Cathedrals of Commerce

Swann’s Way, Combray, pgs. 52-72.

“Combray,” the second of four parts making up Swann’s Way, begins with a lyrical description of the small market town where the narrator, Marcel, spent many days of his childhood.  It is a fictional place, allegedly inspired by Illiers, a town in Northern France with a population of about 3,000.  (Following Lost Time’s publication, Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray in honor of the novel.)  As portrayed by Marcel, Combray’s somber air was dominated by a church that defined the life of the town:

Combray at a distance, from a twenty-mile radius, as we used to see it from the railway when we arrived there every year in Holy Week, was no more than a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon, and as one drew near, gathering close about its long, dark cloak, sheltering from the wind, on the open plain, as a shepherd gathers his sheep, the woolly grey backs of its flocking houses, which a fragment of its mediaeval ramparts enclosed, here and there, in an outline as scrupulously circular as that of a little town in a primitive painting. 

Marcel reintroduces us to Aunt Léonie (who we first met in the Overture), owner of the home where Marcel’s family used to stay in Combray.  After the death of her husband, Octave, Léonie sequestered herself in her bedroom, thereafter observing the town’s inhabitants from behind the glass of her bedroom window (drawing parallels to Proust’s own bedridden existence).

Combray is a place where everyone knows everyone else, and no one is more intimately familiar with its comings and goings than Léonie.  A conversation Marcel relates between Léonie and her servant, Françoise, regarding an unidentified canine illustrates the obsessive nosiness which defines her personality:

Everyone was so well known in Combray, animals as well as people, that if my aunt had happened to see a dog go by which she ‘didn’t know at all’ she would think about it incessantly, devoting to the solution of the incomprehensible problem all her inductive talent and her leisure hours.

As Léonie and Françoise gossiped, Marcel frequently accompanied his parents to mass at Combray’s church on Rue Saint-Hilaire.  Marcel lovingly details the church, its stone entryway, stained glass windows, and tapestries.  In Marcel’s eyes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts; the church has a life of its own:

. . . a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space — the name of the fourth being Time — which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother . . .

When I read these passages, my heart stirred.  I understand the meaning people give churches, homes, and other buildings.  They shelter our loved ones and the best of them dignify our lives through their strength and beauty.  They are stoic witnesses to our triumphs and tragedies and, when they are gone, the “reality” of memories made in their presence is shattered.

Marcel’s description concludes with the church’s steeple “ which shaped and crowned and consecrated every occupation, every hour of the day, every point of view in the town . . . Even when our errands lay in places behind the church, from which it could not be seen, the view seemed always to have been composed with reference to the steeple, which would stand up, now here, now there, among the houses, and was perhaps even more affecting when it appeared thus without the church.

As I read “Combray” on a crowded six train between Spring Street and 42nd Street last week, I thought back to my own childhood and the absence of religion in it.  I was never exposed to an organized spiritual construct by my parents, a fact which I remain grateful for.  Accordingly, I had no special affection for churches or cathedrals, never having dwelled in them for any significant period of time.  And so I wondered, given the emotion I felt reading Marcel’s description, what structures have inspired that same kind of reverence in me?

When I was about six years old, my grandparents (visiting from Northern California) gave me a wonderful gift, an illustrated children’s world atlas.  Inside the atlas were rudimentary descriptions of near and faraway places, accompanied by photographs of famous sites from each land.  Among these was a photo of the Lower Manhattan skyline, peaked by the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  I was awestruck by their power and can remember staring at that photo for hours at a time.  (My obsessive tendencies have deep roots.)

The twin towers of the World Trade Center (constructed between 1968 and 1971) were not loved by New York’s intelligentsia.  Their massive untapered forms cast long shadows across the city.  Their skin was a banal steel network on an inhuman scale.  Their wind-swept plaza (named after Austin J. Tobin, the Port Authority director and man most responsible for their construction) was bereft of people on all but the most beautiful weekdays.

