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.  

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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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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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A trip to the Provinces

In which I go to Birmingham, read some more Edmund White and am reminded of the pleasures of living in the big dirty city.

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Though Proust’s self-discipline as a writer was formidable, his experiences in paid employment weren’t as successful. Proust spent three years studying the law, but after two weeks’ work experience in a solicitor’s office, he exclaimed “In my most desperate hours, I have never conceived of anything more horrible than a law office”.

I have this antipathy in mind when I have to get up at 5am to get an early train to  a law office in Birmingham. On the upside, I get to see the early morning sunrise, which is glorious. It’s 5.45am and nearly 20°C. Today London is supposed to reach temperatures of 27°C, making it hotter than parts of the Mediterranean. The English always get excited by stories like this, which speaks to the contrarian and paradoxical relationship they have with the weather: it’s both a constant source of complaint or something to be defended patriotically from the criticisms of Eurotrash and Antipodean parvenus like me.

The Tube is spookily empty, like a post-apocalypse movie. It’s extraordinary to think that in an hour it will be packed with commuters, sweating discreetly as they hustle for a place in a crowded carriage. Whenever I travel at this time of day, I’m always amazed at how many people are actually moving around: cleaners and service industry workers, bankers who need to be in the office for the opening of international markets, early morning gym bunnies. London is truly a 24 hour city, even if the public transport and restrictive laws about Sunday trading don’t reflect this. How fascinating it will be to see the city come alive when London Underground open all night on weekends from 2015 onwards.

The Virgin train service to Birmingham is fairly prompt – just an hour and a half. I sneak in another quick chapter of White before settling down to breakfast and some prep.

* * *

One of the pleasures of White’s book is his reverence and respect for Proust, coupled with a playful tugging on Proust’s coat sleeves. Like a dutiful biographer, White notes Proust’s dislike of autobiographical literary criticism, and then blithely proceeds to assess Proust’s writing in relation to his life. It’s done with a lightness of touch, though unlike earlier biographers, White isn’t afraid of rapping on Proust’s closet door and bidding him to come out. White takes Proust’s homosexuality as a given – no more or less extraordinary than his Jewish ethnicity or his chronic asthma attacks, and he gives In Search of Lost Time the queering that it deserves.

White identifies Albertine as a composite of a number of Proust’s love-interests over the years – mostly straight working class men who Proust was besotted with and bribed with money, gifts and employment to keep them around. It seems extraordinary now that past biographers still made the case for Proust’s heterosexuality. George Painter, Proust’s first English biographer, writes in Marcel Proust: A Biography (1959-64) that when Proust “migrated to the Cities of the Plain” – that is, when he became a homo –  “he took with him a prisoner crushed between the weight of Time and Habit, a buried heterosexual boy who continued to cry unappeased for a little girl lost.” White politely salutes Painter’s work, and then shoots him down in flames: “I would suggest that Proust’s exclusively homosexual sexual experience might suggest that the only little girl he was crying over was inside him.”

I’m pleased that Proust finally got a biographer who understands the workings of Proust’s homosexuality, and who can parse the powerplays and doublespeak that goes on in the closet. To his credit, White doesn’t overplay the Freud-by-numbers analysis (as he does with himself in his autobiographical writing) and he recognises that In Search of Lost Time is art, not just therapy.

That being said, White does reveal some bizarre stories about Proust’s conflicted sexuality. Case in point: the Romanian Prince Antoine di Bibesco met Proust at a salon and described him as having eyes of ‘Japanese lacquer’ and a hand that was ‘dangling and soft’. He later instructed Proust on how to shake hands “with a virile grip”. Proust replied, ‘If I followed your example, people would take me for an invert.’ White reads this as”

“an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become – a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero – whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake.”

Despite the many layers of disguise and gender-recasting, White makes a case for Proust as a great truth-teller. Proust himself said Proust says: “I very much wish to finish the work I’ve begun and to put in it those truths that I know will be nourished by it and that otherwise will be destroyed by me.” White gives him the benefit of the doubt, arguing:

“Proust’s strategies of disguise and transposition must still begin and end with a highly specific recollection of his own feelings and sensations. In that sense, involuntary memories represent the truth in Proust’s process of composition, the bare face that he must later paint with invention.”

