Awake is the New Sleep

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“For a long time I would go to bed early,” begins Marcel, Proust’s narrator, and thus embarks on his 4,200-page epic, a narrative that is about to become a permanent fixture of my daily life.

It is both a quiet, inauspicious beginning and one weighted with deep importance. I have been told, both by Peter our beloved Comp. Lit. Advisor (whose general advice on Proust will appear in a later post), and in various introductions and guides to the novel, that these first few pages are enormously significant in the book’s trajectory. As simple and even dull as they seem, people say, read them over and over, for you will come back in several months or a year, and realize that, in some ways, the entire narrative is encapsulated in these introductory paragraphs.

These scenes where a childhood Marcel tosses and turns, recalling his inability to go to sleep (an insomnia which persists throughout the rest of his life), have a certain circular quality to them. He recollects this restlessness, the sounds outside his window and the glow of the candle beside his bed, the desperation to have his mother come upstairs and kiss him goodnight.

It seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.

In my own way, these first few pages seem to contain a self-reflective element, to echo back a restlessness I myself cannot shake. At this particular point in my life, I am in a suspended state of sorts, waiting out my time at home until I can move to New York in a little over two weeks and start my job. College is over, real life (in a way) has not yet begun. And so I find myself drifting between these two worlds, dreaming of my freshly-painted apartment and missing my Hamilton single, sipping endless cups of iced coffee and listening to Ben Lee and Regina Spektor and trying with all of my might to enjoy being home, when I itch to get in my car and drive up I-95, yearn for the hum of the city and the morning slant of light on fire escapes as I walk down the long avenues. I wake in the night, unsure of where I am, and if I go to bed early, like Marcel, it is in the hope that the next day will come sooner than the last.

Suspension, waiting, memory all seem central to this narrative which I have only begun to explore. The extraordinary thing about Proust, as Nora and I recently discussed, is the fact that we both feel as if we know a great deal about In Search of Lost Time already, and yet neither of us really knows the plot. Certain elements—the daunting length of the narrative, the question of its autobiographical nature (the main character and the author share a name), the immortal Madeline which Marcel eats as an adult, and is immediately and vividly transported back to a moment in his childhood—are a part of our literary education. Yet, unlike so many canonical works (The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men), the plot of In Search of Lost Time has not become widely known, and so we do not feel as if we have read the novel already. It is fresh, new, waiting to be discovered in a way few great works still are, and I am eager to see where the next year will take us, eager to climb out of bed, throw wide my curtains, and plunge into the bright and unknown dawn.

Until then, I can only keep reading.

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Finding Proust

On Saturday, Maeve and I saw each other for the first time since graduation–which, despite being only two weeks ago, feels like months ago. In the time since, I’ve moved all my things from Clinton, N.Y., back home to New York City, and then hauled them on a bus down to Washington, D.C.

Maeve came in from Baltimore for the day and, naturally, we were drawn to a bookstore. As we walked down 7th street in Eastern Market, a sign caught Maeve’s attention, and before we knew it we found ourselves in a mecca of used books.

I had read about Capitol Hill Books in my obsessive combing of the D.C. blogosphere, and it actually managed to surpass my expectations. Inside, books were spilling off of the shelves. Unlike many other used bookstores, which have turned out to be more aesthetically pleasing than practical, this one had exactly what we were looking for.

Sharing a shelf with Manuel Puig were Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove. We made our purchases (Maeve also bought Sedaris’ Naked) and found our favorite part of the store. Instead of your typical “staff picks”, the books near the register had captions a la Better Book Titles–such as “story of a young Vladimir Putin” for The Little Prince. The cashier, an older and sarcastic man who may have been the owner, noted our laughter and just said, “I get bored.”

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My intern-sized budget permits me to acquire In Search of Lost Time incrementally, but my room already looks homier with the first two books sitting on my shelf.

Introduction

College has been over for exactly two weeks now, and we’ve all scattered to our various destinations, back home or to new cities, struggling to put down roots and take up barely-paid internships as we strive to make some sense out of early-twenties limbo. Our particular brand of striving takes a more literary form: we (Nora and Maeve) graduated from Hamilton College (a picturesque, tiny liberal arts school in the rolling hills of Upstate New York) with degrees in Comparative Literature, and, having the strong conviction that we wanted to become writers but less of a sense of how this might happen, are attempting to make our way into the world of journalism. Having met in sophomore year, we’ve bonded over oxford commas and literary-themed drinks, shared many a mango brie panini in our student-run café, and have no desire to lose these connections after graduation.

Nora is from New York, and working for the summer as an Intern at a political newspaper in Washington, DC, interviewing congressional delegates and doing features writing for the publication. Maeve is still in Baltimore (her hometown) for the time being, but will move to New York City in July to work as an Editorial Intern for a photography magazine in Chelsea. Though we have moved to different cities and taken up (what we hope are) the beginnings of our adult lives, we will miss one another and (as unabashedly geeky as it sounds) miss our literary lives.

We got together in February of senior year, when upstate New York was still snowbound, and jobs and graduation seemed millennia away, and devised a plan to hold onto those parts of college which we loved the most, to stay grounded in one way even as our lives changed drastically in every other. In order to accomplish this, we decided, we would turn to Proust, the enigmatic, long-winded French author whose masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, is the longest novel ever written, and the subject of a course at Hamilton. We always wanted to take this class (despite the fact that the reading load is around 500 pages per week!), and have decided we should take on the challenge as part of our post-college lives, use it to connect to each other and literature, and write about it.

And so, without further ado, here is the schtick:

1. We will attempt to read, relate, and reflect on the entirety of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the year following our college graduation. This amounts to 4,211 pages in a year, or roughly 81 a week.

2. In the process, we will continue to read, write, and engage in some version of a literary pursuit, making up for the absence of these things in our post-graduate lives, and

3. Most of all, stay in touch with both our college selves and each other, no matter where we end up, or what we end up doing.

Will too many nights of ramen (or, in Maeve’s case, gluten-free rice pasta) and the endless stretch of volumes get in our way? Will we reach September and realize that the hunt for real jobs takes precedence over nineteenth century Parisian parties and memories of madelines? Or will we prevail, finish the novel, find some connection to our own lives, and grow as both writers and friends?

At this point, your guess is as good as ours! Stay tuned—this will be an adventure.

—Nora and Maeve