Bon Anniversaire, Little Marcel

In which I celebrate Proust’s birthday by returning to the source of Proust and his many anxieties: his mother. 

On this day in 1871, Proust was born. It seems appropriate, then, to trace a biographical sketch of Proust, and reflect on the woman who gave birth to him and who was the source, directly or indirectly, of his many neuroses: Madame Proust.

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Here is Proust as a nipper. His full name at his baptism was Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – though thankfully for world literature he was known as Marcel.

Alain de Botton writes in How Proust Can Change Your Life that Proust’s mother was fond of calling him mon petit jaunet (“my little yellow one”), mon petit serin (“my little canary”), mon petit benet (“my little clod”), mon petit nigaud (“my little oaf”) or also mon pauvre loup (“my poor wolf”).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that these infantalising nicknames and the large theatrical bows on his clothes contributed to Proust’s sense of himself as a perpetual invalid, helpless without his mother’s assistance. Proust worshipped his mother, writing to her constantly, and created something of a shrine to her after her death.

It seems strange that Proust never read Freud, just as Freud returned the non-favour by claiming never to read Proust, as they seem to be the opposite sides of the same coin. Proust’s writing, with its detailed interest in dreams, the workings of involuntary memory and the intense bonds of family correlate closely to Freud’s theories, just as the facts of Proust’s life could be lifted from one of Freud’s case studies of sexual neurosis. With his suffocating mother, his distant unforgiving father, his half-admitted homosexuality and his strings of unhappy romantic attachments, Proust could be the definitive Freudian poster boy – or  at least a prime contender for a turn on Freud’s consulting couch.

Perhaps someone will write a fictional encounter of the two of them meeting. For now, we have the first part of The Way By Swann’s as a grand testament to the power of Mummy Love.

* * *

Jeanne Proust and her sons Marcel and Robert. 1896? FONDS LE MASLE Num豯 411

Here is Madame Proust in a photo with mon pauvre loup Marcel and his much healthier, heartier brother Robert, who was known as mon autre loup (“my other wolf”) – which, as de Botton says, gives us an insight into who got more attention in the Proust household.

All the biographers report that, despite the unequal split in their mother’s affections between them, Marcel and Robert had a long and happy friendship. Edmund White writes that at the end of Marcel’s life, Robert secured for him the Legion of Honour, and was with him when he died. Robert also oversaw the publication of the final two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which remained unpublished at Marcel’s death.

* * *

This photo shows Proust being photographed with two fellow flaming queens. On the left is Robert de Fler, the future Marquis de Flers and a writer for the theatre and opera. On the right, Lucien Daudet, who became Proust’s lover, and later a live-in gigolo for the widow of Napoleon III.

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Though it’s not immediately obvious from the photograph, all three are wearing make up. Lucien, once described by an observer as “curled, well-dressed, pomaded, painted and powdered”, rests his right hand provocatively on Marcel’s shoulder, and looks down at him adoringly, the other hand (to quote Edmund White) “suspended in the air as though he had plucked an invisible harp string”.

Apparently, Madame Proust hit the roof when she saw the photograph, and had a fierce argument with Marcel, in which she implored him not to circulate it. Marcel objected initially, writing to his mother:

“I don’t think there’s any harm in being photographed with Robert de Flers and if Lucien Daudet is wearing a tie a little too right or a complexion a little too pale [due to his powdered face], that’s a problem that disappears in the photograph which doesn’t render colours.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks. However, like all well-behaved Mummy’s boys, Marcel capitulated, writing this note at midnight and slipping it under his mother’s door:

The best would be if I’m the one to take all the proofs, I’ll give one to each of them and I’ll hand the rest over to you: in that way they won’t be in circulation (since you find in all this something I fail to understand).

Proust’s final parenthetical sentence is a mini-masterclass in passive aggression and emotional denial. It appears that Madame Proust was aware enough of her son’s sexual orientation to be horrified by it and attempt to censor it, at least publicly. Marcel responded with the blanket panic of the secretly terrified closet gay, denying all knowledge of the “guilt” of his proclivities, and assuming a disingenuous innocence. I remember feigning a similar lack of awareness when I had both my ears pierced when I turned 18 – to the horror of my mother and father, who wanted to know if I was trying to “tell them something.””No, no”, I said, unconvincingly, forestalling a more difficult conversation for another year or two.