As a six year old boy, I did not know or care what the eggheads in New York thought of those buildings.  In part, I think what attracted me to them is what repelled those more refined palates.  Their arrogance; they were above, literally and figuratively, the concerns of passersby beneath them.  Their size mocked the more human scale buildings at their feet.  They soared 110 stories into the sky, as wide (208 feet) at their crown as they were at their base.  It was only as I grew older that I became able to discern the hidden beauty in their design.

I took this photo in the Spring of 2001 while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The towers, which were off-set from each other (Tower One was northwest of Tower Two), performed a subtle dance as one walked by them.  Their facial expressions changed as the weather around them did: the tightly woven steel columns that gave them their strength (and which were their downfall) glowed as the rising and setting sun touched their cold skin and turned grey as clouds encircled them.  Gothic arches framed their entrances.   The columns of windows emanating from those arches widened at the 44th and 78th floor sky lobbies, creating a subtle banding on the towers’ exteriors.  (The windows at their tops, housing the Windows on the World restaurant in Tower One and the Top of the World Observatory in Tower Two, also widened to a similar effect.)  The sawed-off corners framed the towers’ skeletons and further reflected sunlight.

During my junior year in high school, our drama teacher organized a trip to New York City to take in some Broadway shows.  I was not, and still am not, a fan of Broadway shows.  However, desperate to visit the city of my dreams, I persuaded my parents to plunk down a deposit in spite of my trepidation at sitting through two hours of “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

Like the church in “Combray,” the World Trade Center was first to greet me as I glimpsed Manhattan from Newark Airport on that fateful trip in April of 1999.  They looked impossibly tall from across the Hudson River, each nearly twice as tall as the towers of the World Financial Center, which stood in front of the Trade Center and softened its impact on New York’s skyline.

I took this photo from a ferry on November 1, 2000.

Not surprisingly, our tour guide that week (a bald, fast walking, fast talking, and struggling actor) recommended we visit the Empire State Building’s observatory, rather than the World Trade Center’s, should we feel the need to get a bird’s eye view of the city.  (I can understand why.  The Empire State Building is a far more romantic expression of New York’s drive to build vertically.)

I quickly disregarded our guide’s advice, knowing that the outdoor platform on the roof of World Trade Center Two (the South Tower, the first to collapse on September 11, 2001) was 1,362 feet in the air (312 feet higher than Empire’s 86th floor observatory)  and, unlike the Empire State Building, offered unobstructed views in all directions.  So, a few days after arriving in New York, I traveled downtown by myself (none of my schoolmates were interested in joining me) to make my pilgrimage to those towers that had bewitched me more than a decade earlier.

Emerging from the subway station on Cortlandt and Church (which took over a year to reopen after September 11th), I gasped as I was confronted with the immensity of the towers.  It is hard to describe how imposing they were to someone who was never there.  Ten years after their demise, time has rendered their scale incomprehensible, because, until the recent rebirth of One World Trade Center, there was nothing comparable in New York or anywhere else in the United States.  (Though a bit taller than the World Trade Center, Chicago’s Sears Tower has no twin and thins substantially as it distances itself from the street.)

I took photographs as I walked the plaza, taking my time before I crossed the threshold beneath the archways into the lobby of Two World Trade Center.  Above what seemed like hundreds of national flags, I made my way past the TKTS booth, and purchased my ticket to the Top of the World.

The lobby of Two World Trade Center

Because of the bombing in February of 1993, security was tight at the World Trade Center.  (Fortunately, the line was not nearly as long as it likely was at the Empire State Building, another advantage unmentioned by my misguided chaperon.)  At the South Tower’s metal detectors, I enjoyed a brief conversation with an employee there.  Searching through my backpack for contraband, the young man saw my copy of the May 1999 issue of The Source, NaS on its cover, ironically, with the twin towers pictured out of focus to his immediate right.  We spoke briefly regarding NaS’ new album, I Am… (which had been released just two days earlier on Tuesday, April 6, 1999), and agreed it was superior to his previous effort, 1996’s It Was Written.  (An opinion I have since revised.)

