Packing, Packing, Packing, and Peter’s Advice

My post this week will be an abbreviated, slightly different version of the usual musings, as I am now fully in the process of packing and getting ready to move to New York on Thursday (!!!). As a result, between runs to Marshall’s to get sheets and renting a U-Haul both my mother and I are terrified to drive into Manhattan, I am admittedly behind on my Proust. So, instead of trying to make some profound connection to my life this week (stay tuned for that once I move!), I’ve decided to take this opportunity to publish a list Nora and I have been meaning to share for several weeks now.

Peter, our beloved Comp. Lit. advisor at Hamilton, and the professor who teaches the Proust class every other year, called me at the start of this project to impart some words of wisdom, encouragement, and warning. He was very excited about our blog, but wanted to make sure we could get through the book together, without missing too much, or falling too far behind. It is his belief, as well as that of many Proust aficionados, that this is a novel one can only really read in a book group or classroom setting, as different sections appeal to different people, a great deal of nuance is implicit in the writing itself, and the sheer length is enough to deter any lone reader.

He is not entirely sure a book group of two will remedy this issue but, knowing how determined (or maybe just stubborn!) we both are, accepted our project, and gave us the following advice:

  • The books are long, parts can be very dull (especially certain party scenes). In a classroom setting, this is not an issue, as there always tends to be at least one student in the group who finds something of interest in a particular scene which everyone else disliked, but may be more slow-going as an individual effort.
  • Proust doesn’t really like anyone, and spends tons of time discussing what people wear, tak about, etc. Get ready for a great deal of description without a lot of action in certain parts.
  • We are allowed to skim sections (especially the party/description scenes), in order to get through the denser areas.
  • Most importantly, we should read the first pages several times, as they are super important, and some critics even think the entire novel is previewed/summed up in these first five or so pages
  • For that same reason, we should read them again when we have finished (so far off it hardly seems possible right now!)
  • Whenever something might seem funny, assume that it is (Proust has very dry humor)
  • Characters keep coming back over the course of the novel—never expect anyone to vanish entirely
  • The summaries at the end of each volume are helpful, but only once you’re done (don’t read them to preview, as they give things away)
  • The character index ( at the back is not helpful at all. it spoils the trajectories of the characters—don’t read!

So with these in mind, we continue to truck along (and, in my case, to truck up to Manhattan, all six volumes in hand!). More updates will come once life is less chaotic! Until then, enjoy the weekend.

My Sundays with Marcel

My Disclaimer for any shoddiness in this post in terms of grammar, spelling or capitalization: sent from my iPhone. I will also add that I know I should have posted this on an actual Sunday, but I didn’t get home until 10 last night and if I wait another week I’ll be backtracking in the novel. So this is my best attempt.

On page 94 of my edition, Marcel* elaborates on the immense pleasure of reading on Sunday afternoons. During the last few months of school, while my friends and I were trying to stave off depression about our looming graduations, we repeatedly told each other “at least Sundays will be good again.”

We anticipated it as such: “it will be so awesome not to have homework!!” Proust describes it like this:

Sweet Sunday afternoons beneath the chestnut tree in the garden at Combray, carefully purged by me of every commonplace incident of my personal existence, which I had replaced with a life of strange adventures and aspirations in a land watered with living streams, you still recall that life to me when I think of you, and you embody it in effect by virtue of having gradually encircled and enclosed it–while I went on with my reading and the heat of the day declined–in the crystalline succession, slowly changing and dappled with foliage, of your silent, sonorous, fragrant, limpid hours.

Sunday’s in the summer are a universally acknowledged pleasure. They summon to my mind the blissful lethargy of sitting on my porch drinking lemonade or, more likely, tamarind soda, while watching my father grill, or my mother trim the blueberry bushes which dissolve into the woods, serving as the frontier of our seasonal haven. In more than a decade of spending the summers in this place, none of our routines have significantly altered. My friend will inevitably be sporting successfully browned skin, the result of two days spent in the pool and the sun. I will be slightly red, with a sunglasses tan marking the area that shaded my eyes while I sat in a lounge chair, more intent on reading than swimming. Like for the narrator of Swann’s Way, my childhood proclivities persist into my early years of adulthood; I spend every summer reading.

Last Sunday in eastern market, I wandered purposefully, attempting to construct my own incarnation of the combray hammock or countryhouse porch. Finding a delicious cup of iced coffee and a patch of sun, I was marginally successful. Still, I was aware of being plagued by a Proustian anxiety that I would not be able to fully optimize my precious Sunday.

This Sunday I was somewhat deprived of that unique Pleasure, spending the day instead on a bus coming back to dc from a weekend spent at home. Following Proust back through combray offered consolation to this bus ride, as the novels he enjoys served as modes of transportation for his mind so too did his novel liberate me from the I95 south.