Though thankfully gay culture has moved away from some of these Freudian-inspired stereotypes – not all gay men are fussy cravat-wearing dilettantes with overbearing mothers – it’s somehow comforting to know that Marcel showed us all how it should (or shouldn’t) be done, over a hundred years ago.

* * *

Marcel-Proust-död-1923-man-ray

Here is a photo of Proust on his death bed, taken by celebrated photographer Man Ray. It’s a striking photo, beautiful and disturbing in the same breath. The custom of photographing the dead was apparently quite common in Proust’s day, especially for a celebrity whose reputation was felt grand enough to be monumentalised in death, and goes back to much older medieval and Renaissance customs of fashioning death masks from the recently dead. It seems that it’s only in recent times that dead bodies have become too taboo to be photographed and recorded – at least here in the death-phobic Western developed world.

So bon anniversaire, mon pauvre loup. You packed a lot into a (fairly brief, by modern standards) 51 years.

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The Great Freudian Drama

In which I enjoy the sun of St Ives and dive into the murky Oedipal depths of little Proust’s big bad mummy obsession. 

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It’s a lovely sunny day in St Ives. It’s the weekend now, so there are few more tourists and day-trippers filtering into the town for breakfast.

In the morning papers, the news is full of the Tour de France cycle competition travelling to Yorkshire. The weather has been, uncustomary, beautiful and sunny, sending foreign correspondents swooning over the lusciousness of the English landscape. It’s the first time the race has taken place in England, and it’s being hailed as a triumph for British cycling, and even for the tourist industry. The French are, apparently, in love with the North of England, and plan to flock to Yorkshire in their thousands this summer. What a shock they’ll get when they get there expecting Wuthering Heights and discover grim industrial towns and terrible weather. The news coverage reads like wishful thinking writ large into patriotic hysteria by a country desperate to be Great Britain again. That said, it’s nice to read a positive story in the news for a change.

I spend the afternoon with a guy, M, who I met on a chat site. He’s a red-headed rugby-playing Welshman with a cute smile and a vaguely shy sheepish manner. (It’s not until much later that I realise he bears a striking resemblance to an old friend of mine, which makes me feel slightly pervy). M lives in a small town in rural Wales, and has recently broken up with his partner of nine years. He’s staying with his ex’s parents in a caravan outside St Ives, which sounds a bit grim.

We have a coffee on the beach. He’s a bit gutted that he’s suddenly single on the verge of turning 40, and says he’s overwhelmed by the dating scene, which has gone digital since he was last single. We share a few battle stories from life on the front line of online dating. He says men want to get married as soon as they meet him. I remember my friend Chris describing something similar of his experience of dating: men with a long history of secure relationships are usually relaxed and easy with emotional intimacy, which attracts less confident men like flies. As we walk back to my B&B, M and I joke to each other that we love each other and that we’re going to get married as soon as possible.

Afterwards, we go back to the Beachcomber’s Cafe for a cream tea. M is very much of the view that the jam goes on first and then the cream as a kind of industrial sealant to hold in the jam. He builds a mighty structure on top of his scones, like two miniature Volkswagens. As we say goodbye, he looks suddenly embarrassed, and holds out his hand for me to shake it. I give him a hug, which he only half-receives, his body stiff as a board. We promise to keep in touch, and go our separate ways.

I have a leisurely four hours before my sunset beach stroll and dinner at 9, so head back to my armchair in the bay window for some more Proust. I get through an unprecedented 15 pages. It’s a tiny amount in relation to the entire book, but it’s loaded with hair-raising details of little Marcel’s great Freudian battle to secure his mother’s goodnight kiss and avoid the wrath of his father.

Sitting at dinner, the narrator realises that his parents won’t let him stay, and so prepares his thoughts:

so as to be able… to devote the whole of the minute Mama would grant me to feel her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can obtain only short sittings prepares his palette and does in advance from memory, guided by his notes, everything for which he could if necessary manage without the presence of the model.

I’m reminded of the extreme fragility of a certain kind of sensitive child – in other words, me – intelligent enough to have foreknowledge of consequences and pain to come, but not old enough to control his environment or modulate his feelings.

