It’s not a wheel; it’s a carousel

And… finished with Book One! This past week, I escaped to Vermont with my father’s family for the first family reunion of my lifetime (organized, funnily enough, by my mother). I actually wrote a post concerning my hiatus, but I tried to post it from the DC metro while on my way out of town and, surprise surprise, it didn’t work.

I used the week to relax on the beach, polishing off the first volume and biting off a sizable chunk of Within The Budding Grove.Well, that was the plan, but the universe rarely works that way, and instead I mostly played with my second-cousins-thrice-removed or whatever they were. The point is, there were many children there, and they were all adorable and a riot and left little time for reading.

The staging of the reunion was Proustian in and of itself. The clan traveled to the camp my great-grandfather opened on Lake Champlain in Vermont. My father, his brother and cousin all were campers there in the 50s and 60s, and the camp has barely changed in the past half-century. For many family members, it was the first time seeing Camp; for others, their first time back in decades.

As a child, my parents took my sister and me up to Camp every summer, and they remain friends with the family who now owns the Camp. The setting is beyond idyllic — cabins sit on a bluff that descends directly into the lake where I learned to swim and first paddled out in boats. The last time I was there was almost ten years ago. Returning, everything seemed smaller and much more beautiful than I remembered it ever being.

In Search of Lost Time focuses so heavily on memory that the acts of recalling and remembering seem to consume the novel’s very plot. In attempting to describe my own nostalgia returning to Camp, I began to comprehend what could have driven Proust into the lunacy of a seven-volume epic that explored his own memory.

It wasn’t just my own memories that overwhelmed me; it was the collective consciousness of my family, the recollections that gave each generation some ache of reminiscence. I think that the narrator’s intrusion on Swann’s memories makes more sense given how communal the past becomes as it grows more distant. I realized that the inside of Cabin Five smelled the same way it always had, that the water was cold in the same way it always had been, the rocks on the beach made me trip in the same pattern, and I wondered if and how these sensations had affected my dad when he was younger than I am now, and how they were affecting him now. 

I took a lot of pictures in the past week. Images, as Proust points out, are a useful archival tool for documenting our memories, but they are a poor substitute for that emotion that emerges from the intersection of sight, sound, smell and sentiment:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

In my copy, I underlined the above passage (which concludes Swann’s Way) and wrote next to it “sums up life.” Or, as Don Draper says,

Reflecting on nostalgia and one of my favorite Mad Men moments brings to mind a New Yorker article on Instagram, which ruminates on how the popular app manufactures “instant nostalgia.” Reading Proust operates in a similar way. I think that navigating Swann and Marcel’s memories makes us more aware of our own. When Proust gives up (or so it seems) on Odette, he does not let go of her, but of the memory of when she loved him, and the hope that the past will resurrect itself. Conversely, while some memories can be hard to let go of, some moments announce their importance by the lack of a memory to accompany them, such as when Swann realizes he does not desire to possess Odette but he does not know when he felt that way:

He discovered it was already too late; he would have liked to glimpse, as though it were a landscape that was about to disappear, that love from which he had departed (411)

So I leave Swann’s Way as Swann leaves behind the landscape of his love: quietly, and without really realizing at the time what was happening. In the final passage Marcel really lets his own nostalgia show–he decries the inelegance of “modern” women as compared to the refinement of Gilberte’s mother. I expect more nostalgia in the volumes to come. In the meantime, here’s an image that is succeeding in making me nostalgic for Vermont right now.


Made it Down the Coast in Seventeen Hours

It’s eight thirty p.m. and I have just boarded the BOLT bus at Boston’s South Station. It is pouring down rain and my blue cotton sundress has been so thoroughly soaked through that I’ve been forced to buy a t-shirt from the clothing vending machine in the train station (something which I have secretly wanted to do since I first spotted it that morning!). I text Nick and Sam, “confession: I just bought vending machine clothes!!” and, after mocking me sufficiently, Nick writes me back, “if you are now on the bus, you should be reading Proust for the next four hours.” I have been awake for fifteen hours at this point; my eyes are squinty and my legs are sore. I want nothing more than to eat my avocado cobb salad, curl up on the leather bus seat, and sleep for the entire ride back to Manhattan. “I don’t wannnna” I reply, taking on the voice of a whiney child as I try to avoid my obligations. “Don’t care.” he writes back. “you have to,” and, realizing my friends are evidently as invested in this project as I, (at times, perhaps more so!), I take my now dog-eared and well-worn copy of Swann’s Wayout of my tote bag, and dive back in.

