Marcel Becomes a Writer

I spent my day today scanning magazines. Eleven hours and hundreds of pages went by as I rushed to complete a project in time for the Editor-In-Chief to have for a meeting on Tuesday. I scanned photographs of elephants sinking into mud, of South African prisoners, of families eating dinner. I scanned essays penned by art critics and museum curators, historians and authors. Arthur Danto and Vince Aletti passed under my hands as I scanned and scanned and wondered when it would be that I will finally be able to fill those pages with words of my own. I came home at eight o’clock, took a bath, and dragged my copy of Within a Budding Grove into the sudsy water with me. Of all people, I thought, Marcel will give me patience.

When I first began this endeavor, three months and what seems like a million years ago, I asked Olivia, who had taken Peter’s Proust class the year before, what the novel was actually about. I knew it was canonical, massive, had something to do with a magic madeleine and memory, but that was about the extent of my Proust expertise. She hesitated for a moment, laughed, and said, “you could say it’s a novel about nothing if you wanted. You could say it’s about memory. But probably the best one-sentence summary of Proust that I’ve heard is ‘Marcel becomes a writer.'” That’s it? I thought. And it takes him four thousand pages?

As I waded into Swann’s Way and began to immerse myself in Proust’s cyclical, mesmeric narration, however, I began to understand what she meant. The narrator’s search to find his literary voice crops up here and there, an underlying motif that, while clearly important, has not yet become the central focus of the text. As a child, Marcel takes his pen to the steeple of the church at Combray, seeking to fix into prose the elusive beauty of its spire. He tells his parents he wants to devote his life to a literary career, and his father instantly disapproves. Marcel pouts, laments his lack of talent, and returns to Swann’s drama, and it is not until book two that he once again addresses this dream, this time as a lovesick adolescent.

Towards the beginning of Within a Budding Grove, Marcel’s parents have the Marquis de Norpois, an ambassador whose pomposity and scathing wit amuse the reader, over to dinner. After a series of haughty dismissals, the Marquis finally encourages Marcel’s father to envision a literary career for his son, and, remarkably, the father agrees.

My mother appeared none too pleased that my father no longer thought of a diplomatic career for me. “Don’t worry,” my father told her, “the main thing is that a man should find pleasure in his work. He’s no longer a child. He knows pretty well now what he likes, it’s very unlikely that he will change, and he’s quite capable of deciding for himself what will make him happy in life.”

This pronouncement, which would appear to signify Marcel’s father’s acceptance and support of his son’s career and therefore presumably bring the narrator great relief, instead sends the teenager into paroxysms of renewed neuroses. Marcel has won his freedom, his father’s permission to take the lead in his career. Now he must decide what to do with it.

That evening, as I waited for the time to arrive when, thanks to the freedom of choice which they allowed me, I should or should not begin to be happy in life, my father’s words caused me great uneasiness[…]as an author becomes ashamed when he sees the fruits of his own meditations, which do not appear to him to be of great value since he does not separate them from himself, oblige a publisher to choose a brand of paper, to employ a type face finer, perhaps, than they deserve, I asked myself whether my desire to write was of sufficient importance to justify my father in dispensing so much generosity.

Once he is allowed to harbor literary dreams, Marcel fears he does not deserve these aspirations, and goes back to his own frustrations, taking pen to paper over and over without without finding satisfaction in his work, disillusioned and morose. And yet we know that this is only the beginning of a passion that will accompany him to page 4,211, a passion which he will ultimately harness.

Which brings me back, at last, to twenty-first century Manhattan, working a barely-paid editorial internship, scanning pages out of a magazine in the hopes that someday, miraculously, my name will be printed in one. Nora and I are both desperately chasing a life that, at best, involves long hours and slim paychecks, devoting ourselves to a medium that may very well be gone in twenty years along with the printed newspaper, and a career that is anything but glamorous. Journalism is a field that seems to attract nothing but pessimism; writers are broke, manic, and slightly unhinged, newspapers dying and thin. And yet here I am, fighting as hard as I can to somehow wade into these murky waters, tying my future to a field that, if I am to listen to the media, may not have one. Surely, one thinks, there must be better dreams to pursue, more sane aspirations?

The name of this volume, À l’Ombre des Jeune Filles en Fleurs, most directly translates to “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” which, to me, is much more beautiful and melodic than “Within a Budding Grove.” But either way, I find it fitting at this moment in our lives, when we find ourselves wandering through a darkened forest of budding trees, waiting for the sunlight to make them flower. 

When people ask me why I want to be a writer, I give a different answer depending on what kind of a mood I am in, every varient some version of the same truth. Sometimes I say that it is the only thing I can imagine doing with my life, which has been the case since I was twelve years old. Sometimes I say it’s a way for me to get out all of the words I have inside me and get paid for it. Sometimes I say it’s the only thing I have ever been really good at.

