Back, As it Were, to Cabourg

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.


Together Again, and a Confession

My dearest, darling readers, to whom I should never lie, I feel I must confess to you the current state of this project. I am, like Nora, bogged down in the first section of Within a Budding Grove, mired in Proust’s dense, cyclical prose. And although I fully and completely intend to see this project through to its very end, at the moment, page 4,211 seems a million miles away.

I spend most of my time on this blog likening various aspects of my post-college life to Proust (to varying degrees of success!), and pointing out different aspects of the author’s writing that appeal or relate to me. Well, for once, I would like to take a moment, for reasons of full disclosure and mental wellbeing, and ruminate on those aspects of the nineteenth-century novelist’s work which I do not love. Proust can be long-winded, verbose, and at times seemingly random. His prose is more immersive than narrative, his characters tableaux rather than active forces. There are nights when I lie in bed and plow through forty pages of a description of a single afternoon tea, days when my commute to work is dedicated to Marcel’s thoughts on Odette’s various nightgowns. Sometimes, to be perfectly blunt, Proust is boring. And I get bored fairly easily.

My friends have, of course, born the brunt of my literary frustration, encouraging (coaxing, and chiding) me to keep going, to find beauty in the narrative, and sometimes just to suck it up and write. Comparing our endeavor to that of Julie Powell, whose efforts to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking fueled her blog, book, and later, the film Julie & Julia, Sam told me this was like the low point of her project. Overwhelmed by her task, Julie has a breakdown about halfway through the movie, and laments the futility of the project:

“This is that moment where you’re lying on the kitchen floor, covered in chicken liver, and crying,” Sam joked. I enjoyed the comparison, especially as this moment for Julie ends with the phone call from a food writer that eventually leads to her discovery. When I first began this post, I fully intended to confess to my horrible procrastination, apologize, and, as I always do, vow to carry on with renewed enthusiasm. But Nora’s entry and Sam’s words brought home a refreshing reality: it’s okay for this project to be hard. We are allowed to hate it at times, allowed to want to want to sit on the kitchen floor and throw a tantrum, covered in liver. We are allowed, in short, to live.

I have fallen behind on both my reading and writing this past summer, moved to New York and was (and still am) so terribly in love with life here that I neglected my art. September has come, and along with it the slight panic of a life without the routine of college, and the fear that I am behind on things I should be doing. Nora is back and the nights have begun to grow crisp, and I have remembered why it is that I came here. I mentioned the need to return to my writing last week at dinner, and both Nick and Sam responded with “what have we been telling you for months??” Balancing life and art, work and play, is always a challenge. But as much as it is now time for me to get down to business, I have decided not to regret my procrastination, not (for once) to apologize.

For unlike Marcel, I am never content with stasis. It is only through narrative, through living, that my art comes alive.

Art is Hard

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Avant-Garde Film

At Sea Peter HuttonMarcel has writer’s block. And so do I. Like I have stalled on my blogging, our protagonist is stymied in the progress of his “great work.” He has befriended Bergotte, the author whom he has long revered, and is finally a regular guest at the Swann’s home. Yet he laments that all this headway into the literary lifestyle has not actually been conducive to the creation of art:

Unfortunately the next day was not that vast, extraneous expanse of time to which I had feverishly looked forward… To my parents it seemed almost as though, idle as I was, I was leading, since it was spent in the same salon as a great writer, the life most favourable to the growth of talent. And yet the assumption that anyone can be dispensed from having to create that talent for himself, from within himself, and can acquire it from someone else, is erroneous…

In many ways I think that Marcel is correct. One doesn’t become a better artist by following other artists around. If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if reading Proust were easy, everyone would have done it already. But the world isn’t exactly full of people who have read all seven volumes, and sometimes I need a reminder of why hard art is, at the end of the day, the best kind of art.

My Proustian progress hasn’t exactly been breakneck. Within a Budding Grove, which I really am enjoying, sometimes feels too cumbersome for my morning subway commute or too intense to eat up my precious work-free hours. My life is busy, and Proust demands a pace to which I am sometimes unwilling to adapt. But there’s a reason we’re doing this, and a reason we will stick it out.

This evening I went with one of my friends to a screening of two silent films by Peter Hutton at Union Docs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The filmmaker had been her professor, while I had seen (and loved) some of his films in a class I took at Hamilton with the remarkable Scott MacDonald. Mr. Hutton showed two of his films: Images of Asian Music and At Sea. The venue was small, the chairs were uncomfortable and the temperature continued to climb as the night went on, hour after hour. When it comes to avant-garde film, the physical experience of watching often seems to be as challenging as the subject material itself.

