In Search of Proust

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.

Robert and Marcel Proust

Robert and Marcel Proust

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.

Proust's bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris

Proust’s bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris

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”.

Advertisements

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