“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings, when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea…And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in the decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and with the house the town….the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine…the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
I’ll be running this giveaway for one week, from December 2nd to December 9th, 2014. The giveaway is for one signed copy of Stories from the Other World. To enter to win, leave a comment here, or on Facebook. Bonne chance!
(Update: The giveaway is over, and the winner is…Ann Sutton! Thank you to all who entered and for all your support.)
Just in time for the Day of the Dead, my new book of short stories is out and ready to take you on a short trip to the Other World.
“Beyond” the rainbow is a world we are all familiar with in our Technicolor dreams. But when a little girl arrives on a flat, gray farm carrying tales of that place, the consequences are not quite as we dreamed them. “Carry Me Home” is set in a summer camp where carefree kids happily spend their days canoeing, swimming and riding horses. Matt Harper, age nine and at the camp against his wishes, is not one of those kids. On a horse for the first time, Matt is in for the ride of his life. “The Wheel of Fortune” finds a group of women on an idyllic island on the night of a full moon, gathered together to play bridge and gamble the night away. Amanda Arrington basks in her success in bringing them all there, until a man in winged shoes arrives to offer them the final bet. “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” begins in the familiar world of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” but, just as Scrooge begins to live his new life, Jacob Marley and the Spirits return from that other world…this time for Tiny Tim.
Read an excerpt from “Carry Me Home” here.
Perhaps Proust got the idea that his one self was actually many selves because of the name his parents gave him: Marcel-Valentin-Louis-Eugene-Georges Proust. He was born on July 10th, 1871, in Auteuil, France, just outside of Paris and will live all of his life in Paris, with occasional vacations by the sea, until his death in 1922. His father (Adrien) was a doctor and his mother (Jeanne) was from a wealthy family, so Marcel will grow up knowing he’ll never have to really earn a sou. A brother, Robert, is born two years after Marcel and will become a doctor like their father, get married, have children and live a “normal” life.
Marcel will never have a paying job, his serious relationships are with men, and he’ll spend most of the early years of his life as a social-climbing, party-going dilettante who occasionally writes fluffy pieces about parties or plays or concerts for local papers. This worries his parents, particularly his father, who pushes him to get a “real” job (Marcel will get a job, for one year, but it doesn’t actually pay anything which works out well because Marcel, through repeated requests for leave, will never actually work) while at the same time his mother, feeling guilty that it’s her fault that Marcel was such a sickly child, coddles him and encourages his “dream” of becoming a writer. Marcel will eventually begin to sleep for most of the day and write at night, having had the walls of his bedroom lined with cork to keep out light and noise, as well as dust and pollen and anything else that might aggravate his asthma.
His health is also used by Marcel as an excuse when he begins to withdraw from the society life he’d worked so hard to enter. It is true that his illness did force him to make choices in his life that might seem odd, but it’s hard to say how much his illness really forced these choices, or if he just used the excuse of his ill health to live the way he wanted to live without having people (parents included) be too critical of him. Illness may be the excuse he used to those who might be critical, but Marcel reveals the truth behind the excuse to his housekeeper, Celeste Albaret. The reversal of night and day, the soundproofed room, the retreat into seclusion, are, in a way, Marcel’s 19th century version of the 20th century’s sensory deprivation tank, all done in service to the writing of the novel. Celeste says: “Now I realize M. Proust’s whole object, his whole great sacrifice for his work, was to set himself outside of time in order to rediscover it. When there is no more time, there is silence. He needed that silence in order to hear only the voices he wanted to hear, the voices that are in his books”.
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.
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.
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 Time, it 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.
The Day of the Dead. The time when the veil between the worlds grows thin, and communication is possible between lost loved ones. And, sometimes, those that are not so loved can pierce the veil. Look. There’s a signpost up ahead. You are now entering….the other world.
