There is a certain magic in names. They can conjure up a place, Aruba or Oklahoma, that contains in its very syllabic construction the spirit or essence of its locale. They can represent a person, quirky or bland, transform an egg into a soufflé or an evening into a soirée. Naming an object or event, transforming one word into another, imparts a certain significance onto it, gives it power, substance, force.
Before I was born, my parents discussed several names I could have been given, a significant ritual in the development of a new family and the beginning of the relationship a person has with his or her title. My potentials were Nicholas or Harry, if I had been a boy, or Augusta, were I to be a girl. When my mother lay in the delivery room, however, holding her purple and (I have been told) screaming child, she looked down at my new, ruddy face, and said to my father a word he had never heard before, a pronouncement they had not discussed at all.
“I think we should name her Maeve.” She said, and there I was.
My mother had lived in Ireland for a year in college, and knew Queen Maeve was a mythical warrior who led her troops to battle and is buried standing upright on a mountain in Connaught that bears her name. She wanted to raise a daughter with a strong name, and my father agreed. My grandmother, very excited at the birth of her first granddaughter but rather hard of hearing, thought my name was Nave, and called everyone in the family with that pronouncement. It took weeks to fully clear up.
Having a more unusual name than almost anyone I know, I went through childhood alternating between loving and hating it. For almost a year, I insisted my mother call me “Lillian,” the name of my adopted grandmother and my very favorite alternative to my own. By the time I reached middle school, I had looked up my namesake and discovered her rather promiscuous past (it seems that, in addition to being a strong leader, she slept with half her army). Maeve in Irish means “she who intoxicates,” and, though I have never identified with its more risqué implications, and occasionally give my mother’s name for ease of spelling when I go to restaurants or cafés, I could not imagine being called anything else.
For Marcel, names carry a similar power, calling forth the allure of foreign places or the intimacy of a potential lover with the utterance of a few sounds. He recalls,
I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood.
His childhood love for Gilberte (something I foresee developing in the coming chapters) is mostly based upon the utterances of her name, her father’s (for, as we learn, she is Charles Swann’s daughter), and, in a moment of masterful divulgence, that of her mother Odette. As it turns out, she and Swann do get married, despite what appears to be the unravelling of their relationship, founded on jealousy and affairs. Marcel, it appears, has a few tricks up his frilly sleeves.
Names came back to grace my morning as I awoke at dawn to head up to the beach with friends. Nick, Sam, Laura and I got up at 630 and boarded a MetroNorth train from Grand Central station (itself one of my favorite places in the city, vaulted and majestic with gilded clocks and tracks that still bear the stone numbering of another century). We rode up through Connecticut, discussing the relative wealth of the towns we passed (the entire state is a contrast of extremes), and how thoroughly and repetitively they had been named. For every West Haven there was an East Haven, for every Morningside an Eveningside, and we spent a good deal of the train ride devising new nomenclature for the towns we passed, abbreviating South Norwalk to “So No” and the imaginary “No No,” and asking Laura if there was an “Afternoonside” to go with its morning and evening equivalents.
We got to Fairfield and lay on a nearby beach, alternating between splashing in the Long Island Sound (or in Sam’s case, wading), and stretching out on the sand as we slowly turned into human lobsters. Names, I will hold, carry an unmistakable power. But so do days of summer, washed in sun and friendship, windswept and salt-kissed, and tinged forever with that sense of fleeting solar eternity. As Marcel confessed to me today,
Often in one we find a day that has strayed from another, that makes us live in that other, evokes and makes us long for its particular pleasures, and interrupts the dreams that we were in the process of weaving, by inserting out of its turn, too early or too late, this leaf torn from another chapter in the interpolated calendar of Happiness.
And for these moments, I cannot pick a name.
Oh, and did I mention that, halfway to becoming a lobster on the Fairfield beach, I finished Swann’s Way? One down, five to go! Marcel, I will master you yet.