But the thing about Sundays is that they are perpetually platonic, they are always somewhat idealized– maybe because of their position within the week, the final placeholder for reflection. What we love so much about them is not only what they are but what they represent: escape, a last chance to exist in a fantasy before reality sets in. It is therefore appropriate that Proust Focuses on his reading on Sunday’s–the day is about that opportunity to escape. We love Sunday’s not because they are our lives, but because they are not.

Notice I didn’t even mention Sunday brunch? That subgroup deserves its own category on this blog.

*peter, our comp lot professor/guru pointed out to us that we cannot know the narrators name yet and more importantly that we will never know it bc he stays deliberately nameless. For this reason everyone refers to him as marcel. We will continue to do so, but will remain conscientious of the narrators actual anonymity.

Memory and Madeleines

This weekend I returned home, and in the brief time I was there I saw a good friend from Hamilton. This friend being of particularly exquisite taste, I took her to one of my favorite neighborhood cafe/bakeries, Ceci Cela in soho.

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Of course, I felt obliged to order Madeleines with our cafe au lait and lemon tarts.

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No offense to marcel, but I prefer lemon tarts. Not that the cake-ish Madeleines aren’t delicious. Yet I actually enjoy lemon tarts for the same reason Proust loves madeleines. While my first memory of a Madeleine is actually from a Starbucks, my first memory of a lemon tart is my sister and mother baking it, letting me eat the sickly delicious mess of sugar and lemon that stuck to the sides of the bowl and giving me amused (sister) and worried (mother) looks as I ate the lemons like oranges. As Proust points out, the pleasure comes not from the pastry but from the memory.
Nevertheless, Ceci Cela has wonderful pastries and, even of you have no happy memories associated with baked goods, you’ll enjoy what they have to offer.

A House by the Sea

I awoke this morning to brilliant sunshine and the crash of waves against the shore. Although it was only 8 am, and the rest of the house was still sound asleep, I climbed out of bed, ran to the windows, threw up the blinds, and opened them wide to let the chilly sea air in. Then I got back into bed, pulled on my black sweater and pulled my covers up to my chin, and, watching the water out of the corner of my eye, opened Swann’s Way.

The four of us arrived on Wednesday, by train, bus, and (in my case) plane, and drove down the Cape to the ferry which we took across to the island where Kylie’s family has a summer house. Kelsey had come from Buffalo, Amanda from Long Island, and we had not seen each other in the month since we’ve graduated from Hamilton. We arrived at Kylie’s house, unpacked the cooler of fruit, sliced turkey, and gluten-free pasta, and huddled inside, drinking wine and playing an old game of Trivial Pursuit from the 1950’s, as rain battered the wooden shingles.

We had all come for a long weekend on the island, to get away from our temporary limbo and all be together before our real lives start in a few weeks. I had been anticipating this trip since we rather impulsively made the plans several weeks ago, and had no doubt that these five days would be little short of perfect.

The next day, the sun came out, and we went into town to walk along the narrow streets lined with gingerbread houses, and sampled lobster-flavored ice cream. We made curried chicken for dinner, and rushed to finish eating so we could go out to the beach and watch the sun set. At night, we lay out on the pier, huddled under thick wool blankets, and stared at the stars, scattered like salt across the black expanse of the heavens. We all came back in hours later, built a fire in the fireplace, and, one by one, fell asleep in our respective living room chairs.

There are moments like this, vivid and fleeting, in whose very midst I can feel time ebbing, stretching away from the present into the nostalgic days of the future, leaving me longing to return to this place, this instant, before it is even gone. In what could not have been a more perfect parallel, Proust comes to this same conclusion rather early in his narrative, when Marcel eats that famous, evocative madeline, dipped in lime-blossom tisane, which his mother brings him one morning at Combray. When, years later, the adult Marcel (with whom this is the reader’s first encounter) tastes the same dessert, he experiences a rush of joy, a connection he cannot place:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to be, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.

Proust spends a good deal of his epic concentrating on how best to recapture his memories—that much I know without having read much more than the first hundred pages. Whether he succeeds in this endeavor, or somehow manages to find another tact (in what I have assumed is his writing) has yet to be seen. I, too, at this point in my life, torn between college and the future, long to distill into permanence these doorway moments, to take everyone and everything that I love, and keep them just as they are, before we have time to move apart, to grow up, to put down roots.

And I began again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I want to try to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I rediscover the same state, illuminated by no fresh light. I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation.

