I read Proust for the first time two weeks ago, which I agree was an educational lacuna. I was put off. I was put off because my mother used to bang on about this bit where he shoves his Madeleine (biscuit, not girlfriend) in a cup of tea and all the memories of his childhood return to him, and she would invoke this in that slightly glassy-eyed, over-reverential tone people adopt when they either haven’t read the book at all or someone else has told them to say this. ‘Far too fond of his mother,’ she would say about Hamlet, but I knew she was just fooling around with that one. Normally I’d already read all the books my mother talked about first and was able to cross-question her, correct her quotations which were nearly always wrong, and explain to her the actual meaning of the text, but had I not been an avid reader many, many books would have been ruined for me, because you just do not want to read something that sounds as pretentious and self-indulgent and point-blank boring, not to mention horrible, as the whole of one’s childhood returning with one bite of a Madeleine. I ate one in France once and it tasted awful, and no doubt if I ate one now, my memory of it tasting awful would return to me, because that’s the only memory I have connected with a Madeleine, which is why slightly stupid people believe that if they eat a Madeleine something wonderful will happen to them, when in fact you need the mnemonic equivalent, and God, most of my memories are too unpleasant to warrant recollection anyway, whatever triggers them.
I was also put off by the fact that the idea of reading Proust as something fashionable literati, or pseudo-literati do is in a book by Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza, which was full of intensely horrible people so I figured anyone who liked Proust was intensely horrible too. I couldn’t find ONE person who’d actually read Proust who could tell me a thing about him which was delightful or true or exciting, they just repeated this Madeleine cup of tea incident, from which I conclude that most people either don’t read or don’t know how to discuss books when they do, and just recite the blurb on the back cover. Also, my parents had a cat called Proust, which died before I was born. I thought, ‘Proust will be one of those writers I don’t like. He’s part of a bourgeois elite that will really really irritate me, and it will be like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (which has a lot of tea in it) in terms of mundaneity, but without the broken heart and the beautiful language.’ And things got worse when I actually tried to read Proust. I make an effort every ten years or so and it’s exactly the same thing, this annoying brat of a child lying in bed trying to sleep, or falling asleep without realising he’s asleep, waiting for his mother to come and kiss him goodnight, and whining, and on and on it goes and I always give up after page four because I’ve actually gone to sleep myself.
This from me, who has no trouble with long words and long sentences, and spends her life in bed anyway, trying to sleep, or not knowing whether she’s asleep or awake. ‘Proust was just like you,’ said my mother. ‘He lived in bed, writing, being in love with people who didn’t love him back, surrounded by darkness and a suffocating aura of claustrophobia and disconnection. He read constantly, and never saw the light of day.’ ‘Yeah does sound like me.’ But what she and I thought of what that meant were not likely to be the same.
Anyway, I decided to go on holiday. I know it will bankrupt me but breakdowns are even more expensive, and I was getting cabin fever. So, because I’d bought a paperback copy of Book One of Remembrance of Things Past, or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time (and I’ll use all three possible titles throughout) off The Bookman, and it was lying around the floor with a picture of Jeremy Irons and Ornella Muti on the cover, I wrote to Andy The Fantastic Academic and said, ‘so… shall I take Proust on holiday?’ and he said, ‘yes, there’s this marvellous description of the exploding cup of tea.’ Actually I have this theory that serial killers drink tea, and it is true, because if a man asks you out for tea and not out for a drink he’s either over seventy or up to no good, because he’s attempting to make himself sound more innocent than he is – I can prove that there’s something at least a little weird about tea drinkers from my research on this dateline I belong to, and from personal experience, indeed ‘cup of tea?’ - a phrase used as a tutorial in My Fair Lady (significant) - is more or less a euphemism for sado-masochistic sex or attempts on one’s life, in my opinion, so be wary of it when someone uses those words on a text message. Or the more abrasive, cursory and overtly demanding ‘Tea?’ - you’re facing the abyss if you get that one. But Andy knows my theory so I thought, ‘well maybe he’s just being encouraging because he knows I associate cups of tea with the sinister and the deviant, and will therefore enjoy the book,’ but all the time I knew it was just that old beleaguered reference to the Madeleine and the tea that my mother had gone on about and everyone goes on about, as if that’s all that is in Proust, and I nearly left the book out of my suitcase as I already had Suttree and Othello and something by Alice Oswald and was planning on drawing trees anyway, but it was such a scruffy, pathetic copy with the spine off and the cover fallen, and bits of dried glue splintering off it and ripped pages in the middle, and that nice photo of Ornella Muti and also, something about ‘the most powerful evocation of obsessive love ever written,’ on the front in white spindly Mills and Boon handwriting (it’s on the back I see now, in plain script, and doesn’t really say that, sorry. But this IS an essay on the subtle and inimical interventions of memory), so I thought, hmm, THAT can’t be bad, we shall see about this obsessive love aspect. THAT doesn’t sound like some wimp trying to get to sleep or dunking bad quality biscuits into cups of tea to recall not being able to get to sleep as a child. THAT sounds like PAIN, agony and torture. Let’s give it a go.
