What common patterns do we see concerning Proust's views of love? Discuss the initial passion, the gnawing of jealousy, the growing dissatisfaction and eventual disillusion and dislike of the other person, which Proust describes.
38. Discuss the narrator's evolving feelings about Odette and how she gradually replaces Gilberte in his thoughts. Compare the depiction of Odette's promenades in the Bois at the end of Swann's Way with her promenades in Within a Budding Grove.
39. Discuss the parting with the mother at the railway station and the train journey to Balbec with the grandmother. It is quite an eventful journey: first time away from Mamma, the milkmaid, the alcohol, the arrival at the hotel and— again, the bedroom! Discuss all the references to bedrooms that we have so far encountered in the novel.
40. The grandmother has been described as one of the warmest and nicest characters in literature. Discuss. How has this image been developed through the first two volumes of the novel?
41. Throughout the novel, the grandmother constantly refers the The Letters of Mme. de Sévigné. Have somebody in the group do some brief research (Google) on Mme de Sévigné so that the group can discuss the possible significance of this choice of reading matter. (It is worth noting that Proust's own mother and her mother also read The Letters of Mme. de Sévigné.)
42. What is the relationship between the grandmother and Mme. de Villeparisis? Why did they initially ignore each other—what does this tell us about them? Did we know of this relationship before—in the first volume?
43. Discuss the incident of the trees in Mme. Villeparisis' carriage. How does it relate to the spires at Martinville? What might these incidents signify?
44. What does Bloch tell the narrator about Mme. Swann? Discuss what this tells us about Bloch and what it tells us about Mme. Swann.
45. Discuss Robert de Saint Loup; physically, socially, morally, intellectually. Discuss his relationship with the narrator. What do we know about his mistress?
46. Discuss Robert's uncle, the Baron de Charlus; socially, morally, intellectually. Discuss his relationship with the narrator.
47. Discuss Elstir. What does he represent as a painter—as a man? Give examples of ways that he affects the narrator. Prior to meeting Elstir, there are some very visual descriptions of the sea while the narrator is dressing for dinner, and after becoming friends with Elstir the narrator finds a magic in a dinner table following the end of a meal. These are beautiful passages to be read aloud in a group.
48. Discuss the first description of the band of young girls. What do they represent to the narrator? Discuss his feelings. Why is their first appearance upon the seafront at Balbec so memorable and so powerful?
49. Discuss the various ways he tries to make their acquaintance. When he is with Elstir and sees the girls approaching, he pretends to be looking in a shop window and thus misses his chance of an introduction. What other examples are there of the narrator's extremely convoluted ways of reasoning. One example (from Swann's Way) is when he imagines receiving a letter from Gilberte—but then tries not to think of the words she might use!)
50. Discuss Albertine. What does she look like, what is her appeal? What do we know about her? How many "n's" are in the spelling of her family name? What is her position in the "little band".
51. Discuss the way that Proust describes the build-up to the anticipated "kiss" in her bedroom at the hotel. Discuss the language and images that he uses.
52. The first section of this volume, set in Paris is much more a description of "interiors" while the second section, set in Balbec is much more a description of "exteriors". Discuss the differences and refer to the recurrent theme of the hawthorn bushes.
53. What themes and patterns of behavior or of observation do we see repeated in this second volume that we had already observed in the first?
54. Discuss Moncrieff's translation of the title, Within a Budding Grove, with the more literal translation of "In the shadow of young girls in flower." How many references are there, not only to young adolescent girls on the cusp of sexuality, but also to a young man's growing awareness of them? It has been suggested that Proust, as a closeted homosexual, was really describing young men rather than young girls in this volume. How valid is this suggestion?
Posted January 19, 2001
This is what you get when you read Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time). This is the kind of book you won't want to read in a rush. Take a whole afternoon, sit back, relax and enjoy the dense, but beautiful prose. I would take the 3 volumes to a deserted island and be happy. Need I say more?
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Posted January 1, 2010
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