Wheel of Fortune
(excerpt from Parisian by Heart)
It was dark at the bottom of the stairs and much colder than upstairs. Becky shivered, then turned towards Amanda and said, “I didn’t much care for you ordering me to stay upstairs, I’m not someone who exists to do your bidding, like Suzy or your husband…” She broke off. Amanda was staring past her into the dark shadows of the room. Becky turned to look and as her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, she saw that one of the doors leading off from the vestibule was open and a man was standing there. Behind him there was a faint silvery glow, as if the moonlight had somehow come into the room, although there were no windows for it to enter through. Amanda spoke first. “Who are you? Are you Suzy’s husband? I’m Amanda and this is Becky; I’m glad you’re here, there’s something wrong with the heat in this house and if you wouldn’t mind looking into it…”
“I would mind, Amanda”. Now it was Amanda’s turn to shiver, a real shiver this time but not from the cold. The man’s voice was soft and deep, and would have been appealing if it hadn’t been accompanied by a strange hissing noise that seemed to come from the man’s throat, as if he had to turn on some kind of valve just to be able to speak. Becky was reminded of when Jackie had had her accident and had to be given a tracheotomy; this was how she had sounded then.
“Then who…” The man held up his hand to stop Becky from speaking, and as he held it up the light that was in the room behind him seemed to flow into the room they were in, like water vapor, pooling on the floor and making the room, and them, look as if they were under water.
“My name is Samael, I do not ‘look into’ heaters. I am a psychopomp.”
“Oh my God, he’s a psychopath,” Amanda said. Becky looked at her with the same sort of pitying look that Amanda had given Cindy earlier.
“He said psychopomp, not psychopath, and I don’t think even if he was a psychopath that he would announce it like that. Look, Mr. Samuel, whoever you are, if you’re not here to fix the heater, then what are you here for? And let me warn you, if you are here to rob us or whatever, our husbands are powerful men with plenty of money, and you are asking for more trouble than you would know how to handle if you dare to harm us.”
Samael smiled and the temperature in the room dropped another five degrees. “I have every intention of telling you why I am here, and will do so as soon as you shut up.”
Amanda gasped. Becky narrowed her eyes. She was not accustomed to being spoken to in this way, and now here within ten minutes Amanda had given her an order and now this man, this psycho-whatever, was telling her to shut up. It was too much. And on top of those insults, the man was dressed like one of the munchkins from the movie The Wizard of Oz, the coroner that comes up to Dorothy and Glinda, the Good Witch and reads from a long scrolled document that certifies the Witch of the East’s death. His hat was black and broad-brimmed, and had what looked like feathers attached to the sides. His coat was also black and came down below his knees, under which it looked like he had on red hose or tights and then sandals like Romans used to wear, or like people would wear in the movies who were supposed to be Romans. The sandals also seemed to have feathers on them, or maybe wings. Well, Becky wasn’t going to put up with being told to shut up by anyone, much less someone who was wearing wings on his shoes. She turned to go back up the stairs, but stopped when Samael spoke.
“I have not said that you could leave. But because I need you to bring all the other ladies down here, I give you leave.” Becky started to turn back towards Samael, opening her mouth to really let this guy have it- and then the pain hit her in the small of her back. It felt like an icicle had penetrated her skin and lodged itself next to her spine. Becky screamed as the pain brought her to her knees. She grabbed the hand rail of the stairs as she fell and tried to pull herself up the steps but she couldn’t- she was paralyzed.
Upstairs, the rest of the group heard Becky scream and fell silent. Slowly, Cindy stood up and walked to the top of the stairs and looked down. At the bottom she could just see Becky lying in a weird sort of back bend pose, her arms behind her back and her face in a tortured twist, with her eyes shut tight and her lips pulled back, baring her teeth.
“Girls”, Cindy shouted, “something’s happened to Becky!” She ran down the stairs, followed by all the others except Jackie. Jackie, still complaining of the heat and her oncoming migraine, had gone to her bedroom to lie down. One by one they arrived in the room at the bottom of the stairs and stood staring at Samael and at Amanda, who was repeating over and over, “Just do as he says. Just do as he says.”