White concludes that it is Proust’s “fidelity to truth” that has secured his reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists:

“This truth telling – joined to his long sentences, his many comparisons, his resolution to mine every last ounce of gold from a subject – is what made his writing seem old fashioned to his contemporaries and renders it eternally fresh to us.”

* * *

Birmingham isn’t my favourite city. My trip is mercifully short, as I’m only here to speak at a seminar, and then straight back on the train. How wonderful it is to emerge from the Tube and Old Street and be back in Shoreditch on a sunny summer’s day. The hipsters out in full glory – waxed moustaches, skateboards, tattoos, no socks – but somehow it seems marvellous rather than pretentious and mildly irritating. There’s nothing like a trip to the provinces to remind yourself that many Londoners, like I did, left their small towns and moved to the Big Smoke in search of adventure, and more crucially, the right to be the lead characters in their life stories that they couldn’t be in their hometowns. And so I decide to salute the hipsters – just this once – for being there.

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I then inhale a quiche and salad lunch box from the wonderful cafe Salvation Jane, followed by a coffee from Ozone just around the corner. My favourite barista, a young, softly-spoken blonde girl, is on today, and she makes me a single-shot latte of such smooth, velvety caramel perfection, that I want to burst into song. On a day like this, there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be than London.

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* * *

It’s a beautiful evening, so I walk to Shoreditch High Street station and get the Overground home, via a walk through the Common. It’s a stunning evening, warm and luxuriant with a playful breeze that takes the deadweight out of the air. I’m a bit overdressed in my suit and my new brogues that pinch a bit aren’t ideal for walking through grass, but it matters not one whit. 

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An evening stroll

In which I start Edmund White’s delightful book on Proust and go for a late evening wander on a hot humid night.

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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.

Londres sous la pluie

The start of a working week, and the summer rain brings thoughts of final resting places and sticky ends. 

Monday morning starts hot and sunny. The Tube is like an oven. It may be a plan to leave my suit and shirts at work and travel in wearing a tshirt and shorts. My colleagues in the offices opposite mine will, I’m sure, appreciate the striptease.

A long busy-ish day. My focus is heightened in the knowledge I’m in Birmingham on Thursday (though fortunately only for an hour or two) and then off work on Friday. It’s the start of my new four-day working regime, which I’ll be coincidentally spending in Cornwall for the weekend. There’s lots to do before then.

I take my late lunch break in the park in Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, next to the grave of William Blake. His tombstone reads “Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake (1757 – 1827) and of his wife Catherine Sophia (1762 – 1831)”. It’s a politely English way of saying that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, and no one quite knows where he is.

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Poor Mozart met the same fate. There’s a striking scene at the end of Milos Forman’s film Amadeus showing Mozart being dumped unceremoniously in a communal pit in a pauper’s graveyard: a grim ending that was worlds away from the lush romanticism of his music. Meanwhile, Proust was buried in the relative splendour of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, in a chic sarcophagus of black marble. Moral of the story? Drink less, and save for your interment, lest you become cheap compost in East London.

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The rain turns the City into a Renoir painting, as the bankers’  enormous golfing umbrellas are opened and jostle for space on the sidewalk. Rain washes away some of the sludge of the weekend and makes London smell slightly less like sewage. On the downside, pedestrians become slow and stupid as cattle.

The Tube at rush hour has the multiple discomforts of heat, overcrowding, insufficient ventilation and the pungent smell of wet wool. It’s moments like this I almost envy my friend Chris, who cycles to work every day – but I have neither his fearlessness nor his concentration to survive on London’s treacherous roads. Plus I like my hour of reading and note taking as I commute each day.

The papers are full of the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for indecent assault with teenaged girls. He was a much-loved part of my childhood, though clearly a much less loved part of the complainants’. The wave of dirty old man celebrity sex abuse trials feels larger than just the details of the cases themselves. We appear to be in the middle of a moral panic – as we were in the mid 1980s when everyone was obsessed with child sexual abuse in creches and daycare centres. Helen Garner’s analysis from The First Stone also springs to mind. Are these cases a tipping point in the battle against sexism, or a lumbering attempt to redress the unpunished crimes of Jimmy Saville and all those abusers who did get away with it?

