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.