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Proust Centennial

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy from the New School for Social research. He is critic-at-large at The Smart Set and an editor of 3 Quarks Daily. He is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in NYC.

I first opened Swann’s Way on a train. This is more than twenty years ago, Amtrak heading from New York City up the Hudson and finally to Montreal. It was a nine-hour train ride, the way I remember it. I remember stepping off the train in Montreal and wondering where the hours had gone.

Of course, I’d been in Combray for those nine hours, strolling through the sun-soaked gardens and the rich object-laden rooms of Proust’s childhood. Proust’s great aunts are teasing his grandmother again, poking at her with their relentless barbs. Then the book wavers and twitches in my hand. My head lolls back into that specific nook between the train-seat headrest and the window. The giant trees of the Hudson River are flickering past. The morning sun slides across the water, sparkling as tiny waves lick at the light. A morning yellow that isn’t even quite yellow yet. The presaging of yellow. The train car is quiet with morning readers, morning nappers.

Proust is trying to get to sleep again. Only, the wandering of his thoughts and memories will not let sleep come. Or is it the other way around? Maybe he’s been pulling the dream world so completely into his waking life that he doesn’t know how to be fully awake anymore. The train has reached full speed and rocks like a metronome slowly side to side even as it plunges ahead, north, north, away from the city and into the forests and rivers of another world, the world of Frederic Church and Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School of painters who tried, again and again, to capture the roundy, orange-tinged leafy luminescence of the landscape along the river.

And then I am wandering along the Rue Saint-Hilaire, gazing at the façade of Mme. Loiseau’s house and the pharmacy of M. Rapin. “The Church,” I cry, we cry, instinctively. The friendly and clumsily constructed Church at Combray. Doesn’t Proust say that the church looks more like a prison than a church? Still, that church is Combray and Combray is that church, with the north entrance opening out onto Rue Saint-Hilaire. We will always remember it that way, Combray and the train ride into Combray revealing the church spire peaking out over the countryside.

I’m drinking coffee now. The hot liquid has made my chest and throat feel smooth and expanded. Seven or eight buzzards are hovering in the wind eddies beyond the windows on the right side of the train. The sky is tremendously blue. The jagged feathers of the buzzards are distinct, framed-up against the matte of blue sky.

Why does he do it? Why does Swann humiliate himself over and over? But we know why he does it. It is because of the little phrase of music lodged in his head. I hear the little phrase of music inside my own head as something by Erik Satie. Nothing specific. Like a blend between the Gymnopedies and the Gnossiennes. Something never before heard, though I know exactly what it sounds like. Swann heard that little phrase and it awakened a feeling. It caused a rejuvenation inside him. It created a love of the world: nauseous, indistinct, giddy. A feeling Swann hadn’t felt for many years. The indistinct longing created by the little phrase of music led him to a woman. It’s happened before. The specifics don’t matter. We find ourselves outside in the rain, standing below a window watching for signs. Glorious anguish.

The book slips out of my hands onto the floor of the train. The noise wakes me suddenly from another dreamy half-slumber. “Grandfather! I want to go see Mme. Verdurin this instant….” No. Wait. No. The afternoon sun has drifted down into evening on the other side of the train. The magic hour. The glow on the leaves of the trees is like every scene by Terrence Malick.

I don’t remember why I went to Montreal or what I was doing there. The reality that I had known no longer exists. The places I have known belong now only to the little world of space on which I map them for my own convenience. None of those places was ever more than a thin slice, held between contiguous impressions that composed my life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, train rides, avenues, are as fugitive, alas, as the years…


Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

tags:Lydia Davis