And sometimes, if I am feeing especially lyrical, I say I write because it makes me feel as if my veins are on fire, my heart is in my throat, my fingers cannot scribble or tap fast enough to keep up with the words tumbling from my lips. I write because it is the strongest high there is, because it fills me with that desperate, feverish sensation that I chase but can never pin down. Because it is the same feeling as leaning back on a sailboat against the pull of the wind, with nothing but air and salty spray beneath your back. I write because without writing, I would not know fully what it is to be alive. And in that way, I suppose, my choice of a career has never been a question for me.

So here we are, like Marcel, wandering through the pages of our own narratives, trying to write them. Here we are, walking through that springtime forest, searching for the first buds. And this is what I tell myself at the end of long days when my future seems dim and foolish: bide your time, for you are budding. In a way, we are all budding. And I have no doubt, for what it is worth, that we will bloom.


Two powerful suspicions


The first was that (at a time when, every day, I regarded myself as standing upon the threshold of a life which was still intact and would not enter upon its course until the following morning) my existence had already begun, and that, furthermore, what was yet to follow would not differ to any extent from what had gone before.
Within a Budding Grove 74

Proust has summed up the entirety of post-grad life pretty well above me, and I’m not sure there’s too much need for me to flesh out my feelings beyond quoting him. Be that as it may, I have not yet given Within a Budding Grove the literary treatment it deserves, and so I’m going to do while I think about my future: post-college, post-D.C. life.

I think I prefer this second volume to the first, though my preference may be a result of how applicable I am finding Marcel’s stunted adolescence to my own life. I have almost as much anxiety as does our obsessive narrator, except, instead of young girls, I am preoccupied with the implications of moving back into my parents’ home and moving from one internship to another instead of into a full-time job. An intern is a Proustian protagonist: doing as much observing as she does working, and in between the worlds of the student and the professional.

I also find that as Marcel has grown in this book, and begun to find his initial fantasies lackluster when realized, the prose itself has become more involving. Perhaps I’m stalled in Vol. 2 because it takes more effort to wade through the levels of irony Proust employs on a sentence-by-sentence level.

If Swann’s Way was a preamble, Budding Grove, at least in the context of Marcel’s “suspicions,” is the realization that preambles are nothing more than the earlier parts of the present; that perhaps there is no thrilling and sudden change to which we can look forward, that our lives will go on in tandem with time. Most of the changes Proust has experienced thus far have been disappointments. Seeing his idol perform was a letdown. His emotions towards Gilberte are much the same as they were at the end of the last book (all-consuming obsession), and every moment of sexual advance seems to be paired with a conversely unpleasant feeling.

I spent a lot of the past couple of weeks unsure about what I was supposed to be doing, unsure about where I would be come next Tuesday. I finally committed to a future reality: I am moving back to New York, taking up residence in my childhood home, and beginning a great new internship at a company completely different from the one where I currently work. I will miss living in a new city; I am giving up some plans of independence that I had clung to. I am leaving my new favorite coffee shops, book shops, farmers markets, monuments, museums, my hilarious and wise older roommate, and most importantly my friends.

Of course, a higher percentage of my dearest friends live in New York City, not to mention 18 years of memories that come with their own coffee shops, book shops and monuments.

In D.C., at times I experienced the (perhaps childish) sentiment that my life was “beginning.” Being surrounded by different things gave me what might have been an illusion of momentum. My fear of going back to New York was that this momentum would cease when confronted with familiar landmarks and faces. I was afraid of moving backwards, but the truth is that I am not going back to the city I grew up in, and I’ll probably have to get used to New York all over again.

The second suspicion, which was really no more than a variant of the first, was that I was not situated outside of Time, but was subject to its laws, just like those characters in novels who, for that reason, used to plunge me into such gloom

Over the next few days, our undergraduate counterparts will be returning to our college for another year of rituals and all-nighters of studying or drinking, separately or concurrently. One of the best parts about college is that it’s four years where one actually is situated outside of Time. Things stay pretty much consistent whether you’re a freshman or a senior. Having graduated, we are acclimating to what it feels like when Time actually starts moving forward–or when it doesn’t, even when we expected it to. There aren’t markers like the first day of class or Spring break, there isn’t the refreshing cycle of shedding one semester and taking up a new one.

But, if my existence has already begun to move forward, it will continue to do so, even in the absence of a new semester or city. And, while I remain unsure exactly how I am getting home next weekend, I am excited to be reunited, along with many many other people and places, Miss Maeve and the greatest city in the world.

What is a weekend?

Today I think I somehow journeyed back in time a century or so because I had the most domestically oriented day I’ve ever had — at least, that I’ve had in the time since I started working two jobs and gave up my weekends.

My day “in” was appropriately timed to match up with the section of Within a Budding Grove at which I am currently stalled–“Madame Swann at Home.”