The May 1999 issue of The Source that sparked my conversation with a World Trade Center employee.

I bade farewell to my fellow NaS fan and boarded the express elevator to the 107th floor.  (An enclosed observatory was always open in case the rooftop platform, 52 feet above, was closed because of inclement weather.)  I quickly stepped off the elevator and anxiously made my way to the windows.  Apart from air travel, I had never been so far above a city before.  Framed by the tight structure of the tower’s columns, I stepped down to the metal benches inches away from the windows, Vesey Street 1,300 feet below me.

As luck would have it, it was a beautiful spring day in New York: the outdoor deck was open.  I took the escalators up and out, marveling at the view of the beautiful city, my favorite city in the world.  I wished I could stay there forever: to the north, Tower One and the gleaming towers of Midtown (Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Citicorp Center); to the west, the Hudson River and New Jersey;  the fabled bridges of the East River (Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg); and lastly, the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island to the south.

Tower One to the left as I look out at New York's Midtown skyline from the roof of Tower Two in April 1999.

All things must come to an end.  After about thirty minutes, I descended to the plaza at the foot of the towers.  As I left the Trade Center, I knew it was an introduction I would not soon forget.  Little did I know how much I would soon come to treasure those and other moments I spent there.

Over the next two years, the Twin Towers would reappear to me in various guises, reminding me of the April afternoon I shared with them.  My father and I would return to the roof the following year as we visited local universities in advance of my high school graduation.  Shortly thereafter, at my senior prom, my first love and I were caricatured on top of the twin towers, both of us having decided to relocate there weeks earlier.  The last gift I gave her before we left for New York in September of 2000 was a framed print of the Twin Towers at night, reflected by the Hudson River.

The framed poster I gave my first love shortly before we moved to New York in September 2000.

As I moved into my dorm that September, I observed the towers from the window next to my desk.  (I took a number of photos of them using a primitive web cam, one of which is my current facebook profile photo.)  The first thing I did once I had settled was go shopping at the mall beneath the Trade Center with my new roommate, Sal.  (I still have a DVD of This Is Spinal Tap that I purchased from the Sam Goody beneath the Towers on a snowy day in the winter of 2000.)

In April of 2001, my parents came to see me (my mother’s first trip to New York in over twenty years), a welcome visit as I was presently grief-stricken at my love’s recent absence (two weeks before our breakup, she gave me a book about the World Trade Center for my birthday).  On a sunny day two years after my first introduction, I took my parents to the Krispy Kreme next to the Borders in Five World Trade Center on the northeast corner of the site.  (Krispy Kreme was all the rage at the time and had not yet reached the west coast.)  Outside the shop, in front of Fritz Koenig’s sculpture, The Sphere, my parents and I shared a doughnut or two and a pair of Lipton Iced Teas before returning to the roof.  There, my family and I enjoyed the serenity only possible a thousand feet above the honking cars and pounding jackhammers of New York’s streets .  I will never forget that moment, diminished by the Towers’ death, but powerful enough to survive that terrible day.

My dad and I enjoy Krispy Kreme donuts in front of the Sphere and the North Tower in Austin J. Tobin Plaza, April 2001.

Five months later (Labor Day weekend of 2001), my father helped me move to my new residence in Brooklyn Heights, just across the Hudson River from Downtown Manhattan.  After a hard day of carrying and unpacking boxes, we relaxed at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade lining the Long Island coast.  The Twin Towers stood tall in the background, anchoring the westside of Lower Manhattan.  I didn’t know it, but only eight days later, they would be reduced to a smoking pile of twisted steel, rubble, and dust.

I took this photo of my dad on September 3, 2001.

Following class on the afternoon of Monday, September 10, 2001, I walked along Park Row toward the Trade Center.  (Just two days earlier, I had taken my high school friend, Jenny, to the Towers’ Krispy Kreme for a spell.)  It was drizzling outside and, like a fool, I wore a white silk, short-sleeved, button-down shirt.  I was on my way to a date with a young woman I had met before I left New York for the summer.  As I walked toward the towers (I planned on taking the red line beneath the Trade Center to my date’s office southeast of Times Square), I had a casual conversation with my mother on my recently purchased Nokia mobile phone.