I spent yesterday in Boston, visiting Kelsey, who just moved there, and Kylie, who was in for the day on a break from the summer camp at which she has been working in Central Mass. I took a 7:30 am bus there, got in at noon, spent the most lovely afternoon walking through Beacon Hill and down the Esplanade with Kelsey, and then met Ky in Cambridge, where we had noodles at Wagamama in Harvard Square (mine were so spicy that I fanned myself feverishly for a good five minutes and the girls laughed at my pain and videotaped it!), walked through the University campus, and finally settled in a coffee shop when the torrential downpour began. By the time I got home at 1 am, exhausted, elated, and still rather damp, I wanted nothing more than to sleep for a hundred years.

Things with Swann have taken a rather foreboding turn, his love for Odette towing the line between possessive affection and jealous stalking, and I see some sort of stormy end in sight. Today has dawned rather grey and humid and, with my body still feeling rather as if it has been hit by a train and the boys gone home for the weekend, I should really sequester myself in some lovely café and plow steadily through the rest of the volume. Whether my more manic urges to see and do everything take over instead has yet to be seen!

Back in the real world, it has officially been one month now since I moved to New York, and the happy surreality of it all has yet to wear off. On Tuesday night, I threw a going-away party for Emily, my best friend from home, who is moving to Germany in three days to live in Alsace for the next year. The boys and I made pesto pasta and prosciutto-wrapped melon and the strongest sangria any of us have ever drank (for those of you brave enough to try, the recipe comes from a Spanish Restaurant in Baltimore called Tio Pepe, and singlehandedly took down all of the guests at my mother’s fiftieth birthday!). It was a night to remember, and when we had consumed all of the brandied fruit juice, eaten a dozen sugar-spun cupcakes, and toasted Em goodbye, I had to fight hard to maintain my composure.

I have never been good at goodbyes, as anyone who had to live through my departure for France can tell you, and this week especially has been filled with the bittersweet realization that I both have the most wonderful friends in the entire world, and will never again be in the same place as all of them, at the same time. I suppose this seems a trite realization of growing up, one I should have made long ago. But as the dog days of summer wear on, Swann descends into the social hell of rejection from the Verdurins and subsequent distance from Odette, and I become more and more aware of how very lucky I am to be surrounded by the people I love. Friends help define you, they hold you up in moments when you cannot do so yourself, they chide you to read Proust and not buy your clothes from a vending machine. Swann learns too late the dire necessity of holding fast to his friends; but I would never make the same mistake. Despite the advancing years and miles that stretch between us, there will always be those drives down I-95, and those midnight moments of wine-soaked clarity when it seems nothing, not even time, can wrench us apart.

A Love Affair with Art

As Nick recently pointed out to me, I have told a fair number of white lies this week (for very minor reasons, but still a bit shameful!), and so I will give my creative license a break here and not try and pretend to you, my faithful readers, that I am up-to-date with my required Proust reading. In fact, I am no fewer than 250 pages behind my goal for Sunday, and, unless I am hit by a sudden wave of efficiency, or find myself with an entire Saturday in which I can do nothing but sit in a café with a glass of wine and read (oh how I miss Paris sometimes!), I will continue to make my way to page 567 with halting grace. I assure you, I will get there. But for now, I am, so to speak, very much in search of lost time (it’s clever—don’t wince!).

In the meantime, I am deep enough into “Swann In Love” to be able to comment on what I see as one of the main elements of the story and, I believe, of the novel as a (massive) whole. Swann finds himself desperately and shyly in love with Odette, a woman whose family he charms through a series of cocktail parties and long, drawn-out evenings, who loves afternoon tea and flouncy silk Japanese cushions and to whom, it initially appears, he is no more attracted than to his own sister. He finds her cheekbones too hallow, her skin too blotchy, and, for the first few pages of the chapter, we have absolutely no idea what it is that actually attracts Swann to this woman. And then he goes to hear Vinteuil’s Sonata (see Nora’s most recent post) at Odette’s house, and is totally and completely lost to her.

But that night, at Mme Verdurin’s, scarcely had the young pianist begun to play than suddenly, after a high note sustained through two whole bars, Swann sensed its approach, stealing forth from beneath that long-drawn sonority, stretched like a curtain of sound to veil the mystery of its incubation, and recognised, secret, murmuring, detached, the airy and perfumed phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so individual, so irreplaceable a charm, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing room, a woman whom he had seen and admired in the street and had despaired of ever seeing again (298-299).