On happier ground, I have a very enjoyable first date with R, a guy I’ve been chatting to on Grindr for about a week. He’s cute, smart and works in vaguely the same industry as me, and we chat away merrily for a couple of hours, even braving the Monday night pub food menu to try and prolong the evening. He’s cute and funny and laughs at my jokes, so top marks so far.

R is a fan of Evelyn Waugh, and we talk about the gorgeousness of the writing in Brideshead Revisited and the pleasure of immersing oneself in Waugh’s langorous, nostalgic tone. We agree that the recent Julian Jarrold film of Brideshead was a travesty, and how the opening up of the erotic attraction between Charles and Sebastian made their relationship much less interesting. I’ve spent most of my life wanting writers and artists to be more open in their presentation of homosexuality, and pushing myself to be frank in my own writing about sex. That being said, there’s a delicious kind of magic to the closeted writings of Waugh and Forster and James and Wilde, that loses its lustre when you tamper with it and inject modern sexual politics into the mix. Perhaps those closeted pretty boys in immaculately tailored Savile Row suits should be left in peace to throw their wandering glances at each over after the afternoon tea table – as R and I have been doing these evening.

When I get home, I run a bath and start on Edmund White’s 1999 biographical study of Proust, which looks to be marvellously well-written. How wonderful White was in his hey-day: The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony are two of my favourite novels. His best seems now well behind him – I still remember the savaging my old book group gave his My Lives – so it’s nice to be able to discover one of his earlier, more buoyant pieces.

Can Proust Change Your Life?

In which I re-read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and fail to become one of the Enlightened.

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When preparing for a year-long excursion through Proust, you could do worse to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I read it seven years ago when I first had the idea for the Proust blog. I found it charming and witty, and was deeply irritated to learn that de Botton was only 28 when he wrote it.

It’s a combination of literary analysis and self-help book, with a vaguely insouciant hint of satire. Written in a jaunty shade of purple prose, de Botton sets out to convince us why reading Proust can make you happier, more self-aware and better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. “Far from a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age,” he says, In Search of Lost Time is “a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting, and begin appreciating one’s life.”

Since first reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, I’ve encountered much more of de Botton and his growing cultural empire. He’s the founder and director of the slightly cult-like The School of Life, an independent cultural institute that markets courses in self-improvement for middle-class Guardian readers, and sells very expensive “Utopia”-theme candles on its cooler-than-thou website.

Despite his irritating postmodern tendency to wink knowingly at his audience, de Botton’s mission seems to be clear. All art has some therapeutic purpose, he says, and engaging with masterworks can help us answer the big philosophical questions about our existence that were once answered easily, if not always convincingly, by religion.

Most recently, de Botton attempted to sell this theory to the Dutch, re-hanging paintings in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum by emotional content rather than chronology, and placing giant Post-It notes on the walls to explain the therapeutic qualities of significant artworks. The critical reaction ranged from mild disinterest to outright contempt. Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian – the newspaper of the urban hipsters who de Botton and the School of Life market to – described de Botton as “a doorstopping self-help evangelist” whose “insights and descriptions [are] shallow and obvious.” Ouch.

Re-reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, I find myself more and more inclined to agree with Searle. Despite de Botton’s love of Proust and some intelligent insights into In Search of Lost Time, there’s an awkward shoehorning of Proust’s complexity into his self-help theory, and a continual sense of preening at his own cleverness. The mock-serious tone of the book, while entertaining, also feels destabilising: I’m not really serious, he seems to be saying – so let’s all have a good laugh about how clever we’re being. There’s something rather smug and self-congratulatory about de Botton, in this and his other works, that Searle and other detractors are quick to pick up on.

Some of de Botton’s conceits work wonderfully well. In Chapter Three, How to Take Your Time, he describes how Proust paid close attention to newspaper reports and train timetables, finding in them nuances and possibilities not noticed by a casual, hurried skim-read. De Botton notes that the greatness of works of art like In Search of Lost Time “has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter.” He encourages us to read slowly and carefully, as Proust did: “An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.” 

Other chapters waver a bit more, and lack the same coherence. In How to Suffer Successfully, de Botton encourages us to embrace Proust’s maxim of suffering as an opportunity for self-knowledge. “Infirmity alone makes us notice and learn”, Proust says, and “it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” This is all very fine and rather Zen – but even de Botton has to concede, as Proust did, that most people suffer “badly” and become mean, selfish and self-pitying rather than enlightened.

