A few weeks ago, to prepare myself for my solo book club, I read a biography of Marcel Proust — though not the Jean-Yves Tadié doorstopper that I mentioned in my first entry. Instead I read Benjamin Taylor’s Proust: The Search, a tightly focused biography concerned mainly with one question: how did Marcel Proust, of all writers, manage to author what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time? According to Taylor, it was not by any means preordained. No one in his circle, especially those who knew him in his youth, would have predicted it. His first published efforts were mediocre and forgettable. He lacked discipline, socialized too much, and couldn’t be bothered to show up for his part-time librarian job. He was also very sickly, an asthmatic who was easily exhausted by travel and parties — both of which he could not resist. Yet somehow, Taylor argues, “all this light-minded flitting around would turn out to be essential preparation.”
It took Proust about 13 years to write In Search of Lost Time, an extraordinary pace when you consider that he wrote seven volumes, none of them less than 400 pages and some close to 900. And it’s extraordinary considering the quality of his prose, and how interconnected the books are, with certain themes repeating and developing over the course of the novel, and a cast of characters changing over time, aging and evolving (or not evolving), just as real people do. Proust had the end of the novel in mind when he began, and a vague sense that he had found the structure — or, maybe, the moral sensibility — that could finally contain all the different modes of writing he wished to employ: description, analysis, dialogue, gossip, satire, and of course, his essays and insights about memory and consciousness. He was 38 years old and in poor health when he started writing. He knew he did not have any time left to waste. He believed — as it turned out, accurately — that he was writing on deadline. He died in 1922, shortly after completing his novel.
Reading Taylor’s biography, I kept thinking about the fact that I’m turning 38 this spring. This felt, at first, like a very egotistical thing to dwell upon, a secret hope that I might be on the cusp of writing a novel as grand as Proust’s. But, delusions aside, I think what really interests me about this parallel is that as a reader, I am the same distance from my childhood as Proust was from his when he began his book. Given Proust’s theme of memory lost and found, that similarity in perception has made the early pages of the novel feel very close to my current experience of memory and time.
Even those who have only a passing knowledge of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, will probably know that it begins with a long recollection of the narrator’s childhood trips to the country. This recollection is famously spurred by a happenstance bite of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. The narrator, Marcel, describes the memories as “involuntary”, and all the more beautiful because he did not even realize he had them; they were bidden by sensory experience, not intellectual recall.
When I first read Proust in college, I certainly knew what it was like to suddenly and surprisingly remember something after encountering a particular smell or taste. But at 21, my memories of childhood were so close that nothing really seemed forgotten. If the smell of someone’s shampoo unexpectedly brought back the pretty smile of a long-lost babysitter, I didn’t believe, as Proust did, that it was a stroke of luck to have remembered that girl, and that I might have forgotten her, entirely, if not for that whiff of Herbal Essences. Now, at 37, I understand how distant memories can become. Lately, I feel like I’m looking at my childhood from a slightly higher vantage point, so that I can finally see the topography. Certain events and people seem to have risen in importance while others have blended together. I was talking to a friend my age about this and she knew what I was talking about, reporting that just recently she seems to have forgotten parts of her teens and 20s. Does this happen to everyone, we wondered — was it some kind of subtle marker of impending middle age? Did it happen to Proust? Was forgetting what allowed him to write his marvelous book of remembrance?
As I write this, I am about three weeks into reading Swann’s Way. I’ve finished the first two sections of the volume, “Combray I” and “Combray II,” which detail the summer hours Marcel spent in the village of Combray as a child, staying at his aunt’s house. I’ve read these pages twice before, so they were familiar, and as always, I reveled in Proust’s overwhelmingly sensual descriptions of the French countryside. It made me wonder if I’ve gravitated toward these books in January because of how evocative they are of warm weather, long walks outdoors, flowers, and sunshine. The funny thing is that Marcel often avoids the outdoors and would prefer to stay inside with a book. As a result, he is just as lavish, if not more so, in his descriptions of domestic space:
The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully, because I had just arrived then at Combray: before I went in to wish my aunt good day I would be kept waiting a little time in the outer room, where the sun, a wintry sun still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, lighted already between its two brick sides and plastering the room and everything in it with the smell of soot, making the room like one of those great open hearths that one finds in the country, or one of the canopied mantelpieces in old castles under which one sits hoping that outside it is raining or snowing, hoping even for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of shelter and security to the comfort of a snug retreat…
This sentence goes on to describe the variety of smells in the room, and how they are intensified by the warmth and heat of the fire, baking together “like a pie.” It’s wonderfully childlike, and it brought me back to my grandparents’ houses in West Chester, Penn. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents lived in West Chester (my parents met in high school) but they retired and moved away when I was still in elementary school. Their houses, along with the houses of certain school friends, seemed preserved in a particular part of my memory, at once more specific and dreamlike than the houses and apartments I’ve come to know as an adult. It’s these dream houses — or at least, aspects of them — that I helplessly imagine when a novel prompts me to imagine a house, or when I’m creating a house for a character in a story.
My life is a lot more domestic than it was 10 years ago, when I last read these pages, and that’s probably the main reason I’ve been paying closer attention to descriptions of interior space. I’ve also been watching my son grow up, and it’s dawning on me that his earliest memories will be of the apartment and the neighborhood where we now live. I love our apartment and our neighborhood; they have been the location of many important life events, including my wedding reception. And yet, my experience of my apartment will never be foundational, and as I look around its rooms and out its windows, I’m not at all sure what my son will remember of it.
When I was his age, I lived in a small town in Maine in a gray house that was next door to a fire hall and across the street from the town common. If you were to ask my father about this house, he would probably tell you about the downtrodden state it was in when he and my mother bought it, and the work they did to renovate. He would recall certain quirky details: the phone booth, the clawfoot bathtub, the little library. He would also remember the inconveniences: the fire hall’s alarm that went off every day at noon; the driveway that needed to be shoveled out every time it snowed; the loads of wood that had to be chopped for the furnace.
But I don’t remember any of that. I might even be wrong about some of those details, because I’m simply transcribing what I’ve heard in conversation, as an adult. What I remember from childhood are the narrow back stairs that led from my playroom to the kitchen like a secret passageway; the view of the town common from my bedroom window, how it looked empty and dark at night, like a lake; the cracked, uneven sidewalk that led from our house to the end the block where a maple flamed fuchsia and red every fall; the painted wooden steps where I liked to arrange my tea set, and where bits of gray paint flecked off in my hands; my mother standing on the front porch to call me indoors at 11:57, so I wouldn’t be startled by the alarm; my father shoveling out a hole in snow drift, “a snow house” to contain me while he shoveled the drive…
My childhood memories are dear to me, and indelible. I can only guess what my son’s will be. I can hope for certain things that I consider beautiful to have made an impression: the yellow walls in his room; the wall quilts that my mother made; our framed, antique map of Maine; our tall bookshelves, and our neighborhood walks to Valentino Pier, the bakery, and the cruise ship terminal, where the Queen Mary 2 docks and disembarks every few weeks. I hope — and yet, for all I know, my son’s memories are devoted to the recycling bins, the television remotes, the broken slatted shades, the gum-spotted sidewalks, the dinners in the IKEA cafeteria. I have very little control over what he remembers, and if Proust is to be believed, neither does he — neither do any of us.