It is this ability to recapture and distill a revelation from his past, the immortality of the piece of music, with which Swann falls in love, and so he is able to transfer this ecstasy to his feelings for Odette, who becomes newly-embodied with the lustrous and eternal. She is no longer the slightly plain daughter of his family friend. She is shrouded in music and embodied by art. And Swann, at last, is entranced.

He envisions Odette in terms of an artistic aesthetic. Her face becomes one of Botticelli’s straw-haired girls, her blotchy skin the foggy sfumato of a Renaissance tableau. He is able, through this conflation of a live woman with a static medium, to see past her face and into a type, an artistic style, a beauty he knows is beyond her.

He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent on her face and her body, and these he tried incessantly to recapture thereafter, both when he was with Odette and when he was thinking of her (316).

Culturally, we have a fixation on the depiction and embodiment of romance. True love, it seems, is the ultimate achievement, the elusive and striven-for goal that infuses the everyday with wonder.  It is overblown and under-emphasized, both the obsession of our society and something we still cannot collectively understand. It is the closest to magic we can touch, and we grasp at it with fervency.

But sometimes, I would argue, it is art and not life with which we fall in love. It is the sunset over the Adriatic, the sweet falsetto of an opera singer, the perfume of white roses on a midsummer night. Too many Disney movies and Sinatra songs have conspired to make us long for a reality that is seldom like its portrayal. Swann is able, by likening Odette to a painting and allowing himself to be swept away in her sonata, to attain this fantasy while evading its embodiment. His affair, as it were, begins with Botticelli and not Odette. Whether it evolves to encompass the reality of her imperfections has yet to be seen. But for now, as we all have done at some point in our lives, he has become enamored with a vision, with an art, and through this finds his desire.

Having seen and known love so wonderful that it is able to banish my more bitter inclinations, I can attest to the fact that there is a reason for our cultural obsession, that the real thing is ten thousand times more wonderful than its portrayal. And that, I would suppose, is how we know love is real, and lasting—when it surpasses the art that strives so desperately to imortalize it.

For in the end, art and love accomplish the same ends; both prove to us “the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe” (298).

How to… spend a weekend in Eastern Market

After two whole weeks without it, I was finally reunited with my computer this weekend. And I am exhausted–and not by the digital overstimulation induced by having a 15″ screen again.

I had originally planned to go home to New York, however, I ended up having to work at Job #2 on Friday night and Saturday. In the interest of a Proustian detailing of the minutiae of my life, here is my weekend itinerary:

Despite a lot of work, I did manage to fit in a field trip to Eastern Market on Saturday morning, which is the farmer’s market in my hood.

I bought peaches, and then, after trying the nectarines at another stand, had to buy some of those as well. I was tempted by the legions of kale, but trusted the rational part of brain which protested that I had neither the time nor the patience to wash and prep kale without running the risk of it going bad. Nothing feels better than roaming around a market picking at samples (and so what if I did eat a free lunch in produce samples? Intern).

On Sunday, a friend of mine was crazy and sweet enough to accompany me to a spinning class at Biker Barre at 9:30 AM, which has become a weekend routine of mine. Biker Barre offers the opportunity for sweat and pain all for the low cost of $22.00 for 45 minutes–as if. But thanks to the major power outages last week, my dry cleaners were late in completing some work, and their way of apologizing was a free class. Having attended, of course I am hooked and may even have to pay the $15.00 student discounted rate to return.

Of course, after all that spinning, we were entitled to brunc$$. We headed for the place with the biggest crowd, because they had to be doing something right. It turned out to be a good call. The restaurant was Belga Cafe on 8th Street (SE) where I got a goat cheese waffle, my friend a delicious chorizo-y panini.

Yes. A Goat. Cheese. Waffle. And you know what? It was worth the not-small-amount of money I spent on it. Completely and totally worth it. You can check out their other tantalizing summer brunch dishes here).

After digesting, I went to another friend’s house to watch the fourth episode of The Newsroom, which I have given more of a chance than many television critics (because journalism), but after tonight’s episode, I really don’t feel like I can possibly defend it. Will I do a post on what Proust would say about Aaron Sorkin’s latest endeavor? Yes. I probably will. Nothing is safe from Proustification (Proustitution?).