“It’s okay if you fall asleep,” Hutton said, before launching us into 90 minutes of silent cinematography. Life is stressful, he assured us, and if all his films did was give us a moment of peace, then they had done their job as far as he was concerned. Of course, the films far from put me to sleep. As I sat there, watching images of breaking waves and shipping yards, I found myself thinking back to this project.

Proust’s writing is avant-garde in much the same way Hutton’s films are. As Proust meanders through his prose and sensory language, Hutton’s films present portraits in single shots that refuse to adhere to a singular narrative, then scale to shots of the moving horizon or giant ships sitting like statues. His are not easy films to watch. But because they ask so much of you, they are able to provide that much more in return. In addition to meditation, his films are an interrogation of the experiences of traveling, aging, laughing, dying.

So, sweating in a dark room in Williamsburg, I thought about how film and literature are reflective surfaces in which we are forced to see truer projections of ourselves. As Maeve and I write about Proust, and our changing post-graduate lives, we are continuing to think in ways that, absent of Proust, we might forget to. I am happy to have Proust to remind me that the appearance of your life is not the actual measure of your success. We are all easy victims of superficiality, but as Marcel illuminates, pretending at art won’t make it come, and there is no permanence in a glamorous veneer. And while there are easier things to do than slog through thousands of pages, and quicker ways to make blog fit for mass-consumption, there is no substituting for art that truly makes you think. A silent film makes us more aware of the subtleties of sound and motion, and a novel about time and memory makes us study our own memories and impressions. What are the keys to my memory? How much do I base my reactions upon my expectations as opposed to the gravity of my own emotions?

Right now, for me, reading Proust isn’t about finding the answers. It’s about remembering to keep asking the questions–the hard questions–that only good art can bring to the surface.

5 Things I Loved About New York in 2001

Yesterday was September 11, and it marked the 11-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York. In the years immediately following 2001, we marked the day in middle school with a moment of silence, and our teachers encouraged us to air our adolescent emotions. Many of us had been affected by 9/11–some of us had lost dear friends or family members; others, like myself, had been unable to return to our homes in downtown Manhattan for several days. It’s strange to think, looking at the busy streets around us, that for months this part of New York looked like a ghost town. Toxic smoke lingered for weeks.

By the time I went away to college, the memory of Sept. 11 had become further separated from the trauma that surrounded it. There had also been an explosion in human communication. The first anniversary of 9/11 that I was away from New York was the first time the memorial moved, en masse, to the Internet.

So my way of memorializing this day is, rather than attempt to be profound in a Tweet (which I have seen many others do elegantly) to post a list of the things I loved about New York City in 2001, and the wonderful memories that come with them.

1. Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion sent poems underground into the subways from 1992-2008. I would check constantly to see if the poems had been updated, and the above poem changed the way I felt about poetry. “They’re just sitting in the room,” I remember thinking. “Wow.”

The best part? Poetry in Motion started again this year, just in time for my return to New York. Have you seen any great Poetry in Motion yet?

2. The summer pools

When the weather got warm enough it meant only one thing: the outdoor pool at the Carmine Street Rec center and the pool at Thompson Square Park were about to open. There is only one proven cure for NYC summer heat, and it involves dunking yourself in ice cold water. One hot summer I worked around the corner from the Carmine Street pool. It was torture to walk by.

3. Scouting out stars

High school was all about staking out the cast of Gossip Girl, but before that we had the frequent sightings of SJP and co. to satisfy our voyeurism. I doubt anyone my age at the time was allowed to watch the raunchy hit, but if you had an older sister or an HBO subscription, you knew that it was taboo, glamorous and almost attainable.

When you saw a tell-tale trailer parked on your block your heart skipped a beat in the hopes that you might catch a glimpse of one of those iconic ladies. Not that we would ever admit to being phased by the famous. Even at age 10, that was a known killer of street cred.

4. Student metrocards

They. Were. Free. Three rides a day to be used between 6 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. This is more nostalgia. I didn’t know at 10 years old how much a free ride was worth.

5. The voices in cabs that told you to buckle up

When did they end these? “Buckle up, for safety!” some familiar stranger would boom from the backseat of the cab when you entered, interrupting the talk radio or middle eastern music that was playing. Mayor Giuliani didn’t quite pique my interest, but Bernadette Peters may have made a few cameos in my cab. I think Bert and Ernie (maybe Elmo?) did one of these, which was obviously my favorite!

What did you love about New York City in 2001?

