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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.