A Nomadic Reading: Behind the Scenes

November 25, 2013 | By Laurence Marie
Giovanna Calvino (c) Kevin Henderson

To celebrate the centennial of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, our Cultural Counselor Antonin Baudry, a huge Proust fan who, in his younger years, wrote a dissertation on “la raison des sentiments chez Proust” under the supervision of Professor Antoine Compagnon, had a brilliant idea, which he proposed with his usual enthusiasm: organizing a reading of the entirety of In Search of Lost Time (8 volumes, approximately 2500 pages). After some quick arithmetic, we realized that it would take at least 8 days, reading non-stop, to complete. “200 hours: génial!” exclaimed Antonin.

“Well Antonin,” we argued, “you may be a night-owl, but we might need a bit of sleep at some point!” At the time, we also worried that it would be difficult to find enough readers and listeners to organize such an ambitious Proust marathon (we were wrong). We had underestimated the American fondness for marathon readings (which do not really exist in France) and, most of all, had not realized the extent of the passion for Proust held by a large and diverse group of Americans.

In the end, we reached a compromise: we would let reason prevail and settle for a reading of the first volume, Swann’s Way, but we would make each part of the reading a very special event. We decided to select locations reflective of each day’s reading, throughout New York’s five boroughs. Our brainstorming sessions resulted in some delightfully crazy ideas; among the most brilliant (which we had to give up for obvious practical reasons) were the following: reading in a bed in the middle of Central Park, on the Staten Island Ferry (too cold in mid-November), on the Roosevelt Island tramway (too small, especially at rush hour), or in the middle of Grand Central Station or Times Square (definitely too noisy).

With the help of our imaginative artistic director, Kathryn Hamilton, we finally found evocative and hospitable venues, enjoyable for readers and listeners alike. Moleskine joined us on our adventure, producing an amazing customized Proust edition notebook and arranging for live drawings every night, which beautifully captured the atmosphere of the readings.

To sum it up in numbers, this resulted in 21 hours of reading in three-hour increments; 110 readers; more than 700 spectators; 60 editions of Swann’s Way in French and English available for guests to follow along in the reading (many of which slowly disappeared, to my great pleasure, for I had to drag them every day from place to place in a bulky suitcase, which at one point prompted a taxi driver to ask me, “Are you transporting a corpse?”); 400 madeleines consumed (mainly by the writer of this account and her dedicated team – after the overdose, we are all now in rehab).

The Wythe Hotel

The reading began in a bed at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, with the Manhattan skyline in the background, echoing the narrator’s bedrooms and Aunt Leonie’s two rooms. Radio personality Ira Glass, comfortably lying in bed, read the famous first lines: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” The passage concerning the madeleine dipped in tea was read by Judith Thurman (writer, New Yorker) and Yves Seban (director of Agnès B Gallery Boutique). Another of the night’s sensations was Giovanna Calvino, who arrived in hair curlers, lace pyjamas and a dressing gown, and carefully put her slippers on before jumping into bed.

SoHo Rep

Saturday morning, we were at SoHo Rep, on a stage which evoked young Marcel’s fascination for Parisian theatres and particularly the splendid actress La Berma. Everything was going perfectly well until, five minutes in, the table on which the first reader had placed her book collapsed loudly, at the very moment when the young Marcel is explaining his many strategies for getting a kiss from his mother before going to bed. Proust’s ghost was with us, we thought, manifesting his satisfaction with the way his work was read. An American Columbia student, Jonathan Brooks Slaughter, gave a lively performance read in astoundingly perfect French. And for reasons we still haven’t figured out, one reader chose to read a passage completely out of order. That said, nobody in the packed audience, apart from the dumbfounded organizers, seemed to be affected by the breach, which is further evidence of the genius of Proust’s storytelling.

New York Botanical Garden

Sunday morning's reading was at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, alluding to the narrator’s promenades along “the Guermantes