It is the most rainy of Fridays and I am sitting at my desk, compiling images from the server and uploading them onto an online research database. There is a long line of colorful umbrellas sitting by the elevator, and even the cats seem a bit downtrodden and soggy. Unable to confine myself to one (or even three) tasks at a time, I am in the midst of reading the Times review of JK Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy (which has, unfortunately, received scathing reviews thus far), debating her literary strengths with Sam via gchat, and perusing menus of various restaurants I would like to go to (an activity that is sometimes a sufficient substitute for actually going!). It is, to say the least, a thoroughly uneventful morning.
Marcel, on the other hand, has absconded to Balbec, a seaside town in which he spends his days socializing in the vast gilded dining rooms of the Grand Hotel, waking up to the sea-green waves outside his window, and dragging his reclusive grandmother to meetings with aristocrats. Peter told me back in June, when I wrote about going to the sea with Kylie, Kelsey, and Amanda, that my writing was particularly prescient of Marcel at Balbec. He was right, of course; but now that I have reached this section, I am struck, haunted even, by another memory, one that is strong enough to block out even the narrative.
You see, Balbec, much like Combray, is a fictitious town based on an actual place: the French seaside town of Cabourg, which lies just north of Normandy on the English Channel. The Grand Hotel is a real hotel, with long glass windows and a view out over the grey sea. Proust spent seven years of his life vacationing there, and used it as the setting for part of his second volume. And when I was twelve years old, my family took a trip to France, and stayed there. And it was not until my father mentioned it that I made this connection.
Nora and I always try to tie our writing in some way to Proust (to varying degrees of success!), but I must admit, this time the parallel is effortless. I can barely get through this section without having strong and poignant flashbacks to my own childhood, to four days spent by the sea in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, at a time when my family was the happiest we ever were.
I remember Cabourg vividly. Harry and Fiona got the two twin beds in our shared room, and I was left in a cot by the double-windows, which I left open every night and lay between my starched white cotton sheets, listening to the roar of the waves. There were little cabanas on the beach where you could change, and, though the water must have been fifty degrees, even in July, I waded into the English Channel and stubbornly dove between the iron waves. One day my father and I went through the marketplace in town and bought various cheeses, wines, and rotisserie chicken so fragrant the brown paper bag made our entire car smell like heaven on our drive to Pegasus Bridge to picnic. My parents confused hard cider for the sparkling American version and almost made all of us drunk (Harry and Fi were 9 and 6 at the time!). There were flowers in pots on a lawn at the entrance to the town, that were re-arranged daily to spell out the date and month. I had just gotten my ears pierced and had an infection from copper earrings I bought at a flea market in London. The grass in front of the hotel was bright green. We laughed all of the time.
Reading Proust is never easy, and sometimes it does indeed feel like I am creeping up a long, winding staircase with no end in sight. But sometimes, like at Balbec, Marcel allows me to enter into his narrative and take it for my own, to go back to those nights spent under sparkling lights by the sea, skipping all of the intervening years between then and now, all of the growing up, all of the heartbreak. For a moment, as with all great literature, I am back on that plage, watching the waves roll in, and we are all together.