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Proust Is...

Linda Coverdale is a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the award-winning translator of over seventy books.

. . . kicking off your slippers and clambering onto the desk chair to find out what’s on the top bookshelf while the babysitter is out of the living room. Two books in a blue slip case immediately draw the eye with their gilt titles and elegant cloth spines the color of beach sand. Remembrance of Things Past. This much is clear: they must be very grown-up, these books, and very sad, and like Tantalus you reach for the objects of your desire but now the babysitter is coming and catches you still reaching, poised like an errant nymph and naked in her glare. The next morning nothing is said, but the desk and its chair now live over by the piano.

So: grown-up, sad, precious. And probably dangerous.

. . . getting off the boat at Le Havre and into the first smells of France: coal smoke, urine, rainy streets, charred chestnut shells, sodden tobacco. A rude awakening. You will skip sixth grade and spend the next year living mostly in Grenoble without any thoughts of Proust, Le Lotus bleu being more your speed, but you do notice, incidentally, that the knobby pre-packaged madeleines from the local épicerie are as bad as Lorna Doones, which are nowhere near true shortbread, so you pester your mother for real madeleines from a pâtisserie. The fresh ones look like actual shells and are fragrantly delicious.

France is more than madeleines, though; it’s full of ancient grimy stone, centuries of artwork depicting scary stuff and in particular many crucifixions featuring skulls at the base of the cross. It does not help that when you and your little sister walk to the Externat Sainte Jeanne d’Arc you must pass the charcuterie that often has a dead boar out on the sidewalk, lying on a bed of evergreen boughs. His eyes and nostrils are scummy with blood and his bristly fur looks pathetic. You begin having dreams like the harrowing of Hell. So this will be not only the year when you learn French but also the one when you begin to understand what Death actually means. A grown-up, sad, precious, and dangerous year, but later you will hear that ten is about the right age for this development, so it’s all right.

. . . the highest mountain, the pinnacle of grandeur, the one you see in your dreams. Training to climb it is a long-term commitment. You have returned from France to seventh grade in a new school, and so far the assigned titles for book reports have been dismal. Granted permission to select your own, you leave your homeroom, turn left, enter the library next door, march to the desk, ask the librarian where “the Russians” are, explain “like Dostoevsky,” go to the indicated spot, choose The Brothers Karamazov, and never look back. God knows what you made of it, aside from a book report, but you were not disheartened to read afterwards in the introduction that the sections with Father Zosima, which you’d found a snooze, are the philosophical heart of the novel. You’re only eleven, it’s early days yet.

You will read as if your life depends on it, and in a way, of course, it does. When did you finally tackle that Scott Moncrieff translation for the first time? Weird irony: you do not remember. It wasn’t there; and then it was. You do remember that when you did read it, you understood (as when your mother came downstairs to the furnished basement where you were bailing water with a red Dixie cup into a bucket the afternoon of the big hurricane years ago while watching that week’s Million-Dollar Movie, Olivier’s Hamlet, and found you transfixed, Dixie cup frozen aloft while you knelt by the bucket like the White Rock fairy, staring almost tearfully across the basement at the fearful maelstrom of black-and-white flickering on a tiny TV screen, your entire consciousness bent on staying afloat on the voices navigating that turbulent language so unheard-of yet so intelligible in its intricacy, voices telling you with serene assurance how a film can be more than a thing of fancy and delight and can even be what grownups seem to mean by “a work of art”) that a book can be more than an accessory for living or even a work of art: it can turn the tables on a mind, go through the looking-glass, and start reading you.

So, Proust: a quantum leap.

. . . that poor old hackneyed madeleine and why not? It’s silly to be snobbish (v. Proust) about a cookie, please. Many readers begin Proust in French with Combray in college, and so did you. That magic trick will never stale for you, but it isn’t the madeleine that moves you, it’s the petits morceaux de papier jusque-là indistincts that burst into bloom when dropped in water. Your father never came home from a business trip without little presents for his children and once he gave you all a bag of small shells sealed shut with tiny strips of paper. Already possessing gobs of shells from Florida, you three were polite but not amused. Gently raising a placatory finger, your father dropped a single clam into a highball glass of water and sat back. A few bubbles like seed pearls . . . and then, recalled to life, the clam blossomed into a delicate garden with three young smiles beaming down on it like sunshine. The paper flowers could not last long and their magic was of the plainest kind, but when you went to Dehillerin in Paris during your Junior Year in France to buy a present for your mother, you spotted a silvery madeleine pan and saw not the water lilies of the Vivonne and all Combray in your mind’s eye but the pleasure in your father’s when he was sure his simple gift had entranced his children after all.

He died a cruel death some years ago, your mother is gone as well, and that madeleine pan sits high up over a door in your kitchen. You don’t use it anymore and rarely notice it but when you do, you see in its reflection how shy your father was with his children and how he showed his love for them in often awkward ways. His ashes were scattered at his childhood home, so the madeleine pan is his tombstone. Whenever you look at it, paper flowers as fragile as poppies spring up on his grave.

. . . setting out to read the Recherche with a rare sense of unbounded adventure. At the end of your grad-school year abroad you solemnly purchase the three-volume Pléiade. It is now or never. You must follow the text wherever it leads and never let go. Remembrance, that was still reading for itself, like making your way through the world’s most exotic rain forest, but that was then and this is it: you enter the French to find yourself exploring an underwater world, another planet, a parallel universe unparalleled in its majesty. You’ve read the English several times but now you read and read again and at times in all directions, backwards, forwards, and some pages begin to fray, that tissue-thin paper growing velvety in spots as the tiny print seems to ripple with fluid opacity and meaning shifts around like darting minnows. A hundred times, some pages, surely. And the endnotes! Derrida was right: rich pickings, often hiding in plain sight. And your notes? Index cards, scraps of envelopes, strips torn from the margins of newspapers, anything in a pinch to jot down the thoughts that keep tangling like mischievous lace. Scissors, scotch tape, arrows every which way, coded asterisks in Prismacolor pencils. Sorting, culling, jiggering, haring off—the works, and the work works out at long last (mostly at night, as is only fitting) in a loving appreciation of one of the wonders of the world.

With your doctoral dissertation on the labyrinthine language that is Proust, you finally scaled the mountain: barefoot, stretching till it hurt, you reached up and for a moment touched that mystery on the top bookshelf. Packed up before your mother’s estate sale, Remembrance of Things Past still waits patiently with its fellows in a box in your study, but A la recherche du temps perdu has long sat on your bookshelf headboard in a row of old friends that keep watch comme des anges aux ailes éployées.

. . . a whole life: ours. Like Shakespeare, Proust can take us from the cradle to the grave. Because we all, all of us, will find ourselves in the end sent off to bed early—dans le Temps.