The missing link in de Botton’s theory is his assumption that reading In Search of Lost Time will “sensitise” us to our surroundings, and that we will become as perceptive and wise as Proust was. Botton is a dab hand at flattering his readers’ intelligence, assuring us that engaging with great literature will “stimulate our dormant antennae by evidence of [the writer’s] own developed sensitivity.” As charming as this is, it overlooks the rather blunter reality, spelled out in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that high achievement is a combination of innate talent, favourable personal circumstances and good timing. Few writers of Proust’s or any other era have demonstrated the talent, the spare time and the independent income necessary to write an enormous book like In Search of Lost Time. While we can enjoy reading Proust, will it really make us more like him? It’s just as possible that reading a work as monumental as Proust’s may discourage rather than sensitise. In his final chapter, How to Put Books Down, de Botton notes the devastating effect that reading Proust had on Virginia Woolf’s self-confidence about her own work, leaving her wondering whether there was anything useful about life left for her to say.

Elsewhere, de Botton’s self-help tips feel misinformed and downright patronising. In How to Open Your Eyes, he recounts how Proust wrote an essay encouraging his impoverished readers to study the still lives of the painter Chardon, and by doing so learn to “open our eyes” and appreciate the beauty in “ordinary” things. Such a viewpoint allows us, de Botton says, to enjoy “many of the charms… previously associated only with palaces and the princely life.” No longer will we feel “painfully excluded from an aesthetic realm” or envious of “smart bankers” with beautiful things. We can learn that “metal and earthenware could also be enchanting, and common crockery as beautiful as precious stones.”

This all sounds very nice, but it feels rather hard to take from Proust, who, as de Botton points out, favoured a life of ostentatious luxury – practically living at the Ritz, tipping waiters 400% and once offering to buy a boyfriend an airplane as a gift. It’s also rather a hard lesson to take from de Botton, a man of great learning and cosmopolitan interests, whose work takes him all over the world and allows him to do exciting things like interview Arianna Huffington and re-hang galleries in the Rijksmuseum.

It seems to me that taking pleasure in small things is a virtue enjoyed more easily those who have experienced life outside of the ordinary and so have the privilege of choosing where they place their attentions. Not everyone is so fortunate. I think of Jane Eyre going up onto the roof and looking out over the fields, longing “for a power of vision… which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen.” In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf notes how Charlotte Bronte knew “how enormously her genius would have profited had it not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her.” I also think of my own parents, who after living quietly in rural New Zealand for most of their lives, discovered great joy in being able to travel to Europe in their 70s – and subsequently became depressed at returning to their “ordinary” life, which they said felt drab by comparison afterwards.

In defence of his “Simple Life” theory, de Botton notes that Proust became disenchanted with the glamorous world of Parisian society that he once courted so assiduously. This may well be true, but I’m sure that Proust never regretted having those experiences – if nothing else, they provided him with a rich vein of material for his novel. It’s much easier to say “Meh” to an invitation to a society ball and stay at home with a book when one has been invited to the ball in the first place. De Botton just doesn’t get this, which makes his theory sound rather patronising, like a 19th century moralist who prescribes an austerity he doesn’t live up to himself. While it’s fine to open our eyes and admire beauty in unexpected places, it’s a wan substitute for all the experiences that a life of travel and glamour can offer.

I finished my re-reading of de Botton sensing, as I often do when I read biographies of writers, that I’ve learned more about the biographer than the subject of their work. I also felt irritated at de Botton’s strenuous display of virtuosity, in the manner of a friend’s precocious child who insists on performing at the dinner table. In this regard, I’m reminded of the New York Times review of Wes Anderson’s movie The Royal Tenenbaums – another piece of entertainment that overstays its welcome: “Yes, yes, you’re charming, you’re brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed.”

It remains to be seen whether I will thrill to Proust in the way that How Proust Can Change Your Life predicts.  I can’t wait to find out. And if I am transfigured, I plan to attribute it all to Proust rather than the tiresome Mr de Botton.

 

 

 

 

The Thrill of the Lash

Roman Polanski’s film version of Venus In Fur – a sexual tug-of-war between a submissive director and a mysterious, sexy actress – is smart, funny, entertaining, and very pervy.