“That’s good advice, ladies.” They all flinched as Samael spoke. “I see that we are missing one of the group. That is fine; we will speak of her later. I have already introduced myself to these two fine ladies here,” he pointed at Amanda and then to Becky. As he spoke Becky’s name her eyes opened and she found herself able to move again, slowly and with much pain, but she stood now with the rest of them.
“My name is Samael; I am a psychopomp, one who conducts souls to the afterworld, and a bringer of dreams and nightmares. Let me assure you, however, that none of you are going to the afterlife today, neither are you dreaming. As you are all such special ladies, and as you all have gathered together willingly on a full moon, and since you all enjoy gambling so much, a very unusual choice is to be offered to you, a choice that is not usually required of one until after they are dead. Are any of you familiar with the Wheel of Fortune?”
“A…a game show?” Cindy asked, her voice shaking from fear and cold.
“Good answer,” Samael hissed, “but wrong, at least in the sense that I am asking. No, my dears, the Wheel I am referring to is the one that all mortals are on, referred to by one such as ‘doing unto others’ and by another as ‘karma’. N’est-ce pas, Odette?” Odette looked blank. Samael smiled and hissed.
“As I said, you are all special ladies and have enjoyed having all you could wish for- money, position, power. You all have fine clothes, expensive jewelry and richly furnished houses, you’ve traveled all over the world to luxury destinations, had plastic surgery to retain your youthful looks- all to benefit yourselves. Now I ask you, what have you done with your wealth and power and social positions to benefit others?” He looked into each one of their faces.
Finally Amanda spoke in a halting voice, her teeth chattering, “We give charity balls, serve on boards of institutions that help the poor, donate money to organizations…”
His eyes on her as she spoke froze her words in her mouth. “Be truthful, my dear, now as you never have before in your life, be truthful. You all know as well as I that those balls and boards and organizations bring you, and your husbands, more benefit than they do those that they claim to help. You use them as places to meet more people like yourselves, to ‘network’, as they say, and thereby increase your contacts and social connections, and uncover possible clients in order to raise more wealth for yourselves. Is this not true?”
Caroline spoke up. “Well, yes, that’s true, but the money we raise and the organizations we support do help those who need it.” Samael sneered.
“Don’t you mean ‘those people’? Isn’t that how you refer to them? What have you personally done for them? Do you even know any of ‘them’?” No one spoke. Samael looked down at his winged shoes, seeming to admire them. “I’ll wait while you think.” Now they all looked at their shoes.
Cindy said, a question in her voice, “Suzy?”
Amanda’s head jerked up. “Yes, Suzy, and that woman who cleans my house, Constanza, and the man who takes care of the yard, um, Jim…”
“Enough,” Samael said, “you know how you really feel about ‘those people’, you talked enough about your true feelings for them just tonight, and many other times as well. You have done nothing to turn the Wheel, even just a little, to right the imbalance of your lives. Because you have been given so much and done so little, you would, in the usual scheme of things, be required to pay off your karma in your next life. Odette, is this not so?” Odette, who had been trying to stay unnoticed in the background, started. Samael laughed. It was not a pleasant sound.
“Your friend Odette, my ladies, has been thinking that none of what I have been saying applies to her, because she knows, as you do not, that she herself was, until only recently, one of ‘those people’. Were you not, Odette?” Odette nodded, her eyes flicking from him to the ladies. “But Odette, my dear, despite what your ‘guru’ has been telling you, your ‘crime’, shall we say, is even worse than that of your friends here, because you know what it is like to be looked down upon for being poor, for not being in the same social class as these women. They, on the other hand, were born into this rarefied atmosphere where they reside, and have not had to see the world from any other position, say, from the downside, if you will.”
He leaned over towards Amanda and hissed in her ear, “Would you like to see the downside of the Wheel?”
“No,” she whispered, “no…” Tears slid down her oiled face and dripped to the floor.
“Tant pis,” Samael hissed, and looked at Odette.
“Can you tell them what that means?” Odette shook her head. He looked at Cindy.
“It’s French” she said, “it means, Too bad.”