Is Proust a psychopath is one of the many questions I asked myself after reading this book, as well as am I a psychopath, so you can see it isn’t that dull, and, in all of my holiday notebook, which was dense, there is not one reference to cups of tea, so just as a taster that bit was of no interest to me whatsoever and I don’t really understand, even though it is a great paragraph, or set of five or six paragraphs, why it is singled out so vociferously when there are so many other things in the book, far, far more interesting. Is it maybe because England is a country of tea drinkers (so that was the only thing they found in common with him) or that England is full of serial killers? Whatever, no one who has ever read Proust properly would ever bother mentioning it. I’m not even entirely sure about Part One, Combray, which is mainly about the narrator and his rather vile family and aunt – they all sound dreadful – but has beautiful descriptions of Nature. ‘Not enough torture,’ I wrote. But then we get to Swann, in Part Two, and the pages open onto agony. I had to write to Andy The Fantastic Academic right away to say, ‘why didn’t you TELL me?’ and I feel like saying that to everyone else, including my mother. ‘Did you, er, just not read this bit? Why tell me this tedious tale of the tea and the biscuit when we have page after page of the most grotesque and punitive love affair I’ve ever read save my own? Why suggest this is a book for tame intellectuals who lounge about doing nothing but admiring china and I dunno, table mats and doilies in an atmosphere of repressed protocol? It is boiling with passion.’ But, hélas, my mother is dead, and Andy The Fantastic Academic hasn’t replied. Well, not to the ‘why didn’t you tell me’ bit, only to contradict me about my opinion of Odette, who he thinks is lovely. This kind of thing makes me gnash my teeth, but we’ll get onto that in a minute.
Because I am fresh to Proust and have done no reading around him, I thought we’d get even more naïve about this and put in a page of my Art Notebook so you can read what I thought about it when I first read it.
I’d actually seen the film, many years before but not bothered too much with it. I’m watching it again to go with this, but so far it seems to be rather like my initial impression of Proust when I hadn’t read him – fey and limp. It reminds me of why I never liked Jeremy Irons (except in Dead Ringers) and found him so annoying in that other pontificating upper-middle class drama, whatever it was called, that went on for ages, not Middlemarch - Brideshead Revisited, that was it, sounds a bit like A La Recherche du Temps Perdu – this is part of my theory that they keep giving the same actors the same part - and I always fancied Anthony Andrews anyway, not him, because Anthony Andrews is a) blond b) hysterical and freaky, not trying to buy his way into the aristocracy by ‘behaving well.’ GOD.
Anyway, I shall just watch a little bit of Jeremy writing a few notes about his love for Odette and trying to grope her in the charabanc through the cattleyas (orchids to you and me, I thought they were some sort of broom to begin with) and generally being humiliated with a lot of wicker chairs and jardinières about. Music features, or at least does in the original, and there’s this dreadful part where he gets her to play the music of his love and she plays appallingly - ‘she played vilely’ - and this adds to the charm (for him). I know how he feels, having been in love with incompetent people all my life. As a matter of fact, I think we are all in love with incompetence.