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I’m too tired to read when I get home, so start to watch Roman Polanski’s film version of David Ives’ play Venus In Fur. The film had such a short cinema run here that it was over before I or anyone else saw it – though I’m amused to see that it’s this month’s top-selling film on the Curzon film on demand website. It seems that les rosbifs would prefer to watch racy S&M-themed films at home with the net curtains drawn than in a cinema.

The film is great fun, and pleasantly kinky, befitting the text which it’s named after: Venus In Fur, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novella about a young aristocrat named Severin who convinces an older woman, Vanda, to dominate him and let him become her love-slave. Like the Marquis de Sade,  Sacher-Mosoch is better known for his name than his writing – the word “masochist” was derived from his name.

Ives’ play updates Sacher-Masoch’s story to modern times. A blowsy actress (the fantastic Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late in the middle of a thunderstorm to audition for a stage adaptation of Venus In Furs. She’s dripping wet from the rain, dressed in a cheap hooker’s outfit, and hilariously uncouth. “It’s S&M porn, right?” she says of the script. The exasperated playwright-director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) splutteringly defends the novel as a love story and suggests she’s not right for the part. The actress begs and cajoles, and casually mentions that her name is Vanda – the same as Sacher-Masoch’s sadistic heroine. Sufficiently intrigued, or perhaps just worn out, Thomas lets her read.

As the audition progresses, things get very strange. Vanda is able to recite the entire play from memory (despite having said she only glanced at a few pages from the script) and vanishes into the role of the stately dominatrix with frightening ease. Thomas becomes transfixed, and quickly assumes the role of the submissive. Chaos follows.

Ives’ script, translated into French for the film, feels very Proustian in its exacting analysis of subtle shifts of power between the duo. Each line becomes a teasing riddle, as you try to make out where reality ends and performance begins, or who exactly is directing whom. Vanda’s identity is never quite made clear. One minute she’s effortlessly seducing Thomas, the epitome of Sacher-Masoch’s fantasy of the dominant sexualised woman; then just as quickly, she’s angrily attacking Thomas for the misogyny of the script. Is she the embodiment of his fantasies, an avenging goddess, or just a surprisingly gifted actress? Though the answer is “revealed” in the final scene, the film finds room to embrace doubt.

There’s an added level of delight (and dread) in Polanski’s casting. Amalric is a dead ringer for a younger, Chinatown-era Polanski, and he’s playing opposite Seigner, who is Polanski’s wife. We’re invited, playfully, to read the script as a slice of psychodrama from Polanski’s marriage. Or perhaps it’s Polanski’s tongue-in-cheek take on the sado-masochism existing in any director-actress relationship. Either way, it adds a deliciously weird layer of uncertainty to a story about the treacherous nature of identity.

As a film, Venus In Fur doesn’t quite pop with the explosiveness that the script promises. There’s a particular magic to watching two people interact with each other live on stage that simply can’t be replicated as well in film. That being said, the actors slug it out satisfyingly like a pair of prizefighters. It’s an engrossing tug-of-war that lasts right up until – and perhaps beyond – the final frame.

The referencing of Sacher-Masoch interests me, as he also seems to have been an influence on Proust. One of the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time features a gay character, Baron de Charlus, who the narrator later discovers in a male brothel. I seem to recall a scene in Time Regained, Raoul Ruiz’s 1999 film of In Search of Lost Time, in which Charlus (played by John Malkovich) is tied up and flogged. Less obviously, romantic masochism seems to form an extensive part of In Search of Lost Time, which is filled with hapless lovers like Swann, suffering exquisitely at the hands of the withholding Odette, or the narrator himself who is obsessed with Albertine.

It’s curious that despite our modern openness about sexuality, and the “release” of S&M practices into the mainstream, we’re no nearer to understanding or navigating human sexuality. All we have, it seems, is the dance (or in Venus In Fur‘s case, the tug-of-war) – and what a splendid thing it is, too.

 

 

Coffee and Harvey Milk

In which I meet the organiser of the Proust Book Group, and discuss New York, collaboration, posh tea and meditating with Marina Abramović.

