Saturday, December 10, 2022

Quote of the Day (Marcel Proust, on Adolescence)

“There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”—French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Swann’s Way, Book I of In Search of Lost Time, translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1913-1927)

Faithful reader, maybe you’re thinking, “Marcel…wasn’t the name of Ross’ monkey on Friends?” If you’re comparing the label on this blog post to the picture, you may be thinking, “What does Molly Ringwald (let alone Jon Cryer) have to do with a French guy?”

A fair amount, as it happens.

For the longest time I had this idea that adolescence was this peculiarly American phenomenon of the postwar period, probably fostered by movies like Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, Summer of ’42, and American Graffiti.

Even though these films from earlier years should have demonstrated otherwise, in my coming of age in the mid-Seventies I had a hard time imagining how teens in other times dealt with matters like school, class, acne, bodies out of sync with our ideals of perfection, love, or simply coming to terms with a world we never made.

In one way or another, of course, those were the very same issues that obsessed Gen X and made them gravitate to John Hughes’ mid-80s teen trilogy that made the carrot-topped Ms. Ringwald an icon of her time: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink (from which, as you surely have guessed by now, the image accompanying this post comes from).

Perhaps tiring of the demands of Hollywood in the mid-1990s, Ms. Ringwald briefly relocated to Paris, where she not only made some films but even married a French writer.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps when she was learning French, Ms. Ringwald must have encountered Marcel Proust’s enormously influential novel sequence. Three years ago, she told an interviewer from Entertainment Weekly that she’d been reading Caroline Weber’s Proust’s Duchess, a triple biography of three women who furnished Proust with the model for his character the Duchesse de Guermantes.

At times, I have wondered how a sickly asthmatic like Proust could cut himself off from the society that furnished him with his subject matter, staying inside a bedroom with walls lined with cork as he worked obsessively to complete his life’s magnum opus.

But memory can be an enormously powerful force, and especially so adolescence, with its outsized emotions. Proust wouldn’t have needed his fabled madeleines to summon up that period of his life. The kids of “The Breakfast Club” might not have tackled his book, but they definitely would have understood the regret and spontaneity he identified as being central to this time in their lives.

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