Vinteuil’s sonata

In the spring semester of sophomore year, my friend and I began hosting a radio show on our college station. It ran for an hour on Mondays at 3 p.m., after we had finished our classes for the day and were frequently still reeling from the events of the weekend. The station has since been renovated and moved to a much nicer building, but that semester it was still housed in the shabby basement of a poorly planned former “student center”– which was too far away from the rest of campus to be considered the “center” of anything. We took the hour to play songs we liked in the comforting isolation of that building, and few people listened besides our mothers.

The show ended up being a chronicle of our lives, documented not through words but music. The playlists are saved on my computer, and listening to the songs from each week is as detailed a record as any of what happened to us that spring, and each semester after as we continued the show. Over the space of five semesters, I compiled a soundtrack to my college years.

Towards the end of Swann’s Way, the titular character attends a party, preoccupied with his deteriorating affair with Odette. He is caught off guard when he hears the strains of a piece of music with which he became obsessed at the onset of their romance:

The violin had risen to a series of high notes … And so Swann had had time to understand what was happening and say to himself: ‘It’s the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sontata–I musn’t listen!’, all his memories of the days when Odette had been in love with him, which he had succeeded until that moment in keeping invisible in the depths of his being, deceived by this sudden reflection of a season of love whose sun, they supposed, had dawned again, had awakened from their slumber, had taken wing and risen to sing maddeningly in his ears, without pity for his present desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness (Proust 375)

The music which anchors Swann to that moment in time does not just remind him of “when Odette had been in love with him”; rather, it resurrects the exact emotions he had at that time. In this moment in the text, we as readers are transported back a hundred pages, and the lingering “sounds” of the sonata effectively erase the interloping events and we see clearly that moment preserved in memory. The same thing happens to me when I listen to my old playlists. Each song is tethered to an event, or a person, or simply an emotion for which I don’t have words, and for which the ghosts a song conjures suffice as description enough for the purposes of remembering.




A Summer Soirée

Finally, a moment I can relate directly to Proust! I spent last night at a lovely summer soirée hosted by Nick and Sam, complete with sangria, delicious hors d’oeuvres, and the most wonderful company. Though I have not yet reached the renowned party scenes of In Search of Lost Time, (rather infamous in their length and tedium), I feel I can appreciate, in some small way, the allure of thick summer night, cold wine, and hours of laughter.

Plus, it happened to be Bastille Day, though our gathering wasn’t exactly French-themed!Image

Proustonomics: A Post-Recession Primer

Today at work, I got lectured by a colleague actual-employee-of-the-paper-who-has-a-real-adult-job on the importance of building up credit. How else, after all, do I expect to ever get a mortgage (he did not seem to notice that I am an intern exclusively interested in living in large metropolitan centers and about as likely to take out a mortgage in the next ten years as I am to win the lottery).

Being a member of the “real world”, however, has certainly opened my eyes to “real life” things like money, debt, non-bank ATM fees, bimonthly pay cycles and the nauseating feeling of having only $4.00 in your checking account (oops).

These things are not Proust’s concerns. Let’s be honest–the man casually peppers his novel with titles like “Princess” and “Countess.”

Nor is Proust particularly concerned with the economy of language. If Remembrance of Time Past is anything, it an artifact of the opulence of leisure. The pacing of the novel is luxurious, relaxed, inquisitive. Something I am enjoying about this novel is that, despite its behemothic page count, there is no sense of urgency in finishing it. I am a native New Yorker, which means (forgive the cliches) that I am no more capable of stopping to smell the flowers than I am of willingly visiting New Jersey. I am also a reporter. The absence of looming deadlines, therefore, is markedly noticeable.

Post-grad life is a constantrush. There was the rush to find a source of income the second my cap and gown were off, the rush to find a place to live that would fit my tiny budget, the rush to make the right connections at work, to memorize the names and faces of all 550 U.S. lawmakers who are currently proselytizing a few blocks away from me.

Proust is not about rush. He is about biting off more sentence than you can chew and letting yourself digest language that is just that rich and that dense. Proust is the antidote to all these 2012 problems, some of which I’ve already pointed out on this blog: the tedium of glitzy, scandal-enhanced journalism, my depleted bank account, the loss of my academic safety net.

Proust takes me away from all that. It is not so much a search for lost time as a search to reclaim time, which seems every day to be slipping away from me. He lets me stop time, simply by escaping into his meandering syntax.