The Sea, The Sea

In which I go to St Ives for the weekend, eat a lot of clotted cream and start my Proust reading marathon.

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My first non-working Friday coincides beautifully with a trip I’ve had booked to St Ives in Cornwall. It’s a long journey – six hours all up – but an easy trip: a single train from London all the way to St Erth, just before Penzance, and then a cute little toy train that winds around the peninsula to St Ives, giving spectacular views of the sea. I’m up early to get the 7.30am train from Paddington. It’s another glorious morning, hot and sunny. I hope the good weather will follow me, though the forecasts look more apocalyptic. Once on board, I settle in to finish the Edmund White, which is as light and tasty as a freshly baked macaron.

I don’t usually read biographies, as I find they tell you more about the biographer than the subject. This one I’ve liked enormously. Write’s writing is so poised, but with a very American earnestness and diligence. He’s so keen to be understood, so eager that you see The Point. His writing is filled with explanatory notes in parentheses, in the manner of a hairdresser talking hurriedly for whom it’s absolutely essential that you don’t miss anything. He has a bad habit of laying out a joke, and then panicking and explaining it, again just in case the reader Doesn’t Get It. Some readers might find this exhausting, but I find it rather endearing – perhaps because my own writing has the same meandering and slightly defensive quality. White is an author who likes to tell-tell-tell, which makes him a natural fit for Proust.

In his conclusion, White gives not one but three verdicts as to Proust’s significance and why we continue to read In Search of Lost Time. Though he sounds a bit like a snack oil salesman trying to convince a reluctant customer to buy the elixir of youth, he presents a stimulating array of ideas.

He describes Proust as “a literary cyclops” – a lovely image, though he ruins it by then explaining the pun: “he was a creature with a single great ‘I’ at the centre of his consciousness”. White says that in this modern age of memoirs, Proust reigns supreme:

“[T]he intensely intimate (if not always personal) quality of Proust’s novel makes him more and more popular…. Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking… the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect.”

White becomes romantic and whimsical, as he is wont to do, imagining Proust as “our Scheherazade”, though presumably without the imminent fear of death by beheading if we’re not amused.

“Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler… We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depradations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales.”

There is a certain camp appeal to Proust’s recalling of Belle Epoque-era aristocracy, but this doesn’t quite get at why he’s so revered. After scrabbling around, White comes up with this, which I think is rather fine:

“Modern readers are responsive to Proust’s tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we, too, no longer take love for granted…. Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.”

White succeeds where de Botton fails, by trying to describe the Proust-ness of Proust, and illuminating the man and his work in a way that makes you want to read Proust. It’s a highly satisfying read.

* * *

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It’s raining heavily when I arrive in St Ives, but it’s still lovely to be here. I first came here seven years to see the lighthouse Virginia Woolf describes in To The Lighthouse. I fell in love with the white sandy beaches, the rugged surf of the Atlantic, the magnificent sunsets, and the artistic community here, and since then I’ve been back every year.

Being here, you can understand the case to be made for Cornish Independence. St Ives is unlike any other part of the UK I’ve been to, and at times doesn’t even feel like  part of the modern world. The town has a Boots and a Subway, but little else in the way of chain stores. It milks the “quaint seaside town” aesthetic for all it’s worth – doors are painted blue, and there’s chintz and clotted cream served with everything – but there’s something else here too: a wildness in the landscape, a pleasure in the slow pace of things, a respect for beauty.

St Ives is strongly identified with the visual arts, and artists from Turner to Whistler have been lured here by its dramatic landscapes and ever-changing light. The post WWII St Ives School of abstract impressionists, led by painter Ben Nicholson and sculptor Barbara Hepworth, ushered in modernism, even drawing skeptics like Francis Bacon into their fold. (There’s a great anecdote about Bacon moving here to paint in the early 1960s, but leaving early after having an ugly fist fight with his white trash boyfriend in the main street, losing a tooth in the process). The potter Bernard Leach and his family created an austere, rough-hewn form of ceramics, inspired by Japanese pottery, that broke with the Northern English tradition of glazed and heavily decorated pottery.

The arts movement is still strong here, though trades mostly in nostalgia these days. You can visit the Leach pottery studio, and Hepworth’s studio and sculpture garden is now owned by the Tate, who also have an extraordinary lighthouse shaped gallery on Porthmoer Beach. There are loads of other galleries in the town, though most of them selling the kind of twee watercolours of seagulls and sunsets that you can buy at Camden Market.

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I’m staying at Little Leaf Guest House. I first stayed here many years ago when it was owned by two middle-aged lesbians, who were very nice, though things were somewhat Spartan. The current owners, Danny and Lee, two emigres from London, took over a few years ago and refurbished the house extensively, putting in power showers and making things feel more luxurious. I have what I think is their best room, with a bay window looking out over the harbour. It’s big and comfortable enough to be able to sit here all weekend if the weather is bad, which it looks to be.

I inhale some scones and then go for a windswept walk on Porthmeor Beach, while the sea spray splashes my specs. The upside is that there’s almost no one on the beach – just a few hardcore surfers being supervised by some cute sunburnt lifeguards. Then it’s back to the B&B to dry off and do some reading and writing.

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Dinner is at my favourite fish restaurant, The Seafood Cafe. I have Cornish sole with hollandaise sauce, new potatoes and a rocket and parmesan salad. It’s insanely good to eat fresh fish again, which tastes completely different from the shrink wrapped Icelandic cod they sell in M&S: it’s fleshy, salty, briny and soft in texture. de Botton writes that Proust ordered a dinner of grilled sole on his deathbed, though he was too unwell to eat it when it arrived. (I wonder if Celeste demolished it herself in a quiet moment). It’s a dish that requires a Proustian approach: you need to eat slowly and deliberately, savouring each mouthful while you check for stray bones, and working carefully to pry away the fish skeleton to get to the flesh on the underside. It’s divine.

Like a madman I refuse dessert and take a stroll along the harbour side in the night rain. I’ve managed to come to St Ives without a decent raincoat, waterproof shoes or an umbrella, but I did bring along my Japanese teapot and four books about Proust. No one can say I don’t have my priorities straight.

Between courses, I read the first seven pages of The Way By Swann’s, also making sure to take my time. There’s much more to say, but I’m enchanted immediately: what gorgeous writing, what penetrating insights into the moment-by-moment state of consciousness of the insomniac mind, what poetic yet grippingly evocative use of metaphor, and what a stately assurance and ease it flows along with. I’m hooked. It has begun!

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