Mixing Memory with Desire (April is the Cruelest Month)

Dear friends, relatives and faithful readers,

photo (68)I have an announcement to make, after weeks of no blogs, long nights of work, and increasingly sunny spring days that smell blissfully like hyacinth: as of this past Wednesday, I am officially a writer. Not that I haven’t been all along, in some capacity, but I feel rather like Julie Powell when I say that one cannot feel completely and totally like a writer until one is published. And this week I got to see my work in print, published in the newspaper I have started to work for twice a week. And though it was a small story, and I got paid about enough to cook a good dinner and nothing more, there is a wonderful sense of progress, of accomplishment in this small byline, and a sense that all of those long nights have somehow paid off.

That being said, this week was dark in seemingly every other aspect, as news of bombings in Boston and grieving families captured the country’s consciousness. A friend of mine from college lives in Watertown, a sleepy suburban town, and found herself lying on the living room floor on Thursday night, as sounds of gunfire filled her street. These things happen, we all know, somewhere in the back of our minds. But they do not happen to us, to our cities and suburbs, to our families. And the closer this impossibility comes to an improbability, the more afraid we become.

It is impossible in situations like this, whether national or the smaller, quiet sadness of a family tragedy or a sick friend, to reconcile the hurt and fear we feel with the joys of just a few days ago, or the sunshine we know will return. It is difficult, especially this time of the year, to awaken from our stupor of habit, to climb from the cocoon of winter and greet the raw, living world once more, and hold sadness and hope together in our hands.

In “The Wasteland,” which I should be ashamed to admit I have not read in its entirety, T.S. Eliot claims that:

April is the cruellest month,breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

photo 2 (7)And that particular stanza has stuck with me for the past few weeks, as I have started a second job and a new internship, and find myself racing from newspaper office to restaurant to Nick and Sam’s apartment, collapsing in my bed with legs that cramp like a runner’s. Change, I have always thought, is a cruel and painful force; but these changes have brought experience, a sense of fulfillment, more fiscal sustainability. As we near summer and the year anniversary of our graduation (and, right before that, my five year high school reunion!), I have been looking back more and more, assessing what exactly it is that I have done with my life in this past year. And though this progress has been slow, at times excruciatingly so, it has been filled with laughter and love, words and the best friends on Earth. So here I am, stuck, like Eliot, between memory and desire. Here we are waiting for spring to stir our dull roots with spring rain.

Marcel is struggling to make his own strides into societal growth, with forays into the aristocracy of the Guermantes salon and trips to the opera, and this process (like everything in Proust!) is slow as well. He is beginning to understand his love for Albertine, more adult and rooted in reality than his affection for Gilberte, and as we watch him ascend into societal heights and grow into his own artistry, it is impossible not to see some progress in this unending narrative.

Change may still shake me, and the breeze that comes through my open window contain a bit of a winter bite. But, going back once again to Eliot, this time to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there is time yet.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

photo 3 (4)


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.