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.

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6 comments on “It’s not a wheel; it’s a carousel

  1. Mary van Valkenburg says:

    Oh Nora, this is so lovely.

  2. Mom says:

    Nora, you “Don Drapered” me!! … To pieces…

  3. Peter Rabinowitz says:

    Wonderful! And it will be more wonderful still in retrospect (multiple loops of time here) when you get closer to the end of the novel. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how, because that would be a spoiler.

    One small, non-Proustian point about slide projectors: cute as the carousels are, they take up about four times as much shelf space as the more compact slide magazines that were the alternative. The allure of the name, obviously, overcame the extreme inefficiency of the product.

  4. What beautiful pictures-and equally beautiful writing!

  5. NG: Belatedly-very!- I say: these are some lovely (and as yer momma, rightly, states) ‘eloquent’ observations, ‘vibrating’ photos, too, about the cosmic memorytimespacekinlockproustian connections….love/the barlow/ochshorns (also thank you and thank you for inspirations, I’m back to “wanting to” open up the volumes yet again

  6. […] first vacation I’d had in months. The last time I had gone this long without working was my family reunion in Vermont, almost exactly a year before. That trip was potent with nostalgia, with the strange sense of deja […]

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