In which I start Edmund White’s delightful book on Proust and go for a late evening wander on a hot humid night.
A long busy day at work. I’m in Birmingham to speak at a conference tomorrow and then away for a long weekend, so the week’s work gets crammed into three working day. A sign of things to come, no doubt, as I must learn to work within a four day week.
I start Edmund White’s Proust at lunchtime. It’s a wonderful read: well-researched and observant, but written with a refreshing buoyancy and lightness of touch. There’s something perverse about White writing a very short book (Proust runs to 149 pages including a bibliography) about a man who wrote a very long novel.
White’s appreciation of his subject is evident, but he’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty: he forms opinions, takes sides and shakes up a few sacred cows. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already weighed in on Proust’s sheepishness over his Jewish heritage and the elements of anti-Semitism in his writing, made more complicated by his public support of Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer whose wrongful conviction for espionage became a national scandal in France. An enthusiastic Freudian, White has some fun with Proust’s obsessive and co-dependent Mummy-love, which became the template for his adult relationships: “[F]or Proust, Passion was a nagging need that become only more demanding the more it was denied. Indeed, Proust would drive away all his lovers (in his fiction as in his life) through his unreasonable demands.” It all sounds scarily familiar.
A gentleman caller is supposed to be paying a visit, but he cancels at the last minute. It’s still light out, and too warm to go to bed, so I take go for a walk across the Common. The sky is grey-blue but the sunset is trapped behind dense cloud cover so it’s quite humid. Most of the northern part of Common is covered with a makeshift arena constructed for the Stevie Wonder concert on the weekend. It’s still being dismantled, and I walk through the skeletonised remains of the fences. It’s completely deserted, and looks like a war zone. The grass has been completely worn away by thousands of revellers’ feet, and presumably won’t be replanted this summer. Much as I love Stevie Wonder (As is one of my all time favourite dance tracks), this feels like an unnecessary ravaging of a public space, all for a one-night gig.
As I walk down the south side of the Common, I pass a woman standing on the side of the road, screaming into her mobile phone at who I assume is her husband or boyfriend. As I carry on, I can still hear her voice carrying – with pipes like hers, she should audition for the Royal Opera House. There’s something transgressive about the noise she’s making. Londoners are usually so inhibited in public space, unless they’re drunk, which provides them with the Dutch courage required to lose their inhibitions. The woman’s argument feels performative. She wants to be seen, and wants her pain to be witnessed.
When I get home, I have a chat with Patrick, who has been consumed with Big Gay Chorus concerts. He admires the Proust blog but comments that all my advance reading is “displacement activity” for the real job of reading Proust. He has a point. My take on it is that I’m clearing a blockage – setting out my prior assumptions and prejudices about the great man so that I can come to the text relatively fresh. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. The first meeting of the book group is in a fortnight, and there’s a lot of reading to do.
I like that Patrick doesn’t hold back when it comes to criticism – extraordinary given how politely English he is in many other ways. According to de Botton and White, Proust was so fond of giving excessive compliments to friends that his friends coined a new verb “Proustify” to describe excessive and suspiciously insincere sounding praise. As charming as it would be to have those kinds of friends, I’m not sure how long it would last before I started to watch my back for an Ides of March-style knife in the back.