“Tres bien, ma cherie,” Samael said. “I almost feel as if you should not be here, you had started down a path that would eventually have led you to parting ways with these women, but unfortunately, you had only put one foot on that path, and did not have the strength of mind and purpose yet to say no to being here. Thus you align yourself with them still. It is indeed, tant pis for you.” He turned back to the group. “Now, ladies,” he said, clapping his hands in imitation of Amanda calling her ladies to order, “Tonight’s entertainment!” He drew a small machine out from under his coat and a small table to place it on. “You will forgive my aversion to newer technology; I have a fondness for old things. This is a Magic Lantern. It is similar to a slide projector and will show you how your lives will be once the Wheel of Fortune has turned and you will experience the karmic balancing of the choices you have made so far in life. Then there will be one more choice to be made.”
As he spoke the light in the room flowed out like liquid silver under the adjoining doors. The Magic Lantern began to glow and on the blank white wall in front of it, scenes began to slide by. At first the women thought they were just seeing scenes of life lived by people who didn’t have money, who worked long hours at one or two or even three jobs just to get enough money to buy food, have a roof over their heads, to survive. That wasn’t so bad, they’d seen things like this on TV before, right before turning the channel to something less offensive. But then they each began to see that the people in these scenes were themselves, their husbands, their children and grandchildren…all the members of their families, their friends and their social equals, all living now in extreme poverty and want. Amanda saw herself changing sheets and cleaning bathrooms in a hotel, she even recognized the hotel as one she’d stayed in, it was in New York City. She saw herself leave the hotel after her day of work, exhausted, and go to a one-room cold-water flat in a section of the city she’d never seen before, and never wanted to see. Her grandchildren were there, thin and sickly-looking and were crying with hunger, pulling at her clothes in desperation. They all saw similar scenes and feelings of panic and fear rose in their breasts. Samael’s smile grew wider and he began to chuckle, if the noise he began making can be described in such a benign manner. The Magic Lantern’s glow went out and the silver liquid light began to flow back in.
“Ladies, ladies, pull yourselves together. Time to place your bets, and make your choice.”
“What choice?,” Mary asked. “Didn’t you say that we would have be required to balance the Wheel by having to live like that in a next life?” She pointed to the now blank wall.
“I said that in the usual scheme of things you would be, but I also said that because of the unusual circumstances you have placed yourselves in, here at this house on this full moon, you are going to be allowed to pay your karmic debt off in this lifetime, here and now. What do you think of that?”
“You mean really live like that?”
“I can’t live like that!” Their voices rose all together, panic stricken, scared, disbelieving.
“Wait,” Cindy’s spoke louder than she had all night, “Wait, quiet down, everyone, please.” She waited until she’d gotten their attention, then turned to look at Samael. “You said we had a choice. What is it?” Samael smiled and nodded his head.
“The choice is, you can all agree to pay it off now, in another way.” He stopped but no one spoke. “I said earlier that I was a conductor of souls. The member of your group who is not among you now was slated to journey with me on the day of her accident. Through some deal her husband made with my, shall we say, superior, she has remained on this plane far longer than her time. I complained of this to my superior. In addition, the imbalance in the Wheel caused by you all had come to the attention of others in higher positions than even my superior. They worked out their own deal, and you ladies were included. Your part is simple and easy. Give Jackie to me to take with me now, and you will be allowed to retain your wealth, positions and power.” Samael was not smiling now.
“How?” Amanda asked, looking at the others, daring them to contradict her.
“That’s my girl,” Samael said, chuckling and hissing again. “All you have to do is to agree, all of you, to let me have her. I will take care of the rest.”
“No,” Cindy’s voice was even stronger now. “We will not. It’s out of the question, isn’t it, ladies.”
“Of course it is,” Mary said. “Right, ladies?”
No one answered them. Cindy looked at Becky. “Becky, you can’t agree to this, Jackie’s been your friend for years. Would you hand her over to this man?” Becky shifted her eyes from Samael to Cindy and then down to the floor.
“I can’t live like that and I’m not going to make my family live like that. You heard him, she’s already had more time than she should.”
