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.

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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.

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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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Le Writing Life

In which I go to rural France for a week-long writer’s retreat, and join a Proustian book club in London.

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I’m almost at the end of a week-long writing retreat at Circle of Missé, a writers’ colony and cooking school run by my friends Wayne and Aaron from their farmhouse in Missé, a sleepy little village in the Loire Valley, an hour or so south of Tours. It’s my fourth time here, and to me it’s become a second home (though Échalote, their moody, over-indulged spaniel, might disagree) and a creative powerhouse where I happily churn out work.

The farmhouse is late 19th century, in the grounds of a ruined abbey, and redecorated by Aaron and Wayne in what I like to call French Country Ghetto-Fabulous. (There’s a feather boa hanging rakishly from the curtain rail in the living room that looks like an old Shirley Bassey cast-off). My room, decorated in shades of soft green, faces north and looks out over wheat fields. It’s a perfect writer’s room – I wake up to sunrise every morning, and then it’s cool and quiet during the hot afternoons. The lawn and vegetable gardens were looking lush and overgrown, and we had most of our meals outside under the arbor in the front garden.

The house is set up to be as sociable or as reclusive as you need to be – breakfast pastries and coffee are laid out in the morning, and lunch is served in an adorable wooden lidded box, so you can eat in your room if you wish. In the evenings, we come together for dinner, and we talk about the day’s work, what books we’re reading, and reference the outside world, even though it feels a long way away.

The food, prepared by Aaron and the wonderful Alison and their disciples from the cookery course, is delicious and in constant supply. Most of the ingredients are grown in the garden and locally sourced, and as we’re in the middle of the Loire, the wine flows freely. The combination of glorious food, great company and stimulating conversation puts me in mind of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, describing a wonderful meal she attended at Cambridge: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Perhaps she should have added, “one cannot write well if one has not dined well”.

For me, it’s the perfect atmosphere in which to write. As much as I love writing, I find it lonely work, and I get a contact high from seeing and talking to people and getting feedback on my work. A writing retreat (which, in Missé terms, is French for “a week’s holiday in a small luxury hotel”) is the perfect combination of separate togetherness – peace and quiet during the day, and company when you need it.

For a country boy, it’s lovely to be out in the fields again. The summer weather was mostly hot and sunny, with occasional storms and humidity (with some bitchin’ thunder and lightning displays) that felt very Gone With the Wind. I took a walk each morning and evening through the wheat fields, and found what became my “Sense and Sensibility” view. I loved the cleanness of the lines between earth and sky, and the striking simplicity of the colour palette: the yellow of the wheat fields, the cornflower blue of the sky and the deep browns of the earth.

This week, I worked on short stories for what I hope will be a collection I can tout to agents and publishers. I finished good first drafts of two new stories, and did substantial rewrites of two existing stories that I started last winter. It was great to stretch my imagination and work on two new projects, writing in a mostly uninterrupted stream of thought, and with sufficient time to do some more careful editing later in the week. As I’ve found on past retreats, an extended period of time in which to write helps build confidence. By the end of the week, I was taking risks – cutting flabby sections of text, experimenting with different endings – that you can only do after a sustained period of work.

I love it so much here that it begs begs the question as to why I don’t live in rural France with a boyfriend and a spaniel. Until that happy day comes, I’ve decided to work on building a network of writers and readers in London, to try and sustain the momentum of all my good work here this week.

By happy coincidence, my Facebook feed throws up an advert for a book club in London dedicated to reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I make contact with the organiser, Michael, who seems smart and funny. He’s also a writer, and a gay boy, and claims to have read In Search of Lost Time before – which seems appropriate if he’s going to be facilitating. The timing feels delicious – a project I’ve been wanting to start for years finally becomes more doable due to my reducing my hours, and then a group of like-minded hipsters manifests to discuss it with me. Things are looking up.

A Night in Paris

In which I head to the spiritual home of all Proustians, and discover sunshine, big moustaches, grumpy waiters and spectacularly good roast lamb.

