Happy new year to everyone. I’d originally planned to have finished the entirety of Proust by this point, but it wouldn’t have been worth it. I couldn’t absorb the whole thing, even if I read all the words. (Even as it stands, I’m not exactly delving into large chunks of it.) The first two volumes were, by a long shot, the best thing I read last year, so I figured I might as well take the time to enjoy it. I’m in the middle of The Guermantes Way way right now and things have slowed down, and that, combined with a new job, may hurt my pace, but based on what I’ve read so far, I’m committed. (Early on, the plan was to have a little mood-indicator emoticon that would specify how confident I was of finishing all seven volumes: optimistic, concerned, hopeless, pained, etc.)
Returning to Within a Budding Grove
The early parts of Marcel’s stay at Balbec are fairly uneventful. Marcel explores the hotel he’s staying at and meets a few upper-class women, but there is little development, just scene-setting. To some extent, it’s a period of adjustment. Marcel does very little, but spends a lot of time reflecting on how the ceilings in his hotel room are very high, unlike the low ceilings in his room in Paris. It makes him homesick:

For a neurotic nature such as mine–one, that is to say, in which the intermediaries, the nerves, perform their functions badly, fail to arrest on its way to consciousness, allow indeed to reach it, distinct, exhausting, innumerable and distressing, the plaints of the most humble elements of the self which are about to disappear–the anxiety and alarm which I felt as I lay beneath that strange and too lofty ceiling were but the protest of an affection that survived in me for a ceiling that was familiar and low. Doubtless this affection too would disappear, another having taken its place; but until its annihilation, every night it would suffer afresh, and on this first night especially, confronted with an irreversible future in which there would no longer be any place for it, it rose in revolt, it tortured me with the sound of its lamentations whenever my straining eyes, powerless to turn from what was wounding them, endeavoured to fasten themselves upon that inaccessible ceiling. (723)

Offhand, I can’t think of a more vivid description of homesickness, and the situation in which someone is utterly conscious of the temporary nature of their feelings, and yet is powerless to quell them. By the time he returns to Paris, he’s become accustomed to the high ceilings and it’s the low ceilings which make him ill at ease. Yet as with Swann’s infatuation with Odette, the contradiction does not invalidate what’s gone before.
It’s a milestone when, about a third of the way in, he encounters Robert de Saint-Loup. His friendship with Saint-Loup, as well as with Bloch, is the first in which Marcel plays an active part, as well as the first where the people are vaguely equals. Saint-Loup is more polished and well-to-do than Marcel (and certainly more than Bloch), but he is too polite and unaware to notice that he’s spending time around a group of obnoxious, elitist students. (Unjustified elitists, I should say–the bad kind.) But his good nature keeps him friends with Marcel, and they grow close. But Proust imposes some distancing techniques on describing their friendship, and describes what comes between them. Saint-Loup cannot bring himself to be discriminating enough to see the bad in people who aren’t Marcel, and Marcel himself, well–

Sometimes I reproached myself for thus taking pleasure in considering my friend as a work of art, that is to say in regarding the play of all the parts of his being as harmoniously ordered by a general idea from which they depended but of which he was unaware. (792)

It’s a strange passage; for me, it hearkens back to earlier passages in which one character or another imagines another person and that view of the other person as an “object” determines the relationship, rather than a real exchange of emotion between two people.
It’s Bloch who makes the most of these divisions. Nominally friends with both Saint-Loup and Marcel, he’s portrayed even more negatively than before. Before, he was simply a pretentious ass who talked big about things he didn’t know. Now he is an insecure wretch who tries to drive a wedge between Saint-Loup and Marcel and ingratiate himself with both of them. He insults each to the other, and makes much more of his supposed connection with Bergotte than is actually there. Yet his actions have little effect, and there is more of a sense of stasis than change: socially, Saint-Loup is above Marcel, and Marcel is above Bloch, and that is the way it is. Marcel even gives him a break in retrospect:

Bloch was not altogether a bad fellow: he was capable of being extremely nice. And now that the race of Combray, the race from which sprang creatures as absolutely unspoiled as my grandmother and my mother, seems almost extinct, since I no longer have much choice save between decent brutes, frank and insensitive, the mere sound of whose voices shows at once that they take absolutely no interest in your life–and another kind of men who so long as they are with you understand you, cherish you, grow sentimental to the point of tears, then make up for it a few hours later with some cruel joke at your expense, but come back to you, always just as understanding, as charming, as in tune with you for the moment, I think that it is of this latter sort that I prefer, if not the moral worth, at any rate the society. (802)

I’m still not sure what to make of this; it reminds me of the strange amalgams in Erich von Stroheim’s speeches celebrating the dying aristocracy in Grand Illusion. It indicates a certain disinterest on the older Marcel’s part towards people who would stab you in the back and yet be utterly proper about it, as well as a sense of having lost the social world in which one could comfortably function. Hints of terrible, crushing isolation creep into “Place-Names: The Place.” They don’t dominate, but young Marcel’s orientation is already beginning to lead in that direction.
Back to Bloch. He is “ill-bred, neurotic and snobbish,” not just coming from a Jewish background but a lower-class Jewish background, which, as opposed to Swann and Marcel’s more subdued Jewish characters, looms large enough in Bloch’s social standing to cause him to feel (and, as far as many are concerned, be) chronically inferior. Proust takes a pitying tone when describing these aspects of Bloch, particularly when he sees Bloch ingratiating himself with Saint-Loup’s student friends by attacking Jews, or minimizing his Jewish heritage to Marcel.
These themes aren’t worked out in the second volume, but allusions to the Dreyfus case increase, and there is a fair amount of subtle, but indisputable anti-Semitism. When it appears, it’s first situated very much in shared attitudes rather than innate prejudice; the Dreyfus case rolls around, and it is expected that cultured people should have an attitude, and being anti-Dreyfus is rather popular. Bloch seeks to climb up through the ranks by imitating these attitudes, with little luck. Meanwhile, Saint-Loup is sympathetically pro-Dreyfus, unlike most of his comrades, and comes off rather well. But he can afford to hold a less popular opinion. It doesn’t make Bloch’s words defensible, but it makes him more pathetic than rotten.
(Later on, some of the characters (including Albertine) clearly have prejudices against Jews that have been long-abiding, so there’s a mix of causes here, which Proust doesn’t treat systematically.)