Book Review

David's Book Club: Within a Budding Grove

David Frum says Marcel Proust was an astute observer of politics in 'Within a Budding Grove.'

Proust is a world, and to return to him after an interval away is to discover and rediscover very different things each time.

Through much of the spring, during workouts and drives I re-listened to the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past.

(This volume is properly known nowadays in English, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, but because the audiobook version uses the older and more poetical Scott Moncrieff translation, I'll here use Moncrieff's title, Within a Budding Grove.)

I first read this volume in the summer after I finished high school.

I'd been amazed by the story of obsessive love told in the first volume, Swann's Way. Now here was Proust promising to unlock the secrets of the sexual awakening of young women - a subject of very keen interest to me at that time. I learned the very hardest way that whatever else he might be, Proust was not a reliable dating coach, not at least for M seeking F.

But among the things Proust is, believe it or not, is a very biting comedian - and a very astute observer of politics. Here for example is Proust's description of a pompous diplomat who becomes a friend of the narrator's father:

[I]n the character of M. de Norpois there was this predominant feature, that, in the course of a long career of diplomacy, he had become imbued with that negative, methodical, conservative spirit, called ‘governmental,’ which is common to all Governments and, under every Government, particularly inspires its Foreign Office. He had imbibed, during that career, an aversion, a dread, a contempt for the methods of procedure, more or less revolutionary and in any event quite incorrect, which are those of an Opposition.

"More or less revolutionary and in any event quite incorrect" - doesn't that perfectly encapsulate the disapproval of every bureaucracy throughout history?

Over many pages, Proust vividly mimics the elaborately circumlocutious mode of speech of the elderly diplomat. When the narrator and his father seek Norpois' advice on the narrator's hopes for a literary career, Norpois offers this reassurance:

“There is the case of the son of one of my friends, which, mutatis mutandis, is very much like yours.” He [Norpois] adopted in speaking of our common tendency the same reassuring tone as if it had been a tendency not to literature but to rheumatics, and he had wished to assure me that it would not necessarily prove fatal. “He too has chosen to leave the Quai d’Orsay, although the way had been paved for him there by his father, and without caring what people might say, he has settled down to write. And certainly, he’s had no reason to regret it. He published two years ago — of course, he’s much older than you, you understand — a book dealing with the Sense of the Infinite on the Western Shore of Victoria Nyanza, and this year he has brought out a little thing, not so important as the other, but very brightly, in places perhaps almost too pointedly written, on the Repeating Rifle in the Bulgarian Army; and these have put him quite in a class by himself. He’s gone pretty far already, and he’s not the sort of man to stop half way; I happen to know that (without any suggestion, of course, of his standing for election) his name has been mentioned several times, in conversation, and not at all unfavourably, at the Academy of Moral Sciences. And so, one can’t say yet, of course, that he has reached the pinnacle of fame, still he has made his way, by sheer industry, to a very fine position indeed, and success — which doesn’t always come only to agitators and mischief-makers and men who make trouble which is usually more than they are prepared to take — success has crowned his efforts.”

Hard to imagine a more soul-crushing recommendation than that.

Yet the portrait of Norpois is not merely satire. It leads Proust toward two of his great general observation on the underlying workings of minds in time. Here's the first:

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Save in the case of a few illiterates — high or low, it makes no matter — by whom no difference in quality is perceptible, what attracts men one to another is not a common point of view but a consanguinity of spirit. An Academician of the kind of Legouvé, and therefore an upholder of the classics, would applaud Maxime Ducamp’s or Mezière’s eulogy of Victor Hugo with more fervour than that of Boileau by Claudel. A common Nationalism suffices to endear Barrés to his electors, who scarcely distinguish between him and M. Georges Berry, but does not endear him to those of his brother Academicians who, with a similar outlook on politics but a different type of mind, will prefer to him even such open adversaries as M. Ribot and M. Deschanel, with whom, in turn, the most loyal Monarchists feel themselves more closely allied than with Maurras or Léon Daudet, although these also are living in the hope of a glorious Restoration.

(You don't have to recognize the names to get the point, but just as a footnote: Paul Claudel was a great French literary modernist and political reactionary; Maurice Barres, a reactionary intellectual and brawling political populist.)

Proust has to be corrected in one way: It's not "a few illiterates" who care only for political agreement. But among those people I've most deeply admired in my life - people like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Buckley - Proust's point holds. For them, it was "consanguinity of spirit" that attracted their friendship, and not "common point of view." Perhaps you could even say that the ability to form friendships based on "consanguinity of spirit" is the defining characteristic of the truly admirable person.

And then, later, Proust adds this comment on similarity and analogy. His father had opened a drawer to examine some financial securities.

The sight of them enchanted me. They were ornamented with cathedral spires and allegorical figures, like the old, romantic editions that I had pored over as a child. All the products of one period have something in common; the artists who illustrate the poetry of their generation are the same artists who are employed by the big financial houses. And nothing reminds me so much of the monthly parts of Notre-Dame de Paris, and of various books by Gérard de Nerval, that used to hang outside the grocer’s door at Combray, than does, in its rectangular and flowery border, supported by recumbent river-gods, a ‘personal share’ in the Water Company.

This seems to me both very funny and also a thought with very wide application. Think how modern painting has come to look like display advertising. Think how much of our political rhetoric sounds like movie dialogue. Think how utterly political conservatism has absorbed the habits and language of academic post-modernism.

Read David's remarks on Volume I, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, and Volume VI of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past