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I have a day and a night in Paris, on my way to a writer’s retreat in the Loire Valley. I’m delighted to be catching up with old friends from New Zealand, Rachel and Chris, who are, by wonderful coincidence, also in town en route to a wedding in Oslo. We are dining and staying the night with a mutual friend, Becky, who’s currently living and working here. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Of course, one never really needs an excuse to visit Paris. It’s a place I dreamed of visiting from the age of 10, when my brother sent me a postcard of the Pompidou Centre, with its crazy futuristic coloured pipes on the exterior of the building. It was love at first sight before I’d even got there, fuelled by a steady diet of French films, a heavy dose of French post-structuralist critical theory, and and the memory of all the bright young things who partied and died here: Marie Antoinette, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Serge Gainsbourg, Oscar Wilde – and, briefly, Carrie from Sex and the City. Paris is the birthplace of the four cornerstones of civilised modern existence: cinema, the metric system, the macaron and oral sex (the last one according to Foucault, anyway).

Paris is a place that delights tourists in much the same way that New York does, by presenting enough of the well-hewn cliches about “Paris life” to correlate with a first-time visitor’s fantasies. The wild boulevards are tree-lined, the cafes langorously paced and filled with chic-looking people drinking coffee and smoking in a guilt-free haze. Waiters with black aprons and Village People moustaches grimace at tourists and open bottles of Evian with their yellowing teeth. Immaculately dressed women in high heels walk little dogs on leashes through the Luxembourg Gardens. Debonair men with five o’clock stubble wear perfectly draped little scarves with leather jackets. The Art Nouveau-era Metro signs and shopping arcades effortlessly recall the era of Proust and the Belle Epoque. The views of the Seine are breathtakingly beautiful. Even the instantly recognisable Eiffel Tower manages to astound with its clean lines and startlingly modernist construction – and it’s chocolate brown (who knew?). Somewhere, there’s always a piano-accordion player cranking out the soundtrack from Amelie on a street corner.

There’s another side to Paris, of course, that first-time visitors may not see or choose to see. The streets are covered with discarded cigarette butts, Metro tickets and chewing gum, and the train stations are grim and filthy by comparison with other European cities. Parisians hailing from the former Empire states – Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal – don’t appear to be having as an exalted a time as their European compatriots, and there are beggars everywhere. Life in central Paris looks charming and well-appointed, but provides a smokescreen from the ugliness and unrest of the banlieues encircling the city. Unlike London or Berlin, which tends to wear its ugliness and disrepair alongside its beauty, Paris is an ageing courtesan, expertly applying layers of powder and a beauty spot to distract onlookers from the ravages beneath.

For today, anyway, I’m happy to revel in the simple pleasures that Paris offers in abundance to we of the bourgeoisie: good food, an easy pace, and a relaxed urbane energy that one can slip into like a favourite pair of silk pyjamas. Becky’s apartment is in a 300-year old building with a private courtyard. You push open a heavy iron fortress door, and suddenly you’re in the 18th century. I climb up four flights of winding stairs, panting slightly as I realise I’m not as fit I should be, and relieved that I only brought a small suitcase.

I shower and change, and then take a stroll down the road to the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s a hot sunny day and the gardens are full of Parisians taking the sun and eating delicious little ice creams. In keeping with the stately grounds of the palace (now housing the Senat, the upper house of the French parliament) and gardens, everyone seems very well behaved. There’s no drunkenness, no yobs with their shirts off, and definitely no one peeing against an ornamental palm tree. The large assault rifles carried by the gendarmerie standing guard outside the Senat might have something to do with the subdued atmosphere, but it’s all very pleasant.

