17 April 2021

in the bosom of Marcel Proust

I have been reading letters by Proust, letters from a correspondence he had with his upstairs neighbor on the Blvd Haussemann. It is called Letters to the Upstair's Neighbor, translated by one of my favourite authors and translators, Lydia Davis. 

Reading Proust is an undertaking of long proportions, not for the weak-willed. I confess that I have only read Swann's Way in English. I  tried many years ago in France to read it in French. It rested dutifully on my bedside table like a medicine too arduous to take despite the knowledge that it would improve me. I gave up after about fifty pages because I was and am, well,,, weak-willed! 

So this unique little book is a welcome surprise because it is such a concise collection of his letters. (we do not have any of hers which might be a good thing; Who wants to be in the ring with Mike Tyson after all?)  

I like these letters because he gets to the point quickly whilst never losing that meandering visual style, as lovely as it is long. 

Between Henry James and Marcel Proust I'm sure that a few brave souls have died in the middle of chapters, trapped and flattened between the pages, lost like explorers.  

Proust feels to me like watching rowers on the river, gently, effortlessly slicing through glassy water, everything in languid precision. It's an invitation to getting lost but also found somewhere else.

Reading Swann's Way was like being on a luxurious ocean liner of long ago, taking a year off to see the world through the lens of 1st class life. It's the slow world of Hans Castorp and the Buddenbrooks too.

We seem to have sped up so quickly over the past century that many of us can no longer sit still. But have we not also learned that it was  just the wealthy who could? 

They could and did in fact, sit still in yesteryear because they could afford it. Everyone else was running around below deck making sure that enough coal was shovelled into the giant steam engine. How else could the grand bourgeoisie repose in chaise-lounges on the decks of so many boats drifting toward the 1st world war? Suddenly, I think of the marvellous story by Eugene O'Neill that I loved in school, The Hairy Ape.

But this isn't what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that in being close to Proust my nostalgia blooms inside me, and I miss the French. 

Yes, they are a pain in the ass, something to which they freely admit, but they also revere culture; the past, the present and the future possibilities of it. Comme il faut!

Australia is such a new country that it really hasn't succumbed to a sufficient amount of decadence necessary to create such vast culture as is found in France and Europe as a whole. Not even America in historically terms, for culture is inextricably linked with history, long history.

With the exception of the nouveau riche here, Australians are genuinely kind and sensible, (though many would exclude the politicians in that description). In other words, life is so genuinely good for many people here that they haven't yet developed the Parisian lip-curl which comes with l'ennuie of one hundred decades of decadence. 

And I confess that I miss many things, but mostly it is this deep reverence for a cultured and brilliant spirit of mind (l'esprit).

Back in the day, before the Euro, some of France's most celebrated scientists, painters, engineers, and writers graced the different denominations. 

Alas, the French Francs are now gone too.  

As Proust indulged completely it seems, in his past, I cannot afford this luxury. The grass may be greener over yonder, just out of reach, but it doesn't offer a viable way to live life. Believe me, I've tried it. 

Marcel Proust was uniquely great, and he used his delicious memories to fuel his writing. So much for him but what about the rest of us? I cannot live in the Past, how can I live creatively in the present? 

I see that I have alighted here in this paradise by the Pacific ocean, yet my heart and mind is still tethered firmly to Europe. But practically speaking, this is easy today as Wifi permits an endless stream of France Musique and France Culture at any hour. 

And Proust reminds me that one's devotion to Art is at the bosom of the soul. There is no substitute, and it cannot be bought or worn, but lived each day. 

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