The World Trade Center, as it appeared from Park Row in the Fall of 2000.

As usual, I arrived at the Trade Center too early.  To kill time, I scanned coffee-table books at the Borders in Five World Trade.  After about fifteen minutes, I said goodbye to my mother and took the escalator down to the subway entrance.  That was the last time I visited the towers.

After dinner at a restaurant I can no longer remember, my date and I retired to the Promenade my dad and I enjoyed a week before.  The rain had stopped and we took in the twinkling lights of the city, speaking about God knows what until two a.m.

Exhausted, I retired to my room.  I did not have class until the following afternoon but intended to get up early so I could purchase Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (released on September 11, 2001) from the J&R Music World on Park Row, about a block and a half from the Trade Center.

Jay-Z's The Blueprint, like Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, will forever remind me of September 11th.

Because of the long night before, I awoke as my roommate, Jonathan, got ready for his mid-morning class.  A minute after leaving our room, Jonathan returned, informing me that all classes had been cancelled “due to the World Trade Center incident.”  He turned the television on, and our breath was instantly taken away.  On the screen was downtown Manhattan.  Only, where last night I had seen the twin towers of the Trade Center, now I saw a huge plume of black smoke, blanketing the city in paper, ash, and the remains of thousands.

It was the most horrific thing I had ever seen in my life.  It was unfathomable, and to some extent, it still is.  My limited vocabulary cannot describe the devastating impact that day had and continues to have on me.  After a few minutes in front of our television, Jonathan and I walked out to the Promenade to see the destruction with our own eyes.   It felt unreal.  I took a series of deep breaths and, after dozens of attempts, got through to my family in California, who had been worried about my safety.  (That I had spoken to her from the Trade Center the afternoon before must have disturbed my mother.)

September 13, 2001.

In the following weeks, New York became a different city: quiet, courteous, and sad.  More than once, I sat in a subway car, full but silent until, as we passed along the former site of the Trade Center, passengers cried as the train rocked softly from side to side.

I clearly remember the first time I returned downtown a few weeks after the collapse.  Jonathan, Jimmy (our suitemate our last two years in college), and I walked west on John Street toward Broadway.  From across that fabled street we could see the shattered bones of the Trade Center.  Television sets did no justice to the mangled steel before us.  I remember thinking how much larger the wreckage was in person.

I took this before they began prohibiting such photos. The wreckage was staggering.

For a long time thereafter, I could almost see the twins as I walked up Park Row toward Ground Zero.  My mind could not wrap itself around what had happened to the towers.   My current view was a false one.  It took me years to overcome the cognitive dissonance.

Now, on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the redesigned One World Trade Center rises a thousand feet above waterfalls that mark the footprints of the former twin towers.  (My parents, Lisa, and I will be visiting the memorial on October 14th.)  Over the past few days, I have returned to that place in time via documentaries, magazines, and books about the towers’ history and collapse.  It’s painful but it’s important to me.

The new One World Trade Center as the ten year anniversary approaches- September 3, 2011.

To my surprise, that day’s images (the planes crashing, the people jumping, and the towers collapsing) have lost none of their ability to render me speechless.  I still get the same sickening feeling deep in my stomach and can only take so much before I have to turn off the television or put down the book.

It’s not all bad though.  I have also returned to bittersweet moments of happier times in the towers’ presence; amongst loved ones on the roof of the South Tower, enjoying the beautiful city on a brisk April morning.  In spite of their tortured history, and all that they went through from their conception to their untimely violent death, I prefer to think of them as they were, looming unchallenged over New York harbor and inside my boyish mind.