The narrator’s father intervenes angrily, as if reading word for word from Freud: “No, really, leave your mother alone, you’ve already said goodnight to each other as it is, these demonstrations are ridiculous. Go on now, upstairs!” I find this moment strangely familiar and upsetting. Little boys, gay and straight, are inevitably punished for being sensitive and for uncontrolled outbursts of feelings – something that stays with many of us all our lives.

Once again, the narrator becomes overwhelmed by his senses, prompting some extraordinarily atmospheric detail:

That detested staircase which I always entered with such gloom exhaled an odour of varnish that had in some sense absorbed, fixated, the particular sort of sorrow I felt every evening and made it perhaps even crueller to my sensibility because, when it took that olfactory form, my intelligence could no longer share in it.

Frazzled, but still determined, the boy sends a note to his mother (something I remember doing with my mother as a child), via the maid, Françoise. Like many writers of Proust’s generation and sensibility, his descriptions of servants are both romantic and denigrating, viewing Françoise and those of her class as representing some old and authentic indigenous wisdom about the nature of the world. Her behavioural quirks:

seemed to have anticipated social complexities and worldly refinements such that nothing in Françoise’s associations or her life as a village domestic could have suggested… to her…. [L]ike those primitive men whose senses were so much more powerful than ours, she could immediately discern, from signs imperceptible to us, any truth that we wanted to hide from her.

It’s easier and more convenient, of course, for people keeping servants to imagine their servants uncomplaining and contented to follow ancient hierarchies, rather than just paying them properly. 

There’s a lovely moment where the narrator links the memory of his childhood self with that of Swann, who he first assumes “would surely have laughed at the anguish I had just suffered if he had read my letter”. With the advantage of adult hindsight, he notes that “a similar anguish was the torment of long years of [Swann’s] life and no one, perhaps, could have understood me as well as he… the anguish that comes from the feeling that the person you love is in a place of enjoyment where you are not.

I’m amazed here by how delicately and carefully Proust builds his narrative. The book still appears plotless at this stage, but slowly and carefully he constructs a picture of Swann, through casual repetition, until he starts to feel familiar to us. A bit later, the child overhears his family gossiping about Swann’s “wretched wife” who is living “with a certain Monsieur de Charlus”. There’s a long, not entirely successful metaphor where the narrator compares his joy at Françoise delivering his letter to his mother, to that of an adult man (like Swann, presumably) who waits to speak to his beloved at a ball. It’s a little bit too much foreshadowing with not quite enough context, though it may make more sense once I’m up to the “Swann In Love” chapter.

As the child narrator sits at the corner of his bed, he resolves to see his mother before falling asleep, and “to kiss her whatever the cost.” There’s an eerie silence to this scene, as if the child is preparing to commit a crime or sit an exam. “I had gone too far along the road that led to the fulfilment of my desire to be able to turn back now,” he reports. Proust intensifies the emotional atmosphere by casting our attention outside the window:

Outdoors, too, things seemed frozen in a silent intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating and distancing each thing by extending its shadow before it, denser and more concrete than itself, had at once thinned and enlarged the landscape like a map that had been folded and was now opened out.

Elsewhere, he describes distant noises from the nearby village “like motifs so well executed by the orchestra at the Conservatoire that, although you do not lose a single note, you nonetheless think you are hearing them far away from the concert hall.”

The child stands in the hallway waiting to see his mother, anticipating and almost expecting his punishment. (Is this the beginning of the narrator/Proust’s masochistic tendencies?) To his surprise, his father, who he describes as having no principles, takes pity on him, and instructs Mama to take him to bed with her. “We’re not brutes”, the father says, dressed eccentrically in a pink and violet Indian cashmere shawl tied around his head for “attacks of neuralgia”. 

Then suddenly, mid paragraph, Proust pulls us back into his central theme – the loss and recovery of the past:

This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of [my father’s] candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last for ever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand.… The possibility of such hours will never be reborn for me. But for a little while now, I have begun to hear very clearly, if I take care to listen, the sobs I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that did not burst out until I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is quieting down around me more and more now that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamour of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.

