Day Fifty-Seven: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, pp. 369-380

From "This day, as on the preceding days, Saint-Loup..." to "...nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue."
A passage that reflects both the actual title and the more approximate one -- Within a Budding Grove -- of the Scott Moncrieff translation. 

The narrator tells us that his "health was going from bad to worse" and that he "was at one of those times of youth when the idle heart, unoccupied by love for a particular person, lies in wait for Beauty, seeking it everywhere, as the man in love sees and desires in all things the woman he cherishes." And he finds it, while waiting outside the Grand-Hôtel for his grandmother, in a "gang of girls" that he first glimpses far away along the esplanade. One girl pushes a bicycle, two others carry golf clubs, "and their accoutrements made a flagrant contrast with the appearance of other young girls in Balbec." They stride along together, swaggering almost, and careless of other people strolling in their path, sometimes even bumping into them. 

He characterizes their attitude as one of complete indifference to others, which he regards as unique. 

[F]or love, hence fear, of the crowd is one of the most powerful motives in all individuals, whether they wish to please others, astonish them, or show that they despise them. In a recluse, the most irrevocable, lifelong rejection of the world often has as its basis an uncontrolled passion for the crowd, of such force that, finding when he does go out that he cannot win the admiration of a concierge, passerby, or even the coachman halted at the corner, he prefers to spend his life out of their sight, and gives up all activities that would make it necessary to leave the house.
Is Proust talking about himself here? 

Gradually he begins to distinguish one girl from another as they draw closer, but before he does he perceives "the uninterrupted flow of a shared, unstable, and elusive beauty." They represent for him "the new interest in sports, spreading now even among the working classes, and in physical training without any concomitant training of the mind.... For surely these were noble and tranquil models of human beauty that met my eye, against the sea, like statues in the sun along a shore in Greece." 

Their erotic potential becomes strong as they come nearer, for "in none of my conjectures did I entertain the possibility that they might be chaste." He is struck in particular by "the brunette with the full cheeks and the bicycle," and though she is not the one he liked the best, because Gilberte's golden skin and "fairish ginger hair" had become his "unattainable ideal," he centers his attention on her after their eyes meet. 
I knew I could never possess the young cyclist, unless I could also possess what lay behind her eyes. My desire for her was desire for her whole life: a desire that was full of pain, because I sensed it was unattainable, but also full of heady excitement, because what had been my life up to that moment had suddenly ceased to be all of life, had turned into a small corner of a great space opening up for me, which I longed to explore.

We have seen him obsessed with the desire for possession -- both body and mind -- before, in the encounter with the village girl in Carqueville, where he similarly experienced the concept of "replacing sensual pleasure with the idea of penetrating someone's life." And he likens his experience with "this little sauntering gang of girls" to his encounters with "those fleeting passersby on the road," the ones he fantasizes about but knows he will never re-encounter. "If they had been offered to me by a madam -- in the sort of house that, as has been seen, I did not disdain -- divorced from the element that lent them so many colors and such attractive imprecision, they would have been less enchanting." 
No actress, no peasant girl, no boarder in a convent school had ever been so beautiful to me, so fascinating in a suggestion of the unknown, so invaluably precious, so probably unattainable. The exemplar these girls offered of life's potential for bringing unexpected happiness was so full of charm, in a state of such perfection, that it was almost for intellectual reasons that I despaired of ever being able to experience ... the profound mystery to be found in the beauty one has longed for, the beauty one replaces ... by seeking mere pleasure from women one has not desired ... with the result that one dies without ever having enjoyed that other form of fulfillment.
He knows, "having botanized so much among such young blossoms, that it would be impossible to come upon a bouquet of rarer varieties than these buds."

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