Empyreal celestial sublime Memory – glass
Odette drinks tea and she has the flat I would like
Film nothing like the book, and rather like Andy’s conception of the novel
What they do in the film, which is wrong, is muddle up the times (not in the way Proust famously does it) and the chronology so you get Odette behaving in all these different contradictory ways all the way through, whereas in the book she certainly has a crush on him for a while and then goes off him, and he discovers her infidelities at the end – the book therefore makes sense, and shows Swann as a man devoured in a roughly ‘sensical’ way, whereas here it’s just some addiction to a trollop and the anguish has no grounds, nor is the anguish demonstrated (except for the bit where he refers to Odette’s coterie as living in the lowest level of Dante’s Inferno, a line I often use myself, but that is filched verbatim from the book and sounded a lot better when I read it out loud, punching the air as I did so. Basically, I could have written Swann in Love and probably have. I could not, however, have written Combray, but that is because I am not an utter wimp, and also because I haven’t gotten round to descriptions such as this: ‘When, on a summer evening, the melodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Méséglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the scent of invisible lilacs,’ but that’s the one difference. Watch me). It’s a trivial film, and slightly unpleasant to watch, because why change the original? Why change something that follows logic and has genuine feeling in it, to something that doesn’t? It annoys me. In fact the film is a selection of mis-en-scènes from the book, with all the beginnings and endings mixed up so they don’t have resonance and look arbitrary and dislocated, which doesn’t happen in the book: his passion actually follows a step by step, ordered, systematic narrative of a plight that worsens according to external as well as internal events, but here he’s already aware of her courtesan ways right from the start, which doesn’t account for the growing horror or the misery of his jealousy, which, for most of the book, appears unfounded and unprovable, making his torture COMPREHENSIBLE and JUSTIFIED. So, a passion worthy of telling its tale just becomes a redundant piece of French frippery and that is not because you can’t transcribe Proust to film, you just can’t if you’re this particular director, or, as I would say, this particular reader. I talk to a lot of people about Hamlet and they don’t understand the play either, so in my opinion, people don’t know how to read, which is fine if they’re just people (ish), but not fine if they’re trying to teach the damn thing or depict it for the world as a fair translation. On top of this it is incredibly tedious and you can’t wait for the end, which is the only bit I remember from having seen (or rather missed most of) this film many years back and that’s when he says, ‘it was my misfortune to fall in love with a woman I didn’t even like’ (which turns out to be a mistranslation) and we see her walking across the cobbled square in an enchanting little outfit of lavender ruffles with a matching parasol and she looks just lovely. I liked that one scene so much I wrote about it, in a piece called Like Lavender which Scottish hooligans don’t have any time for, not even any recherche du temps perdu for, and out of sheer adulation I now in fact own a enchanting little sun frock of lavender ruffles that looks exactly like her parasol, AND I bought it in France. But on the whole this film really does Proust a disservice and also Swann, who is seen screwing a prostitute right near the start and WHEN he’s in love with Odette – something he never does in the book, even when he’s found out what a tart and a liar and a selfish cad she is. I mean if that’s not defamation of character I don’t know what is. And I don’t think Jeremy Irons helps. They should have used Viggo Mortensen and one day they no doubt will. More insidious is that this film is probably exactly what most people think OF Proust, and it’s just so dismissible. My assessment, however, is not.
UNWRITTEN: Now I think how it should continue is I ramble on about my lack of love life for a bit and meeting Kevin from Queen’s Park, and snogging the fat Scouser till four in the morning, put some more Proust in and a few more art notebook pages, come home, evening with Sarah reading the art notebook, everyone likes the art notebook, drivel on like this, go on about Madeleines and memory (I had a clever idea about this but can’t remember what it is now because I HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE and FALLING IN LOVE DESTROYS MEMORY BECAUSE YOU LIVE ACHINGLY IN AN ETERNALLY BEAUTIFUL PRESENT AND HAVE NEITHER PAST NOR FUTURE), get the plumber in to fix my loo and discuss my useless sex life with him - he said he could tell I was getting no action because the loo is absolutely filthy round the back, but there’s no male pee there and normally when they are that dirty, that’s the reason. He told me not to bother cleaning it because it wasn’t rank and didn’t matter but said a lot about my chastity - anyway that’s all connected up with Daniel because it’s my loo that’s leaking, some washer or other, it needed bandages, anyway, that is why I have sprung to Daniel’s mind, but it does NOT explain why the beautiful, wonderful creature that is he took it into his head to rap on my door last night and basically SEDUCE me. THE END. Of Jessica In Love.
Daniel looked at one page of the art notebook and cast it on the sofa. He doesn’t understand art at all, and doesn’t like the books I lend him, he also doesn’t like my novel and spends hours crossing words out. He doesn’t even like my letters: ‘too long,’ he said. ‘Was the postcard too long as well?’ I said impishly.
Daniel is so interesting he doesn’t need to speak: he conveys emotion and thought soundlessly, rather like Viggo Mortensen in fact who he doesn’t seem to have heard of but when the Sky job falls through, he could be an actor for sure. I’d happily stare at him sitting on that sofa for the rest of my life. He’s so expressive. I will have to do more than just change Daniel’s name to publish this as a blog post and maybe will have to change my own too, then I can be a fictional character. Trouble is, I do not know how to do that yet.
I know I am in love because everything tastes so nice: the coffee, the banana, the pineapple and the world is full of sunshine, twinkling like bars in music and also because I feel blessed and spoilt and not deranged with misery. Also, I listen to The Carpenters all day long, viz.:
Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near
Just like me they long to be
Close to you
On the day that you were born
The angels got together and decided to create a dream come true
So they sprinkled moondust in your hair