Will these moments in time, brief and eternal, colored by the light off the ocean, the sound of leaves in the wind, the way my wet clothes clung to me when Kylie made us bike down to the beach and plunge, reckless and fully-clothed, into the water, fade into memory and lose their vivid permanence? Are we fated only to live in remembrance of things past and anticipation of those to come? Or can I, like Proust, fight to hold onto time so it will not be lost, so that, even once this magical weekend passes into memory, I will be able to somehow go back, to lie under those vast heavens, cuddled against three of my best friends, and once again feel the breathless laughter in my chest?

For now, it seems, only time, and perhaps Marcel, will tell.

And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it; I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been anchored at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. (60-62)

Proust on… journalism

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance. – M. Swann, 27

I love my job, however, tracking the American political theater, especially in the months preceding a presidential election, is oftentimes depressingly disheartening. The media frenzy that followed the President’s press conference the other day, where a comment that “the private sector of the economy” was “doing fine,” was sickeningly drawn out. As I watched the reactions of various outlets and political factions balloon into one of many seemingly daily PR crises for the White House, I found myself reminded of Swann’s observation on the state of journalism in post-revolutionary France. Of course, like Swann I am captivated by the thing I claim to disdain, as Marcel later points out about the older man.

More than meets the eye

The middle of the road approach to interpersonal politics.

My new job requires me to be a lot more delicate in expressing my political opinions, which isn’t that hard for me considering my exposure to that most sacred of diplomatic forums: the extended-family get together. If anyone in the world has a family that falls down a single party line, I think they deserve a medal, or perhaps a sitcom.

These days I have to be even more careful; working for a “real” newspaper, my Twitter, my jokes, everything I do or vocalize is subject to a lot more scrutiny. Not that I’m in any way the subject of very many people’s attention–I’m an intern, and we all know how much weight that carries–but I’m monitoring myself more closely than I had before.

Armed with this camouflage, I’ve had the opportunity to enter some new territory. If you’ve ever spoken to me for more than thirty seconds about, say, public education, global warming, or the American prison system, you could probably figure out my political allegiances. But in the interest of my new non-disclosure policy, I’ll leave my ideology up to your imagination. The point is, this non-partisan Nora recently trespassed into the heart of the “enemy” camp: I spent the day with delegates who played for the other team. In this case, they literally did play for the other team–they were participating in a inter-party baseball game.

Enter Nora: fresh-faced, struggling with proper nomenclature (Mister? Sir? Congressman?), timid around all these old important white men–and they greeted me with open arms. They joked, they winked, they called me a “nice girl” (let’s save a discussion of the patronizing possible sexism for another post, shall we?)

I wonder if they thought about what my political affiliations were; their sense of humor certainly suggested they thought we shared common interests. One joke about God’s voting preferences certainly stands out in my mind as an example of a place where our mentalities diverged.

All of this meditation on our perceptions of one another reminded me of Marcel’s family’s relationship with Swann in the opening of Volume I (first Proust segue! How’d I do?). No one in his family stops to think that there may be more to Swann than his pedigree allows, and he, in turn, is happy to let them do so.

For many years, during the course of which–especially before his marriage–M. Swann the younger came often to see them at Combray, my great-aunt and my grandparents never suspected that he had entirely ceased to live in the society which his family had frequented, and that, under the sort of incognito which the name of Swann gave him among us, they were harbouring–with the complete innocence of a family of respectable innkeepers who have in their midst some celebrated highwayman without knowing it–one of the most distinguished members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de paris and the of the Prince of Wales, and one of the men most sought after in the aristocratic world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Our utter ignorance of the brilliant social life which Swann led was, of course, due in part to his own reserve and discretion, but also to the fact that middle-class people in those days took what was almost a Hindu view of society, which they held to consist of sharply defined castes, so that everyone at his birth found himself called to that station in life which his parents already occupied, and from which nothing, save the accident of an exceptional career or of a “good” marriage, could extract you and translate you to a superior caste. – Proust 16

Why do we deceive others about our “true” nature? Is it because we enjoy the privilege dual identity affords us, the Jekyll and Hyde-esque thrill of doing one thing by day and another by night? I could also point out that having cultivated these relationships will make it easier for me to get stories when I need to in the future, but it’s more than that–I think it’s a basic human trait to adapt oneself to the group by which he or she is surrounded–my laugh at the God joke, if somewhat forced, was at least instinctual. “True” nature is, I think, a more fluid concept than we admit. How many identities do we possess? And how many does Mr. Swann? As the above quote suggests, it doesn’t take only one actor to succeed–we are conditioned to project what we expect to see onto other people, whether we are middle-class Parisians living in the 19th century or the American political elite of the 21st.

Marcel, as a child, seems to be particularly inept at adapting anyone else’s point of view, which consistently manages to land his friends and family, such as his great-uncle and Bloch, in trouble. I wonder how long this habit will follow him into his adulthood.