It’s a beautiful moment, though Proust is careful to essay the dark psychological undertones of the scene. His father is established as a despotic patriarch who gives and withholds affection, his behaviour retaining an “arbitrary and undeserved quality that was so characteristic of it and that arose from the fact that it generally resulted from fortuitous convenience rather than a premeditated plan.” The child’s own sadness becomes regarded “no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment that had just been officially recognised, a nervous condition for which I was not responsible”, no doubt setting in stone the narrator/Proust’s identification of himself as an invalid. And his triumph in securing a kiss, rather than keeping him in the reassuring grip of childhood, raises him “to the dignity of a grown-up and brought me suddenly to a sort of puberty of grief, of emancipation from tears.” The narrator recognises a loss as well as a gain, by causing his mother’s judgement to weaken, shattering the illusion of his mother as a goddess: [t]his evening was the beginning of a new era, would remain as a sad date…. it seemed to me that with an impious and secret hand I had just traced in her soul a first wrinkle and caused a first white hair to appear.”

And so we learn that Proust’s style, which seems so impressionistic and unfocused (like his father’s moods) have in fact been carefully constructed. He knows the emotional responses he wishes to engage and the psychological milestones he wants to traverse, and so he lays it all out for us within a disarmingly simple anecdote from childhood.

My passage tonight finishes with a lovely reminiscence about his grandmother, who, like Proust’s own grand-mere, was a huge influence on his aesthetic tastes. His grandmother buys him a series of classic books (including the philosopher Rousseau), which are possibly beyond a boy of six or seven. “She judged frivolous reading to be as unhealthy as sweets and pastries,” he tells us, but “it did not occur to her that a great breath of genius might have an even more dangerous and less invigorating influence on the mind even of a child than would the open air and the sea breeze on his body.” When the child’s parents protest at the appropriateness of her choices, the grandmother responds: “‘My dear daughter, she said to Mama, I could not bring myself to give the boy something badly written.’”

The narrator writes that his grandmother “could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially the profit which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity.” She buys gifts for the family that are too old to be useful, but which are “more disposed to tell us about the life of people of other times than to serve the needs of our own life.” It’s unsurprising that she detests the “vulgarity and utility” of photography, preferring to fill the boy narrator’s room with paintings and prints. And he reports, deliciously, of her disastrous attempts at presenting gifts to strangers:

The family could no longer keep count, at home, when my great-aunt wanted to draw up an indictment against my grandmother, of the armchairs she had presented to young couples engaged to be married or old husbands and wives which, at the first attempt to make use of them, had immediately collapsed under the weight of one of the recipients. But my grandmother would have believed it petty to be overly concerned about the solidity of a piece of wood in which could still distinguish… a lovely invention from the past.

His grandmother’s taste for the antique, in decor and language, appears to have rubbed off on Proust, who, like her, fills his novels with commendations of “those old things that exercise such a happy influence on the mind by filling it with longing for impossible voyages through time.” 

The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek words: “nostos”, meaning “returning home”; and “algos” meaning “pain”. Proust is, then, a true nostalgist: an artist who longs for the past, knowing that such a return is impossible and irrecoverable. How extraordinary, then, to create a scene that is so redolent of the pain of childhood, and so celebratory of our sentimental means of recapturing it. Though I’m rather pleased that his grandmother didn’t give me any gifts of furniture.

Magic Lanterns and Unwelcome Visitors

In which I move from the bedroom into the drawing room and encounter magic lanterns, the arrival of Monsieur Swann, and some wonderfully snobbish maiden aunts.

pettybone lantern www_magiclantern_org_uk petty3

I awake at dawn to the hoarse croaking of seagulls. It’s wonderful to be able to draw the curtains and look out at the sea. I go for a walk before breakfast, along the harbour side and down to Porthmeor Beach. The morning tide is still out, and there’s a long stretch of virgin sand, gleaming white and gold, with only two or three trails of footprints preceding me.

Emboldened by my first few pages yesterday, I pick up Proust again after breakfast. The Narrator, still presumably in a state of sleeplessness, recalls his childhood in Combray, a fictional village Proust based on the town of Illiers.

As a striking demonstration of the way life sometimes surrenders to the tyrannies of art, Illiers has now been renamed Illiers-Combray, in homage to its most famous holiday visitor, and no doubt to bolster the Proust tourist trade in the town. De Botton gets quite sniffy about this in the final chapter of How Proust Can Change Your Life, fuming about the cultural necrophiliacs who worship the relics from Proust’s universe. Like all self-styled cultural prophets, de Botton wants us to pour over Proust’s writings, not visit tacky restorations of his aunt’s house or buy overpriced madeleines from the bakery where Proust’s aunt reputedly bought hers.