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It’s a slow afternoon at work – my boss is on holiday and my clients are clearly too anaethetised by the warm weather to call or email. I take a late and extended lunch break and text Michael, the organiser of the Proust Book Group, to see if he wants to meet up. He claims to be in South Kensington shaking hands with Marina Abramović, which sounds terribly chic. I suggest a more sobering experience to bring him back to the corporeal plain – a coffee at one of my favourite New Zealand-owned coffee bars in Clerkenwell.

It’s a baking hot day. The heat is dry and intense, with scarcely any humidity, and I’m relieved that it’s dress down Friday and that I’m not in a business suit. I walk past the second-hand jewellery stores, and see the occasional withered patriarch heaving along in an ill-fitting black suit, yarmulke pinned on in readiness for tonight’s Sabbath. How hot and uncomfortable they must be on such a hot day.

Michael is sitting on a bench outside the cafe in the sun with his eyes closed, serene and cat-like. He’s beautiful in a Puckish way: slim, curly-haired and with a tan the colour of honey – a product of his recent holiday to Croatia, he tells me.

He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Too much Proust, I ask? It seems a most appropriate malady for a man who’s going to lead a discussion group on the world’s most famous insomniac.

We chat away over our caffè lattes about our lives as journalists – mine past, his present – and our shared interest in creative writing. I talk about my French writing retreats, and the appeal of the “shared togetherness” they offer. Michael also sings the praises of working collaboratively, saying he wished he’d learned earlier in life how to “release” control of his ideas by bringing them to and working with other people. I realise that’s the appeal of joining a book group to read Proust – finding solace and encouragement from others rather than slugging away on my own.

I ask Michael what drew him to Proust and what he liked about it. I’m relieved to hear him say that he undertook the project, like most of us, to see whether he could finish, and for the pleasurable feeling of smugness at being able to say he’d finished. Maybe reading Proust is to the literati what running marathons are for athletes – an Olympian challenge to sort the pros from the wannabes.

I ask him if he feels that reading Proust has “sensitised” him, as the tiresome Mr de Botton claims in How Proust Can Change Your Life. He describes being inspired by Proust’s ability to describe the consciousness of the moment, and his illumination of the loveliness in ordinary things. Michael talks with a smile about the joy of being alive to Proust’s focus on cloud formations in the sky or the way that the sea changes from day to day. It sounds lovely, and as meditative a state as he’s just been in with Marina at the Serpentine.

We talk about a mutual sense of action and inaction, which feels as if it becomes more prescient as we hurtle towards 40. (He is a few months younger than I am). I talk about the experience of being mugged as an unwanted but nonetheless galvanising experience to wake up and make changes in his life. He describes living in New York through 9/11 and returning to London soon after. “I’m an honorary New Yorker,” he says, in a tone that feels proud and melancholy at once.

It’s time for me to go back to work, so we walk to the corner. He’s celebrating his boyfriend’s birthday this weekend, he says, with a New Orleans-style funeral procession. It sounds intriguing. Later as I walk back to the office, I see him whizz past on his bike – no helmet, no hands on the handles, and lighting his little hookah pipe. He looks relaxed, free and impossibly cool – more will-o’-the-wisp than man.

After a fun date with K, a hairy bear in Marylebone, I get home to a postcard from my friend and Gemini twin Jodhi in New York City, featuring three of the official Harvey Milk stamps released by the US Post Office. I remember my now-forgotten request to my New York posse asking them to send me some. Only Jodhi has remembered. “I got the last three stamps in Chelsea,” she reports, in her elegant cursive script. I imagine her schlepping down 8th Avenue in her pinstriped suit and Thomas Pink tailored shirts, flighty gay boys scattering in her wake, as she searches the 7/11s of Chelsea for stamps.

It’s a gorgeous card, and goes straight on my fridge door. I must write to Jodhi soon. Hell, I need to go back to New York – between the chat with Michael and the postcard, I’m reminded of how much I miss it.

Germaine Bitchslaps Proust

Good news for reluctant readers of Proust. Germaine Greer, feminist icon, author of The Female Eunuch and erstwhile Proust scholar, claims that reading Little Marcel is a waste of time.

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“Why do people gush over Proust?” the heading screams. “I’d rather visit a demented relative.” Well, you can always count on Germaine Greer to know how to make an entrance.

