Parisian by Heart

Marcel Proust’s famous notebooks, in which he wrote In Search of Lost Time, were a crazy quilt pastiche of numerous revisions, written on any other pieces of paper available and with lines and circles drawn in to show where the inserts were to go, and in what order. He (or actually his companion-housekeeper, Celeste Albaret) literally cut and pasted these paperoles, as he called them, into the notebooks, in the days before word processors and computers. One sees Proust, propped up in bed, with his sweaters and pillows behind and around him, carefully cutting around his words and Celeste standing nearby, perhaps holding a little pot of glue, listening while Marcel explains exactly where each snippet is to be placed. On the bed and the little tables around him are the notebooks, more pieces of paper, perhaps envelopes from letters he’s received, perhaps bills from merchants, on which he’s written character descriptions, remembered conversations, forgotten details of the places in the books that have been recalled to his memory, somehow…

Would he have embraced a computer, with its word-processing capabilities, its immediate and seamless ability to not-literally but visually cut and paste to one’s heart’s desire? Or would he have preferred the sight and touch of being surrounded by his words, the tactile and sensual cutting and pasting, the clean slice of the scissors and the smell of the glue? Visualize Proust again, propped up in the bed, with a laptop on his knees? Or the even smaller computer called, fortuitously, a notebook?

Mais, non. Let us leave Monsieur to his writing and explain the title of this post. My love of Marcel Proust and The Novel lead me to writing my first novel around Proust and Paris and it’s title is Parisian by Heart. The following, which I have magically copied and pasted here using my notebook, is an excerpt from my book.

“As I followed Francoise back into this room, we discovered Marcel had ensconced himself in the bed and was struggling to arrange the pillows and what looked to be several sweaters around and behind himself. He had moved a small upholstered bench next to the bed and had placed his hat, which he had been holding in his gloved hands earlier, on it, along with those gloves which were of a lavender color and matched his vest. I could see his vest now because he had removed his coat and hung it on the back of the closet door.

He was still fussing with the pillows and sweaters and as soon as he saw Francoise, he fell back onto the pillows and said, “Oh, my dear Celeste, you have taken so long! Put down those things and help me please. Madame, have you any more pillows?” This last request had been directed at me. I ran into the living room and got some pillows off the window seat and returned with them. Francoise took them from me and as she did, she looked at me in such a way, her chin tucked down and her eyes looking up into mine, that I knew she was warning me not to bring up the Celeste/ Francoise problem.

She now had Marcel propped up in the bed, with pillows and sweaters piled up behind him, and on either side of him, so that he could prop his elbows on them as he ate his croissant and drank his coffee, with the tray on a pillow on his lap. Francoise stood at the foot of the bed, watching as Marcel finished his croissant and then going to fetch another as he requested. While she was gone, he lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes. At that moment, he looked so much like the photograph taken by Man Ray after Proust had died, of him lying on his death bed with his sunken eyes closed and his nose sharp with skin stretched tight over it, that I was frozen in time, staring at the face I’d never seen in reality and yet- here it was. He opened his eyes and caught me staring at him. He smiled.

“Do not worry, Madame, I will be restored soon. And then I will begin the story”. Francoise returned with the second croissant for Marcel, and a tray with more croissants and coffee that she handed to me.

“Bon appetit, Madame”, she said, and went back to stand at the foot of the bed. Marcel finished his croissant, then gently dabbed at his face with one of the linen napkins. He sighed, lay back on the pillows, and closed his eyes.

“As you can see, Madame, I am not well. Since I was eight or nine, I have been so close to death at times that my family feared they were going to lose me. The first two years of my life, I was the only child, and I was my mother’s heart’s delight. Then, when I was two, my brother was born, and my mother was no longer mine alone. And even worse, my brother was healthy and athletic and fulfilled my father’s every expectation of him. I, on the other hand, could not seem to please him in any way, although God knows I tried. My brother and I remained my parent’s only children.” He stopped here to look at me. “Same as you and your sister, non?”

“Yes”, I said, “I mean, oui.” He nodded.

“I loved my brother, but could not forgive him for having to share my mother with him. So I wrote him out of my life. I centered my life around my mother and dealing with my illnesses. It was all I had the strength for anyhow; that, and my writing.