La Vida es Sueño

Swann’s Way, Overture, pgs. 1 – 51

“For a long time I used to go to bed early.”  So begins Marcel Proust’s epic, In Search of Lost Time.  As discussed in my previous post, Proust spent a great deal of his life confined to a bed.  It therefore seems appropriate that I begin my discussion of Lost Time in similar fashion.

From about the age of three to the age of ten, I slept in an electric blue, wood-framed, race car-shaped bed with a white rear spoiler upon which my name was written in large, black, capital letters.[1]  (The car’s details, its wheels for example, were also rendered in a crude, matte black paint.)

Though I never dreamed of being a race car driver (to be quite honest, I am not particularly fond of cars), the bed was the setting of many precious childhood memories.  For this reason, in spite of being discarded and surely destroyed nearly twenty years ago, the car’s faded image continues to live dormant inside my mind, and likely my mind alone, until days when, for whatever reason, I voluntarily or involuntarily resurrect those moments in time through the power of memory.

At the beginning of this bed’s natural “life,” I suffered from an unfortunate but common phobia of children my age, Nyctophobia, or fear of the dark.  Armed with my trusty night-light, I ordinarily overcame whatever trolls or spiders may have lurked in the recesses of my bedroom.  On some nights, however, for reasons I can no longer recall, I felt it necessary to enlist the aid of a trusted and powerful ally, my father.

My father, sister Jennifer, and I.

On such nights my father would lie down on the carpet next to my bed, a large pillow or two carefully placed beneath his head.  There, he read the latest Time or National Geographic by the glow of my light.  Slowly but surely, I would drift off to sleep.  By the time I awoke the next morning, my dad was in his own car, driving to work, leaving no trace of his presence from the night before.  Precisely when he got up and left my room, I never knew, for he was always careful to ensure I was safely dreaming before he abandoned his post.

As I ponder these and other moments in my past, I often wonder what I am actually remembering.  Am I remembering the minutes or hours as I lived them so long ago?  Am I accessing the same memory I encoded on those evenings at my father’s side?  Or am I simply recalling prior times when I was able to access those initial memories, with each subsequent remembrance weaker and weaker until, ultimately, the moment passes into infinity.

As old memories wither, I find myself more dependent upon physical objects and media to bridge the gap between past and present.  For example, I once was able to clearly recall an afternoon about twenty-five years ago when my sister Jennifer pretended to be my dentist, perched over me as I lay on my bed, and gleefully poked the insides of my mouth.  Now, at twenty-nine years old, most of what I can retrieve is traceable to the four corners of a photograph my mother took of us as we played.

This transition from a direct recall to an indirect one, from the memory of a moment to the memory of a mechanical snapshot of a moment, reminds me of my mortality, the transient nature of things, and the inevitable decay of the human mind.  (I frequently ruminate on such unpleasantness.)  At the same time, it makes me happy because, through technology, I am able to return to a period of closeness between my sister and me, a moment that would otherwise have been irretrievably lost.  In essence, by writing you, dear reader, I am attempting to delay the decaying effects of time’s passage by recording these memories on this insignificant blog.

I wonder whether Proust had a similar intention when composing the Overture of In Search of Lost Time.  Comprised of fifty-one pages, Lost Time’s overture, like the overture of an opera or symphony, serves as an introduction to some of the more important themes of the novel.

The story begins with the narrator, Marcel, now a man of undetermined middle-age, reminiscing about the feeling of falling asleep:

I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood. Or I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.   

As you can see, Proust goes into great detail and digresses from anything that would be considered important in more traditional narratives.  “[D]igresses” isn’t really the right word in this instance, though.  These long, detailed descriptions of Marcel’s life and mind are what are important in this work.

By sharply focusing upon things that few authors care to depict, that all of us experience in our daily lives yet which hardly any deem important enough to discuss let alone record, Proust is showing us the true beauty and art in all of our lives.  His life was no more extraordinary than any one of ours.   If we would only recognize the splendor around us and try to capture it with a pen, brush, or camera, we too could be artists like Marcel.