In a 2009 blog post for the Guardian, Greer offers words of reassurance to those who’ve never read Proust, suggesting that there are better things to spend one’s time:

If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.

She pooh-poohs scholars who praise Proust, rebuking him for “his battering of the sentence to rubble and his apparent contempt for the paragraph”. She also takes him to task for his abominable punctuation in the manner of a scary schoolmarm marking an undergraduate’s lousy examination paper:

He relies on commas and semi-colons to do what should be done by full-stops, of which there are far too few, many of them in the wrong place. Sentences run to thousands of words and scores of subordinate clauses, until the reader has no recollection of the main clause or indeed whether there ever was one.

Greer rather loses the plot after the third paragraph (the same can be said of her last few books) and starts a long and rambling discussion about differing translations of Proust. Never losing sight of her target, though, she blames it all on Proust: “The translators’ manifest difficulties stem at first from Proust’s own imprecision, and are then compounded by their ignorance”, she fumes. Alas, poor Marcel – not only were you a rambler and terrible at punctuation, but you’re also responsible for appalling mistranslations made in your name after your own act of authorship has long been completed.

Eventually, Greer runs out of steam (though it reads more as if an sub-editor cut her off). She concludes that the Scott Moncrieff translation, despite containing “all kinds of howlers”, is actually the pleasanter read as it follows Proust’s rhythms more naturally than modern new-fangled translations.

It’s an amusing enough piece, and I suspect not meant to be taken seriously. What’s most interesting is the way in which Germaine rhetorically places herself above the fray, reserving for herself the authority of the academic who has read Proust, while patronising her readers and telling them not to enlighten themselves as she has done. With all due deference to her wit and intelligence, she needs to come up with a more compelling argument not to read Proust other than “it’s long” and “there are lots of commas”. The closest she gets to raising a proper critique of In Search of Lost Time is that “it is damnable in its fake heterosexual voyeurism, and its disparaging and dishonest account of homosexuality.” This may well be true, but it seems overly simplistic to judge a novelist for reflecting the dominant social mores of his time.

The post inspired 131 responses – not bad for a piece of fluff in the Guardian’s arts and culture section. Some readers breathed a sigh of relief and thanked Germaine for the encouragement not to read Proust. Others agreed with her that  Proust wasn’t worth the effort (“Proust is literary tripe,” wrote one correspondent. “Masturbatory, superficial and pretentious“). The majority of the comments, though, castigated Germaine for also being masturbatory, superficial and pretentious, and for daring to assume the moral high ground. My favourite quote comes from a blogger called @DogDay: “So Big G would rather visit a demented relative then read Proust….. fair enough…. But recently I’ve started to suspect that she is starting to turn into the demented relative.”

If I ever get anything published about Proust, I plan to write to Germaine and ask her to contribute a quote for the cover – something like “The worst book on Proust I’ve ever read – and that’s saying something!” or “Utter shit. Don’t read it”. Not being liked by Germaine Greer sounds as though it’s a fairly powerful endorsement for anyone – even Proust.

The Queen and I

The reading of In Search of Lost Time has unexpected and fabulous consequences in Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader – in which the Queen of England becomes the world’s most unlikely Proust scholar.

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One of my favourite reads of recent years – Alan Bennett’s delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, owes a debt of honour to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as a novel that can transform even the grandest of lives.

A wandering corgi leads the Queen to a little-seen part of Buckingham Palace, where she discovers two things – a mobile lending library, and Norman, a gay ginger Northerner who works in the kitchens. The Queen politely takes out a book, and strikes up an unlikely acquaintance with Norman, who she quickly promotes to her personal assistant. Norman becomes the Boswell to her Johnson – or perhaps more accurately the Alice B. Toklas to her Gertrude Stein – and together they explore the continually surprising world of literature.

After a couple of false starts, the Queen becomes an avid reader, and starts to neglect her duties, disappearing into books when she should be showing deference to equerries and christening ships. She takes to keeping a book open on her lap during royal carriage rides, waving out the window while secretly reading. When she leaves an Anita Brookner novel in the carriage while opening Parliament, it is confiscated by security forces and exploded.