Had We But World Enough and Time

This morning, much like Marcel, I could not sleep. I went to bed early, woke in the middle of the night, and then again at six this morning, and decided, rather than lie in bed and watch the light turn my shutters golden, as I usually do, I should go out and greet it. I put on my madras shorts and USC t-shirt, put band-aids on my feet (scarred by tight flats and not used to athletic shoes!), grabbed my teal Bianchi (a tiny, Italian racing bike which once belonged to my mother, and which has recently recovered from a flat tire), and walked down my building’s narrow stairs.

The East River Park is only two blocks from my apartment, though I had not been there since last weekend, and while it is not the most picturesque of New York parks, the path by the river runs by the water and under the bridges, and riding along it, I have found,  feels more free than any other place in the city.

You should also know, faithful readers and concerned friends, that I am not exactly the most agile biker. I first brought my Bianchi to college Junior year, and scarred friends and strangers alike with my careening, haphazard, brake-less flights across campus. I absolutely adore biking, but when I moved to Manhattan, was forbidden by the boys and my mother from setting foot on the streets with nothing between me and New York traffic but a few inches of plastic and steel. After two months of dutifully avoiding city biking, however, I decided that a park with a dedicated pedestrian/bike lane might be a safe place to start, and brought along my helmet.

The sun was still rising over Brooklyn, and I pedaled down the river, shakily at first, and then with more assured progress. I passed under the Williamsburg bridge, soaring steel latticework that shook as cars rumbled across it. I rode under the FDR (for a terrifying thirty seconds when the path converged with the street) and past the IKEA ferry (which always gives me a little thrill whenever I see it), under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, and down into the Financial District. Unwilling to stop, I wove through the passengers getting off the Staten Island Ferry, and down through the trees in Battery Park, finally reaching the very tip of Manhattan, where I stopped.

I sat there on the bench, knees drawn up to my chest, watching the Staten Island Ferry dock and depart, as the mist cleared away from Governor’s Island and Investment Bankers made their way to work around me, and was struck by two simultaneous thoughts. The first was how terribly much I love this city, and the second how haunted I am by time.

Summer is ending, has, in many respects, already ended, and, for the first time in seventeen years, we did not return to school after Labor Day. The surreality of this has yet to sink in. But it has put me in a September mindset, and I find myself questioning what will come next, what will change, and how best to hold onto my magical summer before it fades into memory. Nostalgia, or rather, the preservation of those crystalline moments which precede nostalgia, seems to be a theme of this blog. Nora, Marcel, and I are all
struggling to grow into our adult selves without losing touch of what has brought us there, to put down roots without becoming paralyzed, to find our way and make a living without compromising what it is that we truly live for. In so many ways, we are more real, more independent, than we have ever been, and life since graduation has been nothing but wonderful. But like Marcel, we feel time racing away from us, feel the constancy of change, and fight against it.

There are many ways, Proust tells us, by which we may hold fast to moments in time. We can capture it in art, pin it down through pages and pages of flowery prose or sheets of canvas; we can find immortality in a friend or lover; we can eat the right food, listen to the right piece of music, and be transported back to the very first time we encountered or tasted it. In essence, Marcel says, if we appreciate life in its intricacy and complex splendor, we may be able to slow the passage of time. I myself have always chosen another path, one that is far more in keeping with my sensibility than with Proust’s. My summer was filled with sunlight and laughter, late nights cooking bad carbonara and drinking perfect sangria, trips to the beach and the lake in central park, and biking along the promenade in Governor’s Island. I have learned how to keep my own apartment clean and pay an electrical bill, how to do HTML coding and pull together a magazine.

And all the while I have been amused, interested, teased, and looked after by the most wonderful friends anyone could ever ask for, who make me laugh until my sides hurt from lack of breath, and I have never felt more young and alive. Nick and Sam told me recently that I have two speeds, 180 mph and zero, and I would say it’s a fairly accurate assessment. I tend to operate on a higher energy level than anyone else, speak and walk faster, try to pack everything into a single day, only to wake up early on the next one. And I think, on some level, that this is my way of fighting time, my way of holding onto the moments I cannot bear to lose. Unlike Proust, I do not try to slow down time. Instead, I race it.

After about ten minutes, I picked my bike back up and rejoined the throng of suit-clad commuters just beyond the trees. The sun had risen past the horizon by now and lost its yellow glow. By 8:15 I would be back in my apartment, hopping into the shower. By 9:30 I would be at work. And by 6 I would be sitting on the deck of a boat on the Hudson river, drinking white wine sangria with three of my best friends. I thought, in a flash of geeky-lit-major reminiscence, of John Donne’s declaration to his reluctant lover in “To His Coy Mistress,” a poem we read in tenth grade,

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run

And with a slight smile, I began to pedal.