Madame Swann’s days are busy. She has to entertain visitors, return their calls and mimic their mannerisms. Her daughter copies her behavior, hosting her own “tea parties” for her friends (to which Marcel’s frail digestive system falls victim. Only Marcel would describe his stomachaches as embodying the agony and ecstasy of love).

Today, I had a much needed day that was “busy” in the same way.

Dame Maggie Smith does not concern herself with your proletariat divisions of time!

It started with a very first-world sojourn to Biker Barre, my favorite Sunday morning ritual, where an extremely peppy woman yelled at me to “leave everything I had” on the bike. I think I did, which left me limping back home at 10:00 am.

From there, it was time to prepare some cookies for my co-workers in honor of my last week working at my internship. After spending the week finding fancy and fun sounding recipes on Pinterest, I ended up buying a pre-made oatmeal chocolate chip cookie mix at the deli. The first batch tasted incredibly bland, not to mention burned, so I threw a cup of peanut butter into the batter which slightly improved my next attempt.

Domestic goddess I am not. But Madame Swann probably never baked her own cookies either.

My lame farewell cookies completed, I retired to my room where I spoke on the phone with my mother and wrote emails of varying degrees of importance.

This blog post is the final item on my agenda. Marcel has made it into the Swann household, his dearest ambition, and we the readers are finding out more about the Swanns’ lives after the marriage of Swann to Odette. Their social status has plummeted, and Swann has changed considerably as a result — or as he?

Proust is nothing if not vicious in his descriptions of all his characters, and he makes it clear that these days are work, as far as his self-absorbed characters comprehend them, and today felt like work to me too. And while I desperately needed a day to catch up on my correspondence and bake cookies and ride on a stationary bike, I don’t think I am cut out for the lifestyle of Mme. Swann. No matter how much I love Maggie Smith.

Crosswords and fiction

I have fallen egregiously behind on Proust, in case that wasn’t evident from my lack of posts. I have been busy and anxious since returning from vacation, and am just barely within “the budding grove.” The past few weeks have been punctuated by myriad stressors, with which I won’t bore our readers.

And instead of reading Proust to decompress, as I should be, I have rediscovered my favorite vice from this past year: the New York Times Crossword. Now that I get it on my iPhone, it’s a lot more portable than Proust.

Let’s be clear: the crossword is not a good thing for me–it is a pharmaceutical-grade narcotic that takes over my life.

At Hamilton we received the New York Times on weekdays, and my morning routine–sometimes my day–hinged on the crossword. I grabbed a cup of tepid coffee and the Arts section on my way to class or work, then sat in the atrium of a campus building obsessively penciling in letters. I remember one brutally trying winter Monday where I crept out of the Social Sciences building at 2 a.m. with the day’s crossword to the table usually reserved for campus smokers. With shivering fingers, I filled in the grid in a few minutes, enjoyed the momentary high, then shuffled back inside to finish my paper.

A crossword is a puzzle that works much like a work of fiction. There are clues that you can’t understand until you have filled in later parts of the grid, so your mind has to retain some of the earlier hints in order to make sense of both what comes after and what came before. The most intoxicating part of the puzzle is when your mind clicks into reason what seemed to be utter nonsense before. Every additional layer of cluing is another level of suspense and satisfaction.

Hopefully at this point you’ve sensed the parallels to Proust. As we are now past the first book, I think the memory games Proust plays with us are bound to increase, and thus, the satisfaction we derive from them can only respond in kind.

To the Next Fifty Years

A rather eventful week has gone by; we’ve recovered from our (extensive) sunburn, Nick turned twenty-three, I lost my wallet on a bus and have had to start afresh, carrying around my passport as ID and befriending a fabulous bank teller who, while canceling my cards, complimented the good taste of my transaction history (oh my life). We have gone boating in Central Park, antique-hunting in the Brooklyn Flea market, and drank deadly “texas-sized” margaritas from an outdoor café, which were then regretted for days. It has, to say the least, been anything but dull.

Needless to say, my usual crawl through In Search of Lost Time has slowed to a near-halt, and I have temporarily abandoned poor neurotic Marcel in a sea of dinner parties and socialite drama which he does not yet entirely understand. I promise, as always, to return, but with this week being an abbreviated version of my typical workweek, ending in my going down to Baltimore on Thursday to take my brother Harry down to college, I figured I may as well abandon all pretense, and post on something that both has everything to do with my own life, and fits in perfectly with my experience of the novel thus far.

Last night we cooked dinner for Nick’s birthday, and as we sat around the best meal I have had since graduating, discussed the implications and relative terror of entering our mid-twenties. Though this may seem a trite concern for someone even a few years older or younger than us, the shift from twenty-two, just finishing college and still close enough to your teens to identify as a young adult, and twenty-three, fully in the real world, with all of the weights and expectations of adulthood suddenly heaped upon you, can seem rather momentous. We all assured him he was entering his “late-early twenties,” laughed and cut the cake. But the prospect of growing older lingered with me, as most things unfortunately tend to do, and I thought back to my own childhood, when my mother would have to hold me as I cried, the night before my birthday, every single year, at the prospect of growing older.