Her staff to cough politely with panic. “To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable,” explains Sir Kevin, her New Zealand-born chief of staff, diplomatically articulating the Palace’s fear that Her Maj has become “a handful”. Anxious to smooth over any suggestions that the Queen is favouring English literature over the writers of other nationalities, he suggests putting out a press release announcing that Her Maj was also reading “ethnic classics”. The Queen is unimpressed. “Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Kama Sutra?”

Bennett has great fun imagining the eccentricity of the Queen’s reading habits. She enjoys Nancy Mitford, but has no patience at all with Henry James (“Oh, do get on!” she calls out in frustration one morning, accidentally frightening away one of the maids) and while fond of the Brontes, she fails to make any sense of Austen, because of “handicaps… that were peculiarly her own.”

The essence of Jane Austen lies in a minute social distinctions, distinctions which the Queen’s unique position made it difficult for her to grasp. It was such a chasm between the monarch and even the grandest a subject that the social differences beyond that was somewhat telescoped… Jane Austen was practically a work of entomology, the characters not quite ants but seeming to the royal reader so much alike as to require a microscope.

While Bennett’s tone is tongue-in-cheek, his view of reading as a transformative act is deadly serious. Reading allows the Queen for the first time in her life to escape her own circumstances and to level the playing field, understanding for the first time what it is like to be one of the common people. Such is the power of literature to transform and enlighten our experience.

She becomes particularly transformed by In Search of Lost Time. During a very dull Anglo-French reception, French president, who dismisses Jean Genet as “a denizen of the billiard hall”, encourages the Queen to read Proust. Norman recommends that she tackles the job during her summer holiday at Balmoral, and orders all thirteen volumes (I’m unsure which edition Bennett is referring to), along with George Painter’s biography of Proust. “Seeing the blue- and pink-jacketed volumes ranged across her desk, the Queen thought they looked almost edible, and straight out of a patisserie window.”

Reading Proust proves to be a revelation for the Queen, and a welcome distraction from life at Balmoral:

It was a foul summer, cold wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.

Emboldened by finishing the novel, Queen starts quoting from him liberally, devising games of charades in the evening with questions drawn from Proust. She even interrupts meetings with the Foreign Secretary to give him a biographical sketch of Proust:

“Terrible life, poor man. A martyr to asthma, apparently, and really someone to whom one would have wanted to say, “Oh do pull your socks up.” But literature’s full of those. The curious thing about him was that when he dipped his cake in his tea (disgusting habit) the whole of his past life came back to him. Well, I tried it and it had no effect on me at all. The real treat when I was a child was Fuller’s cakes. I suppose it might work with me if I were to taste one of them, but of course they’ve long since gone out of business, so no memories there. Are we finished?”

Bennett’s story culminates at the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations, where she has called a special meeting of the Privy Council at which the Queen unexpected decides to make a speech. She starts by asking the crowds how many of them have read Proust.

Somebody deaf whispered ‘Who?’ and a few hands went up, the Prime Minister’s not among them, and seeing this, one young member of the Cabinet who had read Proust and was about to put his hand up didn’t, because he thought it would do him no good at all to say so.

The Queen counted. ‘Eight, none – ten’ – most of them, she noted, relics of much older cabinets. ‘Well, that’s something, though I’m hardly surprised. Had I asked Mr Macmillan’s cabinet that question I’m sure a dozen hands would have gone up, including his. However, that’s hardly fair, as I hadn’t read Proust at that time either.’

‘I’ve read Trollope,’ said a former foreign secretary.

‘One is glad to hear it,’ said the Queen, ‘but Trollope is not Proust.’ The Home Secretary, who had read neither, nodded sagely.

The Queen is unimpressed, though commenting encouragingly that while “[it] is a long book, though, water-skiing permitting, you could get through it in the summer recess.”  To assist her audience, she offers a characteristically succinct précis of In Search of Lost Time:

“At the end of the novel Marcel, who narrates it, looks back on a life that hasn’t really amounted to much and resolves to redeem it by writing the novel which we have just in fact read, in the process unlocking some of the secrets of memory and remembrance.”

She then announces that she intends to write a novel – though not one of a Proustian variety. “I am not interested in facile reminiscence,” she sniffs, suggesting that her work “might stray into literature.” A constitutional crisis ensues.

So there we have it. Proust is easily readable in three months, and the reading of In Search Of Lost Time can prompt even the most unlikely readers into grand and unexpected places.

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