“I agree,” said Amanda. “I’m not giving up everything I have to go live in some dump and be poor, all for some whining cripple. Plus,” she added, tilting her head up as if she had the winning hand, “I’ve heard her say many times how much she is in pain. We’d be doing her a favor.” Caroline, Sandra and Odette nodded in agreement. “Good, then that’s it. Let’s get this over with.” Amanda’s voice was triumphant. Samael shook his head.
“No, my dear, I’m afraid all of you have to agree, and these two ladies are not with you.” He looked at Cindy and Mary.
Amanda spoke quickly. “What? Them? They certainly will do as we say, they always do.” She looked at Mary and Cindy. “And if they don’t do as we say, they might as well consider themselves on the same level as ‘those people’, because we’ll make sure that they will never be part of our social circle again, they’ll be snubbed and cut dead, and that will be the end of them, financially and socially.” Mary looked at Amanda in shock.
“You would do that to me? We’ve been friends since we were teenagers. We’re like family.”
Amanda snorted. “Even if you were an actual member of my family, I would do it. This is survival. If you were my own mother, I’d do it. And so would everyone else here.” She looked at Cindy. “If they had the power, that is.”
Mary hung her head and said, “I can’t go against what the others want. She’s right, I have always done what I needed to do to be a part of this circle and I’m not going to make myself outcast now, I don’t even know Jackie that well and what I do know of her, well, it’s not enough to make me want to sacrifice myself and my family for her.” She raised her head and looked at Samael. “I agree. You can have her.” Now all of their eyes were on Cindy. Becky spoke, the hiss in her voice nearly as prevalent as Samael’s now.
“She will go along with us. Won’t you, Cindy?” Cindy looked at her but said nothing.
“I must have total agreement, ladies, or no deal.” Samael’s voice and the expression on his face gave every impression of his complete enjoyment of the situation.
“She agrees! I speak for her! She’s always followed me, copied my every move, had to have everything I had first. She will do what I do, and I say take Jackie and leave us as we were! I speak for Cindy.” Becky was breathing heavily; it seemed she could hardly get enough air into her lungs to speak the words. Samael shook his head.
“I am sorry, but she must say the words herself.” He didn’t sound sorry, he sounded as if he were having a hard time keeping himself from laughing in glee. Cindy opened her mouth but no words came out. She felt dizzy and tried to take a deep breath but there didn’t seem to be any air in the room. She closed her eyes and forced herself to try to speak: “I…I…”
“Yes?” Samael’s terrible hiss filled her ears. Suddenly the silver light rushed out of the room as if someone had opened up a dam’s floodgates, and the darkness flowed in and became total.
Today, July 10, 2013, is the anniversary of Marcel Proust’s birthday; he would have been 142 years old, had he managed to hang on for this long. Not that he probably would have wanted to; in ill health since childhood, in pain and and frequently unable to breathe to the point where he thought he would suffocate to death, when he wrote the ending to his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, he told his companion Celeste, “Now I can die”. He was only 51 when he died in 1922, but today, we will celebrate his birth and his life. Bon Anniversaire, Marcel.
Marcel Proust, the greatest novelist of the 20th century, was as great a reader. He read, among many others, Balzac, Ruskin, Baudelaire, Shakespeare…and his French counterpart and alter-ego, Colette. He said that reading was “…that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” Anyone who has ever lost themselves in a book, letting pots boil over and the madeleines in the oven burn while they wander the halls of Tara or the hills and hollows of Middle Earth, only coming back to the “real” world dragged by the smell of smoke or the sirens of the fire engine, will nod their heads in agreement with Marcel. A good book speaks directly to our souls, bypassing our ears, and we listen with every part and fiber of our selves, the madeleines be damned.
Parisian by Heart, my first novel, was written out of my love for Marcel and the work of his life. To honor Marcel, who features prominently in my novel, on his birthday, I have two signed copies of Parisian by Heart to give away. Just leave a comment here on this post, or like this Facebook page. The giveaway will end at midnight on July 12, 2013.
“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” Marcel Proust
May those fully-lived days of your childhood continue throughout your life.