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.

 

 

 

 

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The Thrill of the Lash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A tea tray of Madeleines

In which I discover a wonderful French bakery selling Proustian madeleines, and rediscover the importance of cakes as a way to release the creative subconscious. 

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A glorious Sunday morning, blue-skied and cloudless. I’m reminded of my week in rural France, and ponder again how climate seems to be destiny. How different would my writing be, I wonder, if I lived in a climate that was reliably warm and sunny for eight months of the year? Would it be easier or more difficult to write about dark and depressing themes when the sun was continually shining?

Brunch with Louise, who has laryngitis, which makes for a fun if one-sided conversation. Part of me secretly wishes all my brunch partners had laryngitis – it makes it so much easier to speak without interruption. The cafe, which has become a regular for our Sunday brunches, has great huevos rancheros, a comfortable, 1950s lounge-type feel, and a tiny but formidable manageress in death-defyingly tight skinny jeans. The last time we were here, one of the chefs moved back the table where we are sitting today, pried open a metal key in the floorboards and opened two trap doors, revealing a staircase leading down to the cellar. It felt wonderfully clandestine, like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo, with smuggler’s gold or heretical priests hidden beneath the floor boards. Today’s service is somewhat erratic, but delivered with such sincerity and goodwill by a series of sweet-faced young men that we forgive them everything and leave them a generous tip.

Then it’s off to the gym, which is filled with weightlifters, despite the sunny day. Our friendly neighbourhood porn star is there, solemnly working out on the chest press machine with his boyfriend. He’s a giant of a man – 6 foot 6 and with massive, steroid-inflated muscles – and towers over the gym floor like a sentry. His Japanese yakuza tattoos appear to be growing from when I last saw him. The koi carp and chrysanthemum patterns, which cover the full length of his veiny arms, are now spreading down his legs like an extremely photogenic virus. His physique is impressive, in a strongman at the circus way, but apart from the immediate appeal of size, it all seems too much. As Ruby Wax once said of Pamela Anderson’s breast implants, “It’s like Thanksgiving every day of the week.” I smile at him as I pass him in the changing rooms. He nods gravely in response. He has watery grey-blue eyes that seem devoid of any expression.

I’m dining with Patrick in suburbia tonight, and have offered to bring dessert. Patrick diplomatically suggests that I buy something rather than make it myself – an inspired call, as I’m running out of time this afternoon. I walk to the French cafe at the top of the park, where a beautiful French waiter with curlicued forearm tattoos (today’s theme, it seems) sells me two beautiful little cakes with a raspberry and pistachio topping.

There’s a tea tray of madeleines on the counter, still warm from the oven. Apart from the scalloping around the edges, they are, as custom dictates, undecorated – the French equivalent of a gingernut biscuit to be dunked into a cup of milky tea. They are shockingly plain and austere, especially when sat next to the Rococo magnificence of my little cakes. It seems extraordinary that such an unremarkable teardrop of sponge cake could have inspired one of the most famous childhood memories in world literature – an act of degustory rapture that “made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence… I had ceased to feel I was mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

I peer at them more closely. Proust describes his famous madeleine as “fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating“. There’s certainly something appealing about the shell-like curve of their shape, folding from the pinched edges to the fullness of their middles. I can’t find much more in the way of sensuality – unless perhaps I put at least three in my mouth at once. Proust’s hyper-sensitivity to this kind of stimulation seems charmingly old-world, harking from a more well-behaved age where piano legs were covered up to prevent men from fantasising about the curve of a woman’s ankle.

To the suburbs I head, with my little cakes and one of an endless collection of bottles of Sainsbury’s Prosecco left over from my birthday party. We have dinner in the garden, which is lovely, while Patrick’s neighbours discreetly trim the shrubbery in their back yards. The little cakes are a huge success. Patrick is so excited by the combination of pistachio and raspberry that he licks the remnants off the circular strip of plastic that held his cake in place. “I’m rather pleased you didn’t take my photo while I did that,” he says. I push my plastic strip towards him and excuse myself and go to the bathroom, leaving him to make yummy noises on his own.

After dinner, I read Patrick extracts from the comic short story I worked on last week in France. He laughs away good-naturedly, and describes it as “most promising”. As ever, it’s a galling experience reading one’s own work aloud. All I can hear are my over-long sentences, that trundle along awkwardly when read aloud, like backed-up freight train cars. It needs more work than I thought. Still, it’s nice to circle the wagons and share my work, after what’s been a solitary period of writing.

Patrick expresses interest in coming to the Book Club – especially if I promise to bring along madeleines. Cake really does make the world go round.

Summer Solstice

Midsummer’s day in the Northern Hemisphere brings perfect summer weather, but a disappointing war play from an Irishman.

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It’s the longest day of the year – the Summer Solstice, in pagan terms, when druids gather to wave burnt sage around the rocks at Stonehenge, and we lesser mortals start to count the slow contraction of the evenings as we move towards midsummer and the autumn.

No druidical frolicking for me tonight – I’m off to see a revival of Sean O’Casey’s WWI play The Silver Tassie at the National. It’s a gorgeous night on the South Bank – warm and sunny with golden evening light that feels more like Spain or Italy than cloudy-with-a-chance-of-rain England. The Queen’s Walk is swarming with people – “They’re coming in droves!”, my mother once said, agape at all the people in one place.

As I wait for Tim, a young couple dance together to Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, which comes out of a tiny dilapidated 1980s tape deck one of them has placed nearby. They’re lean and whippet thin with veiny muscled arms – dance students, probably, or buskers, though there’s no upturned bowler hat anywhere around for coins. It’s been ages since I’ve been dancing.