Marcel then observes how, when he awakens from sleep, he does not immediately remember where he is.  In the darkness of his room, he travels abruptly through time and space without moving, to various places he has slept in over the years, until he comes to rest in the present.  Marcel describes this sensation with great angst, finally focusing upon one bed in particular, the bed he slept in as a boy at his Aunt Léonie’s home in Combray.

Illiers-Combray, France.

The narrator (Marcel) describes the room and bed in some detail, focusing upon the stairs leading to the room which his mother, candle in hand, would climb to reach him late at night.  Nearly every night at Combray, Marcel’s mother would come to his room to give him a goodnight kiss.  A sickly, anxious child, Marcel’s entire world revolved around this brief encounter:

My sole consolation when I went upstairs for the night was that Mamma would kiss me after I was in bed. But this good night lasted for so short a time: she went down again so soon that the moment in which I heard her climb the stairs, and then caught the sound of her garden dress of blue muslin, from which hung little tassels of plaited straw, rustling along the double-doored corridor, was for me a moment of the keenest sorrow.

As sad as Marcel was when his mother left, far more devastating was when she did not come at all.  This occurred most frequently when Charles Swann called upon the home in Combray for an evening of socializing, announcing his arrival by the sound of a distinctive bell at the back gate.

M. Swann (who is the subject of this volume’s title), the Jewish son a stock broker (wealthy, but not of noble blood) and friend of Marcel’s family, was a connoisseur and well-connected collector of fine art.  Despite his bourgeois background, Swann moved among the elite.  However, Swann married beneath his station and, for reasons not quite clear at this stage in the novel, always visited Marcel’s family without his wife, Odette.

After describing Swann and his frequent visits to the house at Combray, the narrator details one night in particular.  As M. Swann and Marcel’s family enjoyed casual conversation downstairs, Marcel began to panic with the knowledge that his mother would not bless him with her usual goodnight kiss.  In desperation, Marcel gave Françoise, his Aunt’s maid, a letter to deliver to his mother, imploring her to come upstairs.

Shortly thereafter, Françoise, having interrupted the gathering below against her better judgment, returned with Marcel’s mother’s reply, “no answer.”  Marcel became increasingly irritable, waiting for his mother to come upstairs to bed after Swann’s departure.  At evening’s end, Marcel pounced as his mother climbed the stairs to her quarters, daring her to disturb Marcel’s father with his antics (Marcel’s father being of the opinion that Marcel was far too old for a goodnight kiss from his mother).

Marcel’s scheme was quickly discovered as his father appeared from the dressing room:

Too late: my father was upon us. Instinctively I murmured, though no one heard me, “I am done for!”

Surprisingly, father, recognizing his son’s pain and not wanting to involve himself in the matter, told his wife to stay in Marcel’s room for the night.  (Marcel revels in this, his first triumph over his mother’s will.)  Begrudgingly, Marcel’s mother had Françoise prepare a bed and began to read François le Champi by George Sand (the story of an orphan boy in a rural foster home and his relationship with a miller’s wife) to Marcel as he wept softly in bed.

Following Marcel’s musings on the fading of this and other memories of Combray with the passage of time, the narration transitions to a much older Marcel, visiting his mother on a winter day.  Recognizing a chill in her son, Marcel’s mother offered him a cup of hot tea and a madeleine, a French pastry frequently eaten after being soaked in tea.


As Marcel ingested a spoonful of the tea (dotted with crumbs from the cake), he was filed with a powerful sensation he did not entirely understand:

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to pinpoint the feeling’s origin, Marcel recognized that the potion was losing strength with each dose.  He put down his spoon and rested before one more try at uncovering the source of the phenomenon:

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), 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. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

And so ends one of the most beautiful passages in literature.  If you, the reader of this blog, are still not interested in this wonderful work after reading the above passage, nothing I can say to you will likely convince you otherwise.  Still, I hope that you will continue to read my humble attempt to explore Lost Time and post any comments you may have regarding the novel itself or my commentary on same.

