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

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Swann’s Way~Overture

Marcel Proust“For a long time I used to go to bed early.” This is the first line of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. It is the opening to Swann’s Way, the first volume, in the first section, which is called the Overture. Who is “I”? It is not Swann, who is but a character of the novel, albeit a major one. “I” refers to the person who is the “Narrator”, the first person of the novel, of whom we will come to know intimately, but who does not immediately (if ever) tell us his name. Is it Marcel Proust? Is In Search of Lost Time an autobiography? Proust, when speaking of his novel to people or writing of it in letters, would vehemently declare that it was not. And yet, the parallels are too great, the writing too personal, and the details too overlapping for it to be pure fiction. Proust will go on to write in that first paragraph of the Overture, while the Narrator is in a state of half-sleep: “…it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book…” As he comes more fully awake, he says: “…the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not…” I believe Proust is telling us here his relationship to the Narrator and the novel. He is the subject of the novel. Proust is the Narrator and the Narrator is Proust, but one is the conscious and one the unconscious, one the exterior and one the interior. The Narrator is Proust as he sees himself in dreams, or in a mirror, or as projected by a magic lantern. A translation, a reflection, a projection; much later in the novel, the Narrator/Proust will say: “…to write that essential book, a great writer does not need to invent it, since it already exists in each one of us, but merely to translate it. The duty and task of a writer are those of translator.”

So, to begin the translation: In the Overture, the Narrator is going to bed. But alas, his parents have company, Monsieur Swann, and because of this the Narrator may have to forgo his mother’s goodnight kiss. This is tragedy. One cannot imagine how tragic this is to our Narrator. And so he will tell us. At length. One of the publishers that Marcel Proust will approach with Swann’s Way will write, after reading the manuscript: “I may be as thick as two short planks, but I fail to understand why a chap should require thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” It is more than this, of course, as Proust says, “…a great deal of moral experience, thought and pain…” are in these thirty pages. But Proust surely must have understood that what he was writing here, and the way he was writing it, were not within any reader’s, or writer’s, experience at this time. Even as prolific a writer as Andre Gide will famously (or infamously) turn down Swann’s Way when Proust submits it to the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, for whom Gide works. Gide will go on to regret this for the rest of his life, but…that’s another story.

Back to our story. While the Narrator is tossing and turning in bed, and devising ways to make his mother come up to give him his kiss, we are introduced to Swann and to the Narrator’s family: his mother and father, his grandparents, his great-aunts and to the family servant who is like family, Francoise. We also learn something of the village, Combray, the house in which they live and its garden, the time period, the food and wine, the weather, the furniture…and we also, in the telling and the reading of these characters and their stage, come to realize one of the reasons why Marcel Proust will come to be held in such high regard as a writer. He is a master of detail; not trivial detail but detail that reveals the innermost being of the people, the place, even the material objects, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Even something as small as a madeleine.

Yes, the Overture ends with the famous madeleine scene. One of the best of Proust’s biographers, Jean-Yves Tadie, says that the “recurring theme of awakening is at the root of In Search of Lost Time“*. The Narrator has begun with his description of awakening from dreams, to actual awakenings in places like his childhood rooms, and will end with his awakenings to time and memories. How has Proust/the Narrator become such a master of detail, particularly of details of personality and place in his distant past? Is he just making it up? No, we are told how the Narrator is able to remember so much detail, and it has too much the ring of truth and substantiality behind it to be made up. “I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object…And so it is with our own past.” Proust/the Narrator has come to this belief through his discovery of a phenomenon he calls involuntary memory, which manifests itself to him through the taste of the madeleine in a spoonful of tea. This taste first brings to him a feeling of all-powerful joy, and the Narrator does not know why. He takes another taste, and another, and “…suddenly the memory revealed itself”. But this is no mere memory. This is something beyond voluntary recall, which is superficial and unreliable. It is as if one is actually transported to the place and the time from the past, and details that one could not have remembered through a conscious effort rise up spontaneously and in every sense: sight, smell, sound, feel. “…I felt {the memories} as if they were occurring simultaneously in the present moment and in some distant past…my apprehensiveness of death vanished at the moment I instinctively recognized the savor of the little madeleine, because at that moment the person within me was a timeless person…” Proust/the Narrator has had an epiphany, in which he is awakened to a way of existing outside of time, and consequently glimpses immortality.

Oh, one final note: the Narrator does get his goodnight kiss. As a matter of fact, he gets more than that, as his mother actually stays with him that night and they read a book together. So all ends well, tragedy is averted, grace is bestowed, but…tomorrow will come another night.

*Tadie, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust~A Life: Pub. 2000, pg. 608.

By Mari Mann, 2007