And now you see how we have come, inevitably, back to Marcel. So much of what Proust does for four thousand pages is try to find a way to fight time, to slow its endless crawl, to use art and words and music to combat the deterioration and blurring of memories and experiences that accompanies the shift from one century to the next. Some would say that he succeeds, and, though I am far from reaching the end of these musings, there is something to be said for the novel’s longevity, its sustained existence, beyond the death of its author. I have long viewed writing as a way to preserve moments, to hold suspended and apart those memories with which I cannot bear to be parted, and perhaps, in a way, art does help us hold a place in time, stand still as the age progresses around us.

But I would argue that, even more than art, it is in each other that we find some sliver of eternity. I have had the great fortune, all through my life but especially in the past few years, of being surrounded by the most remarkable, clever, hysterical, loyal people I have ever known. And I find in my friends, more often than not, the ability to take a moment or period in my life, color it with laughter and absurdity, fill it with great food and music drifting into the summer night, and fix that point in time in a way that cannot be shaken.  If we singly cannot fight time, I would argue, if art and words and memories fail, it is in the people with whom we surround ourselves that forever lies. And if we hold fast to those we love, age is merely another adventure.

So here is to my very best friend, on the occasion of turning twenty-three. Happy Birthday. I know without a shadow of a doubt that your life will be splendid beyond imagining. As Olivia says and Sam loves to quote, we are on a roller coaster that only goes up. And we will all be on that ride, together, from here on out. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Last Wednesday, when Sam and I were shopping for Nick’s birthday in Chelsea, we went into a pop-up shop called “Story,” that reinvents itself every few months with a new theme. It was thoroughly too hip for us, and we wandered aimlessly from gourmet, locally sourced dog food to plates engraved with the Manhattan grid. They were hosting some sort of evening event, and giving out free glasses of wine, which we naturally took, giggling to ourselves at the oddity of the situation. “Look at us,” I mused, “drinking as we shop on a Wednesday night. What are the things I drag you to?” Sam laughed. “Aren’t you so glad I take you to things like this, that you boys see me every night?”

“Why, are you getting sick of us yet?” he gave me a sidelong look, half-amused and half-curious.

“Are you kidding me?” I laughed. “We could go the next fifty years, seeing each other every single day, and I would never get sick of it.”

Sam smiled.

“Okay then,” he said, solemnly raising his glass, and looking me straight in the eye, “here’s to the next fifty years.”

The Proust Questionnaire: Maeve


Well, since Proust and Nora are doing it, I guess I may as well! To round out my reading of Volume One, here is my own Proust Questionnaire. I have decided, after much debate, to fill out the Vanity Fair version, which is an adaptation of Marcel’s original, but contains many of the same questions. Excuse any repetition or self-deprecation! It is a rather personal questionnaire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? To sit on at a café table by the sea, preferably in Greece, with only a pen and paper, and not a care in the world.
What is your greatest fear? To be abandoned by those I love
Which historical figure do you most identify with? I’ve always loved Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I, but I don’t identify with either. Perhaps Virginia Woolf (minus the suicide).
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Being neurotic and insecure.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? Selfishness, not staying in touch.
What is your greatest extravagance? Food, without a doubt.
What is your favorite journey? Driving up I-95 and seeing the Manhattan skyline across the river.
What do you dislike most about your appearance? Currently, my haircut. Otherwise, probably my legs.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Like, sorry, really.
What is your greatest regret? My first relationship, that I did not end it sooner.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? Stay tuned.
When and where were you happiest? Here and now. But Crete was a close second.
Which talent would you most like to have? To be fluent in many languages.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Getting through my parent’s divorce, learning to write.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? Probably either a meerkat or a hummingbird.
What is your most treasured possession? Either my locket or my black sweater.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Dulles airport in August.
Where would you like to live? New York City (dreams come true)
What is your favorite occupation? Writing, laughing
What is your most marked characteristic? The way I talk: loud, fast, and without really breathing.
What is the quality you most like in a man? Intellect, the ability to write, a pretty face, and rolled up sleeves.
What is the quality you most like in a woman? Spark, intrigue, good conversation, good legs.
What do you most value in your friends? Loyalty and support, their ability to make me laugh.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Clarissa Dalloway
Who are your heroes in real life? My mother and Michael Colglazier
What are your favorite names? James, Amy, Michael, Lillian
What is it that you most dislike? The sound ice cubes make when broken apart, when I can’t get in touch with someone, adults who act like children.
How would you like to die? In my sleep
What is your motto? “Never a dull moment”