–          Michael

[1] I first learned to spell my name, to my mother’s delight, by repeatedly copying it from the bed’s spoiler on to a chalkboard until I had memorized it.

Lost Time and Me: A Brief History

Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu must be one of the best known and least read novels of the twentieth century.  It is a complex masterpiece unlike any other novel: an intimate epic on a grand scale, spanning decades, detailing hundreds of characters, yet minutely detailed, maddeningly verbose, and devoid of traditional plot structure.  (The novel consists of nearly 1.5 million words.)[i]  It challenges would-be readers with over three thousand pages of labyrinthine sentences, some of which are long enough to begin on one page, continue through a second, and end on a third.  For these and other reasons, like Joyce’s Ulysses, Temps Perdu is more often taught in wood paneled lecture halls than read on sun kissed beaches.

In Search of Lost Time

Published between 1913 and 1927, Temps Perdu (translated in English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) is made up of seven volumes that eschew narrative conventions:

1.      Swann’s Way, or The Way by Swann’s, which was published in 1913 and contains the novel’s most famous set piece, the madeleine scene in which the narrator, Marcel, travels back in time by ingesting a tea-soaked, shell-shaped, French cake;

2.      Within a Budding Groove, or In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919), which details Marcel’s love-crazed adolescence in Paris and on the Normandy coast;

 3.      The Guermantes Way (published in two parts in 1920 and 1921), which depicts Marcel’s ascent from the bourgeois world of Swann to the rarefied air of the French aristocracy;

4.      Sodom and Gomorrah, or Cities on the Plain (published in two volumes in 1921 and 1922), in which Marcel becomes entwined in, among other things, the homosexuality teeming beneath polite Parisian society;

5.      The Captive, or the Prisoner (1923), where Marcel’s jealous “love” of Albertine nearly drives him, and the reader, insane;

6.      The Fugitive (1925), where, following the death of Albertine, Marcel rediscovers a long-forgotten love; and

 7.      Time Regained, or The Past Recaptured (1927), in which Marcel uncovers the meaning of the involuntary memories he experiences throughout the novel, and finally fulfills his dream of becoming a writer.

One of the most prominent themes throughout the novel (as well as the one most interesting to me) is its depiction of time.  Time is unstoppable; it decays and then destroys anything and anyone subject to its rule.  The minute we are born, we begin to die.  All human existence is evanescent.  Once we have left this earth, our mark upon it becomes less and less substantial, until, once all who knew us have perished, we are wiped clean from the world’s collective memory.

Now this probably sounds very depressing, and it may be.  (I do not believe anyone ever accused Lost Time of being a cheery novel.)  However, what fascinates me is Marcel’s epiphany in Time Regained, the central thesis of the work.  To wit, that time itself can be vanquished through the creation of timeless art, the utilization of daily life to form personal artistic expressions of our individual experiences, dreams, and desires.  It is that realization at the end of Lost Time that enables Marcel to become the great author of the tome the reader has, essentially, just finished reading.

Capts. de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein contemplate a world without "the privilege of class" in Renoir's Grand Illusion.

Another theme explored throughout the novel is the clash between bourgeois society and the aristocracy, leading to the decline of the nobility as an arguably merit-based ruling class emerges from the ashes of the Great War.  (This theme is also examined in two of my favorite films by the great French director Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.)  One way Proust illustrates this struggle is through cultural touchstones, such as the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894.  I hope to learn more about this transitional period in French history as I read the novel.

Marcel Proust, as he looked at my age, 29 years old in 1900.

The characters and ideas in Lost Time spring largely from the life of its author, Marcel Proust.  (Many consider Lost Time to be more of a memoir than a novel.)  A sickly child, Proust later escaped his chrysalis of affliction to become a social butterfly, visiting, as a young man, the fashionable Paris salons of his day.  It was those experiences in high society that Proust liberally drew upon when writing Lost Time.

