“…and I took in the scene from a porch,
a tableau of silo and weathervane
and a crowd of ferns on the edge of the woods–
nothing worth writing about really,
but it is too late to stop now
that the ferns and the silo have been mentioned.” – Billy Collins, Vermont, Early November
It’s a bit strange talking about a novel I haven’t finished. Usually when you’re writing about a book, it is to say, “This is what the book is about. This is why you should, or shouldn’t read it.” I can’t really do that, because I’m still only at the very beginning of In Search of Lost Time. (If you want a summary of the book, you might check out Monty Python’s All-England Summarize Proust Competition here.) So I can only tell you about the experience of reading the book, and what I discover along the way. Too bad you’re not reading it with me, because conversations are more fun when they’re a dialogue, not a lecture. That’s why people join book clubs. That and the wine.
What I’ve discovered this week is that one reading won’t be enough. If it is as much as most people can do to read In Search of Lost Time once, how about if I suggest to you that to truly get the most from it you should probably read it at least twice? You might want to rethink that second martini, and go for a run instead – a real appreciation of Proust is going to take longer than you thought; you’ll need to stay fit.
One of the reasons I want to reread parts of the book already, is that it’s so richly detailed, I get caught up in the beauty of the digressions and lose the thread of the plot and characters. Because it’s not like there isn’t a plot. It’s just that it develops slowly, and while the narrator is telling you about the people and events, he wanders off in whatever direction his associative thinking takes him. “Submissive to everything, open, listening…In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his rules for writing. (Also, “Like Proust be an old teahead of time.”) And that is what Proust does. Every object, person, and place is worthy of his mindful attention. Like one of my other favourite writers, Billy Collins, he’s a poet of the ordinary.
And so, the description of the church in Combray, Saint-Hilaire, is over ten pages long. The church is not grand, not a cathedral. The narrator describes the apse as, “crude, so devoid of artistic beauty, even of religious feeling.” Yet it is “homely and familiar”, so loved.
Objects become sacred through the transformative passion of our inner life. The smooth surface of a beige wall washed pink, and striated with blue shadows from the evening sunlight on the last day of winter, glows like the translucent petals of the spring flowers, pink and blue, which grew in a garden I once loved. A church spire glimpsed on a busy street resembles the steeple of a church long forgotten, in a little village in France.
“And so even today, if, in a large provincial town, or in a quarter of Paris which I do not know very well, a passer-by who is “putting me on the right road” shows me in the distance, as a point to aim at, some hospital belfry or convent steeple lifting the peak of its ecclesiastical cap at the corner of the street which I am to take, my memory need only find in it some dim resemblance to that dear and vanished outline, and the passer-by, should he turn round to make sure that I have not gone astray, may be amazed to see me still standing there, oblivious of the walk that I had planned to take or the place where I was obliged to call, gazing at the steeple for hours on end, motionless, trying to remember, feeling deep within myself a tract of soil reclaimed from the waters of Lethe slowly drying until the buildings rise on it again; and then no doubt, and then more anxiously than when, just now, I asked him to direct me, I seek my way again, I turn a corner…but…the goal is in my heart…”