November Birth and Death

In my half century (plus three) of life, I have seen many ghosts. When I was a child they would appear beside my bed, with questioning looks on their faces, hands held out as if they were asking me for something. Later, after my maternal grandfather died, he also visited my bedside, I think just to say goodbye. He also spoke to me a few days after he died, as I was driving a little too fast; he said, “Slow down, Suzy”, calling me by the nickname he used for me when I was little. Years later, after my husband’s father died and we were there in his house, closing it up and preparing to sell it, I saw him twice, once asking me for a drink (he died an alcoholic) and once to tell me to get out. He didn’t like people prying into his things, even if he was dead. And now, in the old house we live in, a previous owner who died here makes her presence known, although I’ve not seen her. I have seen, however, a man standing in the kitchen doorway several times, and once, a little boy.

See the face on the tombstone?

See the face on the tombstone?

Not too long ago I went to the local cemetery to photograph the grave of the previous owner I mentioned earlier, the one we have not seen, and as I took the picture I mentally invited her to show herself in the photo. When I got home and looked at the pictures, I was disappointed that there was no image of her. But looking closer at the tombstone of her husband next to hers, I saw an image of the face of a man wearing a hat similar to the one the man I had seen in the kitchen doorway wearing. I would not be surprised to discover that the little  boy I’ve seen was a child of theirs that died young.

With all of these disembodied spirits wandering around, you’d think the dead guy I fell in love with would show up. I’ve certainly looked for him enough, held doors open for him, invited him into my lucid dreams…wrote my first book about him. Mais non, he hides himself as he hid from the world of the Belle Epoch, his time, in his cork-lined room, eating croissants, drinking gallons of coffee and writing In Search of Lost Time. November is his death month, on the 18th, but in 1913, nine years before his death in 1922, his novel was born, or at least the first book of it- Swann’s Way. This year of 2013 is the 100th anniversary of it’s publication.

This stamp is a little bit creepy.

This stamp is a little bit creepy.

Lovers of Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time pledged themselves, in this 100th year anniversary, to a Year of Reading Proust. This would be the year that they finally read that greatest of all novels, that magnum opus with the famous long sentences and even more famous madeleine scene. All over the world, in book clubs, on Goodreads, in private homes (in cork-lined rooms?), folks signed themselves up and gave themselves a year in which to do it.

Now here we are with November half over, so only a month and a half left to finish. I am curious about the percentages: how many of those who set themselves to doing this will actually finish, how many are on track, how many hating it but determined to finish, how many, like me, loving it and after finishing it, turning around and reading it again, along with every other book by Proust or about him and anything else related to Marcel that I could get my hands on? In fact, I just finished Proust’s Overcoat, a small book by Lorenza Foschini that tells the true story of a man who collects as much Proust paraphernalia, some years after Marcel’s death, as he can get his hands on, with the piece de resistance being the overcoat that Marcel practically lived in and literally slept in- he used it as a blanket. Reviewers of Proust’s Overcoat on Goodreads used words like “crazy”, “obsessed” and “fanatic” to describe the collector’s zeal; if it were me, I’d use words like “yes”, “yes”, and, “hell yes”.

Alas, on not having the money to become a crazy, obsessed fanatic for collecting Proust’s things, and because the ghost of my writer has not  appeared in my life or in my dreams, I turned to creating my own Proustian reality in my book, Parisian by Heart. And if you were one of those who said “this is the year I finally read Proust!” but alas, fell short of your goal, may I suggest that as a consolation, you read my book.  Like In Search of Lost Timeit deals with the persistence of memory, the continuation of life past death, and although it is not a very long book, it does have some long sentences. There are a few ghosts as well, seen and unseen, and best of all there is Marcel Proust, in search of lost…well, you have to read the book to find out.

Parisian by Heart

Parisian by Heart

Post-Proustian Sighting

Every now and then I see Marcel Proust mentioned or referenced somewhere and I post them here as sightings.  Sometimes the connections are uncommon or a little hard to see, as in this naming of  an “antioxidant skin-care product” called Combray.  Maybe someone can get back to me on why a product made of grapeseed oil would be named Combray?

Anyhow, other sightings are much more common or, shall we say, the connections are easy to make.  These sightings usually involve madeleines, as in this post by my favorite ex-pat food blogger David Liebowitz.  Not only does he seem to be a great cook, he’s a great read as well.  And he lives in Paris…sigh.  Here’s the link: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/archives/2009/08/mad_about_the_madeleines.html

And here’s a challenge: Go read David’s post and find his Proust reference.  Then come back here and tell us about it in a comment.  Your prize will be a (used) copy of Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi.   What’s this book’s connection with Proust? It takes place where and when Marcel lived and worked.  No, not Combray.  That’s an antioxidant skin-care product.

Swann’s Way~ Combray

“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me…the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea”.

The above quote is the final line from the Overture to Swann’s Way and is, of course, the end of the madeleine episode.  But in another way it is the beginning (hence “Overture”) because it is the doorway through which we and the Narrator pass on the journey to recovering lost time- the doorway to the past.  In Marcel’s case the doorway leads to the town of Combray, where he, as a child, and his family spent their Easter vacations and is based on a real town in France where Proust’s family spent their Easter vacations.  This real town, Illiers, changed its name to Illiers-Combray in recognition of this, and to give Proust-o-philes a place to pilgrimage to in their search for the lost Proust.  You can read about one person’s pilgrimage (not mine, unfortunately) here.

Marcel Proust Nadar

Here’s Proust, in a photo taken by Paul Nadar, at the age of sixteen.  I placed this picture here so that we could have some image in our minds of our Narrator as he walks the streets of Combray, but immediately two problems present themselves.  One is the problem of whether or not the “Narrator”, as scholars call him, of In Search of Lost Time– is he really Marcel Proust or one of his literary creations?  Here’s what I think about that question, but much later in the novel, as the Narrator’s love interest is speaking to him, she refers to him as Marcel.  This doesn’t settle the problem, but it does give us something more intimate to call the Narrator.

The second problem is Marcel’s age at this time- we aren’t told and as my sister said as she’s reading this now, it’s a lot easier to understand his angst over getting his mother’s goodnight kiss if he’s five years old, but if he is sixteen?  Not so much.  We’ll look for clues as we go along, but my impression is that he is about sixteen.  But these are compressed memories of what is probably years of time, vaguely remembered and blurred like an Impressionist’s painting of the place, the streets and houses and church of Combray.  As Marcel himself will tell us, “…more insubstantial than the projections of my magic-lantern…”  What follows are Marcel’s memories, thoughts and feelings over these early years, in such detail and sharp remembrance as to give lie to the insubstantiality of Marcel’s “impressions”.

Back in Combray, we are introduced (formally) to Marcel’s Aunt Leonie, she of the lime-blossom decoction and madeleines.  We also learn that she, since her husband’s death, “…had gradually declined to leave, first Combray, then her house in Combray, then her bedroom, and finally her bed…”  Now, who does that remind us of?  Hmmm…oh yes, Marcel Proust!  Here is the pattern for how Proust will live out his adult life, and where our lines between imaginary literary character and autobiography again blur.  Much ink has been spilt over this question, beginning when Swann’s Way was first published and Proust vehemently denied that it was in any way auto-biographical.  D’accord, Marcel, and we’ll just pretend that we don’t see ourselves portrayed here as well.  Mais non.