The Silver Tassie is a strange experience – an experimental and not entirely successful play, given the full National Theatre treatment with elaborate set design, studious performances and some big-assed explosions. It was O’Casey’s first work after his trilogy of highly successful plays (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars) for which he’s still known. William Butler Yeats, the then-director of the Abbey Theatre, rejected it for performance, claiming that O’Casey was making light of the war and didn’t properly understand human suffering like veterans did. O’Casey was incensed and went to the newspapers, claiming that he’d been betrayed by the same theatre that his plays had bankrolled. The play was eventually performed in England, where it was a mixed success.

On the strength of the National production, I’d say Yeats had a point. O’Casey was keen to move away from spit-and-potatoes naturalism and embrace a more expressionist style. The result is a violent lurch from naturalism into surrealism and back again that doesn’t quite work.

The first act is standard O’Casey – a melodrama set in a tenement flat, featuring wisecracking drunk men, hard-working beleaguered women, and enough blarney to choke a leprechaun. The third and fourth acts show the devastation on the community after the war: strapping young men come back crippled and former alpha males get struck down with gas blindness, women betray their allegiances and mothers weep. It’s nicely played but fairly unremarkable fare.

The play is split in half – or elevated, depending on your point of view – by a bizarre second half, set in makeshift army quarters in rural France, just before the regiment are about to go into the trenches. Most of the dialogue is sung in the manner of a sea ditty, and the characters move as if in a trance. O’Casey presumably wanted to capture the madness and surrealism of life in a war zone. It doesn’t quite work, largely because we haven’t established enough of a relationship with the characters (only two of whom featured in the first act) to care enough. The National’s staging feels both bombastic and strangely defensive – as if they felt the need to sandpaper over the faults in the play with a big boys’  display of fireworks. Shells explode and cannons are wheeled on and walls crumble most impressively, but there’s no narrative seam to draw together the complex emotional terrain covered.

In the interval, largely to take our minds of our disappointment, Tim talks about reading Proust for the first time (he’s read it twice now, apparently). Though he’s more of an Anthony Powell man, he recommends Proust (which he persists, charmingly, in pronouncing Prow-st), and encourages me to persevere with the reading project.

After the disappointments of the theatre, we walk from the South Bank to the trains at Vauxhall. It’s a lovely evening: crowds and buskers and food stalls are still buzzing on the embankment around the London Eye, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament look especially gorgeous lit up against the blue-black night sky.

As we near Vauxhall, we see hordes of young people, dressed in 80s-era skinny jeans, stone-washed tank tops and big Dynasty hair that Tim and I are old enough to remember from the first time around. Clubland is just opening for the evening, though it’s the end of mine. It’s off to bed with a cup of apple tea for this little brown hen.

Coffee and Harvey Milk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Germaine Bitchslaps Proust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Proust

Savage Grace tells the tale of the Mother of all dysfunctional mother-son relationships. There’s a Proustian quality to its depiction of the idle, supremely unhappy rich. 

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Tom Kalin’s 2008 film Savage Grace is based on the very creepy true-life story of Barbara Baekeland, an insecure gold digger who marries into money and forms the centre of a severely dysfunctional family. It’s that most rare of things – an American film that attempts to parse the subtle vibrations of class warfare and social exclusion.

In an early scene, Barbara (played by Julianne Moore) is out of her depth at a dinner party with her husband’s friends, and is desperate to be seen as high-class and sophisticated. So she does what every social-climbing arriviste does – drops French phrases into conversation, and randomly references Proust. “Was Proust truly a homosexual? Qu’est-ce que tu penses?” she asks a disinterested literary critic. Cue stunned silence as the critic smiles nervously and fumbles for a response, and everyone else rolls their eyes at her gauche pretensions. Barbara follows it up by having her son Tony (then aged at about 10, I’d guess) read aloud to the dinner guests from the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic novel Justine, presumably to show everyone how avante-garde she is by allowing her children to read “transgressive” literature.

Unfortunately for Barbara, the horrors described in Sade come to life in her own story. Her husband Brooks, the heir to a plastics fortune (his father, Tony’s grandfather, invented Bakelite), is a soulless dilettante, with a fondness for rough anal sex with his wife in hotel rooms. Barbara develops a suffocating co-dependent relationship with Tony, the kind of which all great Oedipal dramas are born. True to form, Tony grows up to be painfully shy and a closeted gay. Brooks sweeps in and carries off Tony’s girlfriend, eventually divorcing Barbara. Mother and son move closer together, and eventually settle in London, where they start to resemble husband and wife. Barbara develops an incestuous relationship with her adult son Tony, in an apparent attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality. In the film’s hair-raising conclusion, Tony, clearly in the grip of a psychotic breakdown, stabs and kills Barbara in their Chelsea flat. Leaving her on the kitchen floor to die, he calmly uses the telephone to order a delivery of Chinese food.

Unfortunately for Tom, the Proust reference turned on him, like a bad prawn in Tony’s Chinese takeaway meal. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, A. O Scott, compared Savage Grace unfavourably to Proust:

Even as it tries to be suave and nonjudgmental, “Savage Grace” has some of the breathless salaciousness of Barbara’s question about Proust. It lays out the facts of the case with the false nonchalance of a seasoned gossip, professing not to be shocked by anything even as it expects you to be.

Bisexuality! Marijuana! Anal sex! A father who sleeps with his son’s girlfriend! A son who sleeps with his mother’s boyfriend! All of great intrinsic interest, to be sure, but “Savage Grace” doesn’t seem quite sure of how to communicate its own fascination with such doings, whether to convey shock, envy, pity or bemusement. Proust might have known what to do with the Baekelands, but Mr. Kalin and Mr. Rodman [the screenwriter] don’t make much more of them than the mess they apparently already were.

Ouch. A little Proust reference sure goes a long way.

 

The Queen and I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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