Earlier, I’d mentioned hints of Albertine’s coming appearance that I hadn’t picked up on the first time I read Within a Budding Grove, but she does appear in the last third or so of the book, though is only named in the last fifth of the novel.
Damn you, Proust, you understand me too well. Reading Within a Budding Grove is like reliving all your adolescent, pre-adolescent, and early college crushes in excruciating detail. First his early crush on Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette, who has no time for the lovesick narrator (who has not yet been named, but will, down the road, be identified as a fellow named ‘Marcel,’ which I’m sure is just a coincidence). Then his more platonic crush on Odette (or, I guess I should now say, Mlle. Swann). In between, though the narrator quickly tamps down such bits of information, lest they interfere with his image of her, lets secondary characters bring up memories of Swann’s earlier pain from the Swann in Love section of Swann’s Way. A sort of Pretty Woman: Ten Years Later. When a man like Swann, marries his courtesan, his whole life will be marked by the knowledge that many of the men in his wider social circle will have effectively once paid his wife for sexual favors at some point in his past.
Later, he goes to Balbec and while it’s not phrased as such, he’s desperate for a girlfriend. He sees girls on the beach and on the boardwalk and invents stories about them, imagines which ones might have glanced at him and might secretly like him (and he, naturally, starts to desire those in turn). He finally meets Albertine, one of a group of girls he sees with comparative frequency and finally engineers a meeting. But he’s not sure she likes him, so sometimes his attentions focus on one of her friends. And then, when she invites him into her room and she’s in her nightgown and he tries to kiss her… she pulls the cord (it’s in a hotel) to summon someone. While there is certainly a whole other novel to be found in what Albertine was thinking, I certainly understand what poor Marcel was thinking and how horrible confused he was.
All the fantasies of confused and sometimes thwarted desire are mapped in precise and painful detail. It’s cringeworthy to read his imagined future events (letter he will receive, meetings he will have – with his responses to these not yet happened, never going to happen incidences prepared to the level of how to dot the ‘i’s) and remember that, god yes, you were once that young and ignorant and embarrassing.