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In the Orangerie – a building that I’m always disappointed when I visit to discover that it doesn’t contain orange trees – there’s an amazing exhibition of photographs of Paris during WWI. There’s a formal composition to most of the photos, but most of them are of ordinary people and situations, that seem to pulsate with life. It’s amusing to see how little the Gallic profile seems to have changed in 100 years: the locals still have broad faces and deep set eyes and big noses and robust jawlines, though teeth have appeared to improve since then. Most of the men sport spectacular moustaches, and everyone, male and female, are wearing hats. It’s heartbreakingly poignant seeing the excitement and optimism in the peoples’ faces as war is declared, and to see those looks disappear as the war drags on, replaced by expressions of grim determination. The photos hint at the social upheaval created by the war: women are photographed working as postal clerks and engine drivers, and there are some striking portraits of immigrants from the French colonies – Vietnam, Chad, Senegal – working in munitions factories for the war effort.

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I’m reminded of the chapter in Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life where he talks about Proust looking at paintings in the Louvre and trying to match them with people he knew in his own life. de Botton says that this exemplified Proust’s assertion that “aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know.” de Botton asserts that this is one of the grand purposes of art, and of Proust in particular – to feel at home everywhere. “[W]orlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.” It’s a lovely thought, and seems to explain the enduring appeal of photography, which helps us feel a connection with the long dead from the past, and see ourselves in them. I make a mental note to re-read How Proust Can Change Your Life. It was certainly a fun read the first time around.

Then I’m off to meet my delicious French friend David and his even more delicious boyfriend Cedric. David and I have had a long debate about Cedric over the years. I didn’t meet him until last year, when I was convinced that he didn’t exist. Now that I have met him, I keep telling David that Cedric would, clearly, be much happier with me as his boyfriend. David politely disagrees, and so we must all go on living this pretence of happiness. It is difficult, but like Celine Dion, my heart will go on.

Our date starts off somewhat eccentrically, at a short concert of medieval English choral music at the Church of St-Germain-des-Pres, directed by a friend of David’s. Cedric tells me that St-Germain is one of the oldest churches in Paris, and it looks it: like most Gothic monsters, it’s very dark inside and has tiny windows (glass being rather expensive in those days). I tell Cedric that I think this would be a perfect place for our wedding. Not quite getting the joke (or politely pretending not to), he earnestly explains about the separation of church and state in France, and how marriage is primarily a civil ceremony. I really don’t mind where we get married, as long as Cedric says “I do.”

After the concert, which is lovely – polyphonic music of that era needs to be thrown up to the vaulted roof spaces drink. David has to do rather a lot of work, as my French and Cedric’s English isn’t quite good enough for us to tell each other what we mean to each other, but somehow we muddle through.

Then it’s off for dinner with Rachel and Chris and Becky, who have been shopping up a storm in the Marais all afternoon. Everyone is dressed up and looks wonderfully chic, if somewhat fatigued from carrying Rachel’s shopping bags home. It’s a glorious evening, full of wine and amazing food and conversations that feel like they’ve just been picked up from yesterday.

The Americans at the next table look on in horror as we order the cote d’agneau and the cote de boeuf. I want to assure them that it’s all ok – Chris is an oncologist specialising in bowel cancer, and he says red meat is fine as long as we eat up our green veggies.

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The lamb is particularly good, cooked to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, and there’s a bed of potatoes and onions cooked in the juices of the lamb that we hoover up. Rachel and I each order a mille fieulle, which is, we both agree, the closest thing we’ve each come to an orgasm with all our clothes on in at least a week.


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Afterwards, we walk home. Chris and Rachel are slightly drunk, but who can blame them, since they’re in Europe on holiday without their children. Their next stop is London, where they’ll be staying in my flat while I’m in France for the week. There’s a long complicated conversation about what to do with my keys when they leave, which I realise is perhaps best had in the morning. We end the evening in the cool airy living room of Becky’s apartment, drinking T2 tea and nibbling on chocolates, and watching the evening slowly fade to black.

Becky kindly invites me to come and stay for a long weekend over the summer. I’ll definitely be back, especially once I’ve got some more of In Search of Lost Time under my belt. Though my visit a few years ago to the Carnavalet Museum to see Proust’s cork-lined walls and small, uncomfortable looking iron-framed bed was a bit of a disappointment, there are many more Proust haunts I want to visit yet.