“Our family was large and we had many other family members living around us. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins…we were all very close and spent summers together in our small village outside of Paris and the rest of the time in Paris itself. My father had his work as a doctor there, my brother and I were in school, the years went by…My brother became a doctor, like our father. For myself, when I felt well enough, I just wanted to pursue my pleasures. I adored going to the Theater, or to the Opera, or to museums…I would go to the Louvre and stand enthralled in front of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana for hours. I did my one year of military service, and while I enjoyed the company of the other men…”

He glanced quickly at Francoise and coughed a little cough. “Well, that was not going to be for me. I got a job, just to try to please my father, at the Bibliotheque Mazarin, thinking that at least I would be immersed in literature but I just could not resign myself to being an “unpaid assistant” so I never actually went to work there. I toyed with being a museum curator, I got degrees in the law and in philosophy, but all I really wanted to do was write.

“Then, one by one, family members began to die. I lost aunts, uncles, my beloved grandmother, and then the greatest blow of all, from which I will never recover…” He covered his eyes with his hands and was silent. Francoise stood with her head bowed. After a minute or two, he spoke again. His voice was low and without emotion, as if to give any voice to his feelings would unleash a torrent that he would rather keep within. “My mother died, quite horribly, and I could do nothing but watch. My father and my brother, both doctors, could do nothing. I did not know why, or even begin to comprehend, how I could go on living myself, unless it was to somehow give testimony, through my own life and my life’s work, to her having been my mother and to have been loved and so loving to me, by me…”

He lay back again, and his breathing became shallow and labored. “I must finish quickly now. My mother, along with all the other things she gave me in life, gave me the key, albeit unwittingly, that I am about to give to you. One day, as I came home tired, dispirited and cold, for reasons that are not important now, she offered me a cup of tea and a petite madeleine to dip into it. I did not usually take tea, preferring coffee, but that day I accepted the tea and the madeleine. I dipped the madeleine in the tea. Little bits of it broke off and floated in the amber liquid. I spooned them into my mouth and was instantly transported back in time to when I was a child and would have a cup of tea and madeleines with my Aunt Leonie. There I was, sitting on the side of her bed, smelling the lime blossoms she used to make her tea and feeling the warm spring air of Combray on my face from her open window.” He looked at me out of his deep-set, dark eyes that contained an intensity within like that of a hypnotist. “Do you understand what I am saying, Madame?”

“Yes, I think so”, I said. “You experienced an “involuntary memory”, the first of several you would have, that opened up to you the realization that memories and experiences are contained within physical objects, or certain sensory events…”

Non!”  His hands flew up before his face as if he wished to shut out all sight and sound, then he slowly lowered them back onto the tray before him. “You do not understand. I physically went back in time. I became a time-traveler, not just in my mind or thoughts or memories but in my body as well.” He leaned closer to me. “Do you understand now?”

His eyes held mine for what seemed like an hour but could only have been seconds. Something flickered within me, as if a long-buried memory was trying to come to the surface, but I could not grasp it. I shook my head. Proust lay back among the pillows and remained quiet for so long, his breathing growing deeper and deeper, that I became sure he was asleep. I looked at Francoise. She shook her head at me, warning me not to speak and to be patient.

She had not moved from the foot of the bed, and I would come to know that she would remain that way for hours, so that when Marcel did wake up, she would be there and he would not have to call for her. I motioned towards a chair, she shook her head again, and pointed towards the tray she had brought for me. I had forgotten about it. The coffee was still hot and had milk in it, the croissant was warm and buttery and flaky, melting in my mouth like nothing I had ever eaten before. Francoise smiled, and motioned for me to take another. I obeyed.

After some time had passed, Francoise moved quietly to the side of the bed and began to arrange some bottles and a small box of some kind of powder on the table there. I don’t know where these things came from, somehow they were just in her hands. She came around to the other side of the bed and on the dresser there, began to lay out some notebooks that had cardboard covers and were very worn and frayed at the edges. Could these be the notebooks, the cahiers that I had read about, that Marcel had written In Search of Lost Time in? I looked closer. They were, and I had the disorienting and dizzy feeling that suddenly I was in a cathedral or temple, standing in front of an altar on which lay the Holy Grail. My vision contracted inward, so that everything else in the room disappeared and all I could see were the notebooks. I felt faint. Francoise, or was it Celeste, was at my elbow and she whispered in my ear, “You see, Madame, Monsieur is a Magus”.

The next thing I was conscious of was that I was lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling. I was alone.”

Parisian by Heart

Parisian by Heart is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book retailers. It was chosen as a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. Kindle edition available here.


One comment on “Parisian by Heart

  1. Review Of The Propped A Pillow…

    […] in my mouth like nothing I had ever eaten before. Francoise smiled, and motion […]…

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