Although Proust wrote and translated other works during his lifetime, it is Lost Time for which he is remembered.  Begun in 1909 (four years after the devastating loss of his mother), Lost Time would consume the rest of Proust’s all too short life.  Writing at night inside of a cork-lined bedroom in his late Uncle’s apartment, Proust’s health worsened over the years he dedicated to completing Lost Time.  (In addition to being of generally ill health, Proust was also a notorious drug user (opiates, barbiturates, etc.), a fact which many have speculated led to the more hallucinatory memories depicted in the novel.)

Sadly, prior to completing the final three volumes of Lost Time, Proust succumbed to pneumonia in 1922 at the age of 51.  (Marcel’s brother, Robert, edited the remaining volumes.)

The first English translation of Lost Time was completed by C.K. Scott Moncrieff between 1922 and 1931.  (Mr. Moncrieff similarly died before completing his translation, leaving the last volume to be translated by others.)  Recently, Penguin Books published a number of new translations of the work, with each volume being translated by a different author.  For reasons of continuity, as well as critical reaction to the new translations, I will be reading the Moncrieff translation.

Now you may be asking yourself, “why would anyone want to invest the time necessary to read Lost Time?”  In short, a lot of reasons.

Firstly, the sheer challenge of it.  What initially sparked my interest in reading Lost Time was a chance encounter I had with it in a local bookstore when I was about 16 years old.  On the bookshelf of my local Borders (sadly, time has taken you as well), I saw an impossibly wide swath of books, each with a similar design and color.  It looked as if someone had mistakenly shelved an encyclopedia in the literature section.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was all one novel, separated into three separate books, each containing a number of individual volumes.  Asking my mother (who has a masters in literature) about the novel, I learned of its basic premise and of the infamous scene of the madeleine.

My first reaction to the novel was shock that someone had the audacity to not only write a novel of such length, but to believe that it was worth reading.  Foolishly, my mother indulged me by buying a copy of the first book, containing Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove.  (I still have the book 13 years later, and will be beginning this journey with it.)

As I began to read Swann’s Way at that young and innocent age, I quickly realized that I was in way over my head.  Although I was able to finish Swann’s Way some months later, and was capable of recognizing Proust’s genius, I did not have the intellectual depth or mental discipline to complete all 3,275 pages at that time.  Still, I made a mental note that finishing Lost Time was something I should do before I too fell into oblivion.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali.

Secondly, the extensive use of memories as a narrative device throughout the novel.  I pride myself on my memory, which is an extensive network of mental connections between people I have met, things I have seen, words I have read, dates of significance, etc.  For this reason, I have always been intrigued by how the human brain stores and recalls memories, a phenomenon that plays a prominent role in Lost Time.  In particular, involuntary memories (i.e., those sparked by external stimuli outside of a person’s control) help move Lost Time‘s story (if you can call it that) slowly, but deliberately, toward its climax in Time Regained.

How many of you have ever tasted, smelled, or heard something and by that sensation been inescapably drawn through time to a significant moment in your life?  I am sure that all of you have, whether you are able to recall the specific memory pulling on your conscious mind or not.  A song reminding you of a lost love; a perfume worn by a deceased family member; your favorite childhood meal.  Those senses and thoughts are the closest any of us are likely to get to traveling through time.  By reading Lost Time and writing this blog, I hope to go backward by moving forward through Proust’s prose, to where I am not sure.

For these and many other reasons, I look forward to reading Lost Time, and to sharing my thoughts on the novel and life itself with anyone interested in reading them.  Please feel free to post any comments you may have.

– Michael

[i] Alexander, Patrick.  Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to Remembrance of Things Past.  New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

A Journey of 3,275 Pages Begins With a Single Word

Unfortunately, that first word is still out of reach.  I am currently halfway through Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and will not allow myself to begin Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time until I finish it.

Shortly, in a future post, I will explore my motivation for reading Lost Time, how I came to learn of it, my prior attempts to conquer it, and what I hope to learn from this process.  Until then, below is a link to the most well-known scene from Lost Time, which also happens to be a brilliant depiction of involuntary memory.  Maybe reading it will convince you to join me.

The Cookie

– Michael