De Botton has a point, I suppose – but I think it’s short-sighted to deny people the pleasure they take from visiting writers’ old haunts. Perhaps it’s a fallacy, but visiting St Ives made me feel closer to Virginia Woolf. At the end of Hermoine Lee’s marvellous biography of Woolf, she describes visiting St Ives, and standing in the gardens of the Stephen family’s old holiday home:

No convenient ghost is going to appear, casting her shadow on the step. However, looking away from the house… at the distant view from this island look-out, I can allow myself to suppose that I am seeing something of what she saw. My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.

It’s a lovely passage, that fuses some of de Botton’s middle-class embarrassment and self-admonishment, with the excitement of a devoted reader who seeks to make a physical connection with a writer she loves. I’m sure as hell visiting Illiers-Combray when I’ve finished this project.

But back to Proust. Today’s opening passage has a remarkable description of a magic lantern placed in the Narrator’s bedroom, “to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy”. Proust describes how the lantern “replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicoloured apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window.” Alas, the therapeutic effect of the lantern is lost, as it destroys the boy’s familiarity with the room – leading on from the previous passage about how habit soothes us into a state of half-forgetfulness. “The anaesthetising influence of habit having ceased, I would begin to have thoughts and feelings, and they are such sad things,” he says.

Those sad thoughts and feelings are, of course, the Freudian nightmare of the child Proust’s Mummy Love: his intense attachment to his mother, his grief at being separated from her when he goes to bed, and his various stratagems to get his mother to come to him. The Oedipal drama plays out just as Freud diagnosed it: the boy’s obsession with prolonging his mother’s goodnight kiss “irritated my father, who found these rituals absurd”, which in turn prompts his mother “to try and induce me to lose the need for it”.

I read these passages with a cringing sense of familiarity. I too was a clingy Mummy’s boy when I was a child, devoted to my mother and frequently panicked when I thought I was separated from her. What I remembered of those moments, as Proust does, was how quickly other adults, usually men, disapproved of this form of attachment, particularly in little boys, who, as I learned growing up, are supposed to be aggressive and unfeeling, not sissies.  The fear lingering behind all of this, which Freud left us with, is that sissy boys with intense attachments to their mothers will grow into homosexual men. Proust’s life seems to prove the truth of that theory, though his understanding of his own experience is so emotionally resonant it’s hard not to want to indulge the child Narrator his longing for his mother.

The Narrator sidetracks at this point, introducing Mr Swann, an evening visitor who seems to exist only as the catalyst for the Narrator to go to bed. From the wisdom and experience of the adult Narrator’s viewpoint, we learn that Swann frequents fashionable Parisian society, something unknown to the Narrator’s family at the time “with the perfect innocence of honest innkeepers who have under their roof, without knowing it, some celebrated highwayman”. 

Proust leaves his Narrator’s child angst behind and moves into some delicious social commentary, explaining that his bourgeois family subscribed to

“a rather Hindu notion of society… made up of closed castes, in which each person, from birth, found himself placed in the station which his family occupied and from which nothing, except the accidents of an exceptional career or an unhoped-for marriage, could draw him in order to make him enter a higher caste.”

And so the family drift unaware through polite conversation, unaware that Swann is a member of the Jockey Club and a frequent guest of the Prince of Wales, until they read one day in the newspaper that Swann is a lunch guest of the Duc de X, and owns a painting by Corot. The Narrator’s great-aunt sniffs disapprovingly:

“…anyone who chose his associations outside of the caste into which he had been born… suffered in her eyes a regrettable lowering of his social position.”

Swann is dispproved of because he has married a disreputable woman (referred to as a “cocotte”) who the Narrator’s family refuse to have in their house. But it appears their snobbery goes both ways. The Narrator’s amusingly judgmental great aunt, who is fast becoming one of my favourite characters:

“…had even stopped seeing the son of a lawyer we knew because he had married royalty and was therefore in her opinion demoted from the respected tanks of lawyer’s son to that of one of those adventurers, former valets or stableboys, on whom they say that queens sometimes bestowed their affections.”

Given what we know of Proust’s adult affections for working class men, it seems he wasn’t the only queen who bestowed his affections “beneath” him.

