First Impressions

In which I take the plunge and read the first few pages of The Way By Swann’s, Book 1 of In Search of Lost Time.  

TheWayBySwanns

Right. It’s time to begin. My friend Patrick’s words about all my background reading being a displacement strategy are starting to burn a hole in the back of my head. It’s time to put down the de Botton and the White and start this properly.

I read the first seven or eight pages of The Way By Swann’s in the armchair in the bay window of my room, looking out onto St Ives Harbour at sunrise, the Godrevy Lighthouse a vivid tower of white in the far distance.

“For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try and sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections have taken a rather peculiar turn; it seems to me that I myself was what the book was talking about….”

I immediately exhale, and prompt myself to slow down. These are long, luxuriant sentences, describing what poet Michael Roberts once called “the long unhurried diligence of childhood”, and there’s no need for me to rush, especially here.

I always pay particular attention to the opening pages of novels. As every new book is an uncharted country, the first few pages are critical to help us orient ourselves to our new surroundings. We search like detectives for clues: Where are we? What is happening? Who is speaking? And where am I, the reader, placed within all of this?

Walter Ong, the American academic, wrote a wonderful essay in the mid-1970s, The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction, about the way in which writers “fictionalise” their readers, assigning them (that is, us) a place in the order of things. “A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him”, Ong writes, explaining that readers of fiction “have had to learn this game of literacy, how to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read, or at least how to operate in terms of those projections.” The rules of the game are seldom explicit – fiction writers seldom address their readers directly – and so the reader’s work takes place instantly, often sub-consciously, by picking up “implicit signals” in the text.

Ong recalls the opening sentences of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway, who Ong calls “a specialist in unpublished directives for readers”, uses the definite article (“the”) to cast the reader in the role he wants them to play:

“The late summer of that year,” the reader begins. What year? The reader gathers that there is no need to say. “Across the river.” What river? The reader apparently is supposed to know. “And the plain.” What plain? “The plain” – remember? “To the mountains.” What mountains? Do I have to tell you? Of course not. The mountains – those mountains we know. We have somehow been there together. Who? You, my reader, and I? The reader – every reader – is being cast in the role of a close companion of the writer…. He [the reader] is a companion-in-arms, somewhat later become a confidant. It is a flattering role. Hemingway readers are encouraged to cultivate high self-esteem.

Proust adopts the same air of cosy familiarity, as he describes the frustration and disorientation of being unable to sleep. Ong writes of Hemingway that “[h]e can tell you what was going on inside him and count on sympathy, for you were there. You know.” The same is true, I think, of Proust. We’re immediately his intimate companions, to whom he’s relating his experiences. Perhaps he’s slouching louchely in the empty armchair next to the one I sit in now, whispering  his story in my ear.

I’m immediately struck by the vividness and colour of the Narrator’s sense-world: waking in the night, he is “amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark.” In three lines, he’s managed to summon the senses of touch (“soft”) as well as sight. He’s also alluded to his agitated emotional state on waking, and being comforted by the “soft and restful darkness”, to which he ascribes a mysterious kind of persona – both “a thing” and yet something greater than that, beyond his limited understanding. We’re not yet aware of who the Narrator is, but already we’ve learned something about his extraordinary sensitivity to the physical world.

In his next breath, the Narrator hears “the whistling of the trains” (What trains? The trains. The narrator lives near a train station?) which send him into a random strand of his imagination:

“…remote or near by, [they]… described to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveller hastens towards the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to new places, to unaccustomed activities, to the recent conversation and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.”

This is an extraordinary beautiful piece of writing, and feels weightless, but  in fact achieves a number of things in a single, subtle moment. We infer that the Narrator has been a traveller, and has experienced the “excitement” of “new places and unaccustomed activities”. Given that we know he is in bed and unable to sleep, the image gives us a clue into his current state of mind. Perhaps he wants to be a traveller again, out of his bed and in the world. Perhaps he sees sleep as a journey which he wishes to enter again with the confidence of this imaginary traveller. Perhaps he doesn’t identify with the traveller at all, and is distracted by the reminder of journeys and noise and the world outside, a state of energy at odds with the desire to sleep. His final reference to “the imminent sweetness of his return” peals like a bell – for this traveller, or for the Narrator, perhaps the pleasure of travel comes chiefly from the return to the familiar, just as falling asleep returns us to a pleasurable state that we are always trying to get to.

We read on, noting the Narrator’s use of the past tense – “I would go back to sleep”, reporting an experience that is long past but seems to have happened frequently enough to be noteworthy. The Narrator appears to have an extraordinarily vivid recall of his dreams. While sleeping, he is “effortlessly returned to a for ever vanished period of my early life”. Later, he has a quasi-erotic dream of a woman who “was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh” and to whom he wishes to devote himself to finding again.

He seems to understand instinctively the way in which sleep and dreams destabilise us, playing as they do on the outskirts of our consciousness:

“… when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not even know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; all I had, in its original simplicity, was the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more bereft than a caveman…”

It’s a strangely revealing insight into a person (we assume, a man) who we as yet know nothing about. We don’t know who he is, and he reports that, when waking from sleep, his identity and orientation are equally as befuddled as we are. If all new books are like waking from a dream, perhaps this is the Narrator’s (and Proust’s) way of reassuring us: we are all like infants waking in the dark, he says – just trust me and I will show you through the darkness with the depth and power of my perceptions.

The Narrator teases us, gently, by recalling past beds in which he has been unable to sleep, listing his bed in his grandparents’ house in a place called Combray (presumably when he was a child?) and another room “at Mme de Saint-Loup’s, in the country“, where he goes out only at night. We’re unaware of what these details portend, though at this stage it’s unimportant – what is important is that we understand the Narrator’s tiredness, his confusing, and his mind’s tracking back into memories of his past.

He is a man who appears to be exquisitely sensitive to the subtleties of the smell and feel of bed linen, the warmth or coolness of the air in his room, and the sense of warmth, physical and emotional, when we lie warm in bed on a cold night, “separated from the outdoors (like the swallow which makes its nest deep in an underground passage in the warmth of the earth)….” So sensitive is this loquacious insomniac that even bedroom furniture can conspire to ruin his composure: “from the first second I had been mentally poisoned by the unfamiliar odour of the vetiver, convinced by the hostility of the violet curtains and the insolent indifference of the clock chattering loudly as though I were not there”. It’s a wonderful characterisation of an oppressively over-decorated bedroom, presumably from an earlier era.

The word “veviter” is, my Kindle tells me, a 19th century French word describing a fragrance from essential oils used in perfumery. I recall a book from my childhood – Anne of Green Gables, I think – where a withering matriarch boils bedsheets in orris root to sterilise them and make them smell sweeter. It’s another faint clue to establish which period of time the Narrator is referring to, or may be in in the present moment.

Over time, the Narrator relaxes, until “habit” makes the hideous bedroom appear benign. Habit, he says, is a “skilful but very slow housekeeper” whom we are “very happy to find, for without habit and reduced to no more than its own resources, our mind would be powerless to make a lodging habitable.” 

Slowly and just as skilfully, the Narrator has solved the problem of his own insomnia, and also revealed his intentions to us. Far from being a random musing on not being able to sleep, he is letting us into his secret treasure-trove of knowledge about the way our senses perceive, and how our mind works both to retain our sense-memories and forget them, so that we might live and not go mad. As stimulating as the Narrator’s keen eye and quick brain are, he seems almost grateful that his mind has a limit, though sad at losing an opportunity to notice the beauty and mystery in everything.

* * *

I close my book. This feels like more than enough for now. It’s time to head out, roll down the hill to the harbour side, and to my favourite cafe, Beachcombers, for a cream tea.

There’s an ongoing debate here as to whether jam is applied first to the scone, followed by the clotted cream; or whether the cream goes on first, like butter, with the jam on top. The proprietor, a friendly man with the ruddy complexion of a sea-dweller, tells me that jam-first-then-cream is “the way they do it in Devon”. He looks around suspiciously and sniffs, as if checking for eavesdroppers. The Only Way Is Cornwall, apparently, where jam is applied first and is then smothered with a thick layer of the clotted cream, which is so stiff that it acts as a kind of cement, soldering the jam in so that it can’t escape. I note that with the Cornish way, you can get a lot more cream on the scone. “That’s why we loi-ke it loi-ke that,” he says to me with a wink.

Cream teas are indeed a great English tradition. I agree with Henry James, another transplanted foreigner who became a naturalised Brit, who writes in the opening lines of The Portrait of A Lady: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

* * *

Dinner is at The Seafood Cafe, a friendly family-owned restaurant where the fish is displayed in a huge counter at the front – you point to whatever fish you want, and then a charming waitress whisks it away to the kitchens for you. I go for the Dover sole, which comes perfectly grilled and served with silky hollandaise sauce, a sculpted mound of crushed new potatoes and a rocket salad. It’s divine.

I raise my empty wine glass, which the waitress has left at my table though I’m just drinking mineral water, to Proust, who ordered grilled sole on his death bed but was in too much discomfort to be able to eat it once it arrived. I have no such problems, but attack it with the gusto of a dying man.

Grilled sole is, I realise, a very Proustian dish to eat. You must take your time to work the fish bones slowly away from the flesh, and eat slowly, chewing your food so as to beware of stray bones. It’s so delicious I’m torn between the desire to hoover it up immediately, and take my time and savour it so that the yumminess lasts longer. I’ve never been very good with delayed vs immediate gratification, so this new “slow eating” thing may take some time to get used to.

* * *

After a stroll along the harbour front in the rain, I’m back to my room, like Proust’s Narrator, similarly delighted to be inside in the warm and separated from the driving rain that’s just come down.

Before bed, I unwind by watching the 1974 movie of The Murder On the Orient Express. It’s aged reasonably well – as it’s set in the 1930s, it seem quite as anachronistic as films from the 1970s with people wearing Afros and flares. The recent past always seems like science fiction to us, in a way that the more antiquated past of Proust’s era or the Jazz Age seem much more appealing. The film itself is camp old nonsense, filled with some very classy stars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave) hamming it up with some very bad acting. The very young and very beautiful Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset also pop up, their close-ups heavily airbrushed. How odd to think that they were such huge stars in the 1970s, and practically unheard of now – though I did enjoy Bisset’s car crash acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes.

Anthony Perkins gives a bizarre but not unamusing performance as a flouncy, scarf-wearing ” bachelor”, and there’s a severe German maid with bleach blond hair who looks as though she did time in Prisoner. I always enjoy these flashes of pink and lavender in Agatha Christie’s fiction. Though her gay characters seem stereotyped today, she was, in her own quietly subversive way, an expert revealer of the nasty little secrets lurking within polite English society.

As a final point, I’m amazed by how much Albert Finney’s Poirot looks like photos of Proust, though his moustaches are impeccably waxed and much tidier than Proust’s would have been. The English diplomat Harold Nicholson reports him looking like a scarecrow when he met him in Paris in the 1920s.

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