Though it all sounds like something out of a Wilde comedy, Proust has a more serious purpose in mind. He showcases his family’s snobbish inability to see Swann clearly, and Swann’s tendencies to make light of his social status, to advance a distinctly modern view of human nature:

“…none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go to look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others…. Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual act. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and in the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly have the greater part.”

And so the Narrator talks of multiple versions of Swann, which echoes the sense we have of the multiple versions of the Narrator himself – the frightened clingy child and the older, wiser, insomniac adult who narrates the story.

I’m amazed by the ease and agility with which Proust moves between perspectives. All at once, he is the child Narrator growing more anxious as he is about to be sent to bed; the Narrator’s distracted mother, keen to make peace all round; Swann, a character still seen through others’ views of him, who nonetheless comes out with startling criticisms of newspapers, that “day after day draw our attention to insignificant things whereas only three or four times in our lives do we read a book in which there is something really essential”; and the deliciously narrow-minded great-aunts, who consider it bad manners to pay Swann a direct compliment for bringing them a gift and spend the evening throwing vague comments and glacial smiles in his direction. It’s all done with prose of gossamer lightness, but it achieves amazing depths. I’m clearly in the hands of a master.

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.

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.

Gay Pride and Gefiltefish

An unconventional Gay Pride weekend in London, involving fried fish balls in Hampstead. 

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It’s Gay Pride weekend in London, a date that appears to have passed me by until now. The parade through the streets of Soho starts at 1pm, but I’m going to miss it. In the continuing black comedy that is my life, I’m spending the afternoon in Hampstead learning how to make gefilte fish (fried fish cakes) with two little old Jewish ladies and a pair of notorious homosexuals. It should be an interesting cross-cultural collision.

I’m now feeling like a bit of a Bad Gay for not joining in with Pride. In times past, it’s been a bigger weekend – attending the parade with friends, languorous picnics in Hampstead Heath followed by a perusal of the flesh at the Men’s Bathing Pond, dancing until 3am at Duckie’s Gay Shame parties in Brixton, and the occasional random snogging of strangers in the rain at Hyde Park.

Over the years, it’s become less and less essential a fixture in the diary. I suppose I’ve fallen victim to the same middle-aged middle-class complacency that I used to complain of in my elders. Or it could be that needing to celebrate Pride feels less pressing than it once did. One of the great privileges of living in London is that every day can feel like a gay pride parade – at least in Old Compton Street. More happily, as gay culture shifts more and more into the mainstream, the number of ways we can celebrate Pride are as many and varied as gay men themselves. So this year, I’m being proud with saturated fat and kosher cuisine.

When I come out of the gym, it’s pissing with rain, and it’s gotten worse by the time I emerge at Hampstead tube. What a different tribe live up here – it’s all linen suits and floral scarves, little dogs under one arm and copies of the Guardian under the other. Everyone has the calm, cow-like expression of the perpetually well-off, and there’s nary a person of colour around, except those serving behind shop counters. My part of South London is fairly salubrious, but it’s a younger, sportier populace, with huge Bugaboo pushchairs vying for space on the pavements with the pert-buttocked joggers. Up ‘ere, the locals could all be extras in a Merchant-Ivory film, give or take a Volvo or two.

The fish ball making session is huge fun. Today’s shenanigans were organised by Sandra, my fabulous Streisand lookalike friend who invited me to my first Seder dinner earlier this year. Our host, Angela, is a head teacher at a school in North London, and is famous, Sandra tells us, for her fish balls. Angela’s house is a spectacularly well-preserved 60s modernist split-level apartment, all gleaming hard wood and period furniture, with floor-to ceiling windows looking out onto a perfectly-tended garden. One almost expects David Bailey and Catherine Deneuve to come wafting down the staircase in matching kaftans. Angela herself reminds me of my many aunties on my mother’s side of the family: wonderful homemakers, accomplished cooks, generous hostesses and filled with anecdotes about family history.

I’d had mixed reviews about gefilte fish before coming. My friend Laura claims that gefilte fish smells and tastes like rotting flesh, an opinion I’ve never been brave enough to verify personally. As the New York Times recently explained, the “hate” side of the love-hate relationship with gefilte fish may have something to do with people eating tinned rather than fresh fish, which does sound revolting. Angela promises us that these bad boys will be much tastier.

Angela prepares the fish balls in her kitchen: they’re made with a blend of minced fish (a mixture of cod, plaice, haddock and carp, which she buys prepared from her local butcher), matzo meal and minced onions, which she mixes by hand. Stephen’s face turns white as he watches Angela pour half a bottle of sunflower oil into a saucepan and heat it to boiling point. “I’m pleased I went to the gym this morning”, he murmurs, as Angela cranks up the oven extractor fan onto full. Angela explains that she usually cooks fish balls with a plastic bag on her head to stop the smell getting into her hair – though as she’s just had her hair done and there’s a photo shoot later, there’s no plastic bag today.

One by one, the Gentiles are lined up to have a go rolling the balls and sliding them into the boiling oil. As we work, we ask Angela when she first started making fish balls. Angela explains that while her mother was a great cook, in the great tradition of overbearing Jewish mothers, she seldom let anyone into her kitchen and didn’t think to pass on the wisdom to her children. This sounds very much like my own mother. Angela makes us laugh explaining her first attempt at cooking while on her honeymoon in Malta. Her kitchen is now filled with recipe books – the ubiquitous Jerusalem by Ottolenghi sits next to a well-thumbed looking volume called The Jewish Princess’s Cookbook.

Apart from the initial terror of working with boiling oil, it all works a charm. Angela points out, kindly rather than critically, that Stephen’s fish balls are so beautifully hand-worked that they’re too smooth to brown quickly. “You killed them with perfectionism,” I say to Stephen. “Story of his life,” Kurt adds. Learning my lesson from Stephen, I rough mine up a bit, adding a few fingerprints for an uneven surface. Sure enough, they brown up beautifully.

Angela encourages us to try a few as we work. They are delicious – the fish flavour is subtler than I thought, with a sweet creamy texture more like potato croquettes. Angela explains that gefilte fish was traditionally made on the day before Passover or other holidays, and then eaten cold on the day, in keeping with Orthodox laws that forbid cooking or operating mechanical equipment on the Sabbath.

After about an hour, the kitchen smells like a fish and chip shop, but we have a platter of beautifully cooked fish balls. Simultaneously with the fry-up, Angela has boiled a dozen or so fish balls – the slightly less calorific alternative – which are served with a slice of boiled carrot on top.

We sit down to lunch with the two platters of fish balls, a crispy green salad, a potato salad to die for, and a fresh plaited white loaf. The fried fish balls are served with chrein, the Jewish condiment made with horseradish and beetroot. The Ashkenazi Jewish diet, from which most Jewish ceremonial food recipes seem to derive, is fairly bland and largely spice-free, so the chrein adds a vivid splash of cerise to our plates, and a nice sharpness to the palate. 

It’s a lovely afternoon, and we’re touched by Angela’s generosity and her interest in sharing her love of food, which provides such an immediate and appealing insight into Jewish history and culture. Fried fish, which now seems such a quintessentially English dish, is in fact a Jewish invention. Food writer Claudia Roden writes that fried fish was introduced to England by Portuguese Jewish refugees in the 16th century. In 1860 a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe called Joseph Malin opened the first business in London’s East End had the bright idea of selling fried fish alongside chipped potatoes, which until then had only been found only in the Irish potato shops. It was a match made in culinary heaven – though perhaps not that great for the nation’s arteries.

The rain has finally stopped by the time we bid our farewells and roll merrily along to the Tube station. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so much deep-fried food since that house was built in the late 60s,” Stephen said. He invites me back into Soho that evening to celebrate Pride, but I’m too full of grease to move, let along struggle into a tight t-shirt. I decide to toast Pride more sedately, propped up in my armchair at home, watching Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian mom comedy The Kids Are All Right while drinking T2’s fantastic Just Rose tea from my new cast iron teapot. I’m in bed by 11.30pm. It’s hard, being this rock n roll.

As I fall into sleep, I wonder whether Proust ever tried gefilte fish. His mother was Jewish, but he was baptised and raised as a Catholic, and appears to have been irritated whenever anyone mentioned his Jewish ancestry. There are no reports of his visiting England, and it sounds as though his constitution was too delicate for fried fish – though he was supposed to have ordered a grilled sole for dinner on his death bed. It’s also interesting to speculate on how he might have dealt with the Bacchic excesses of Gay Pride weekend – perhaps, as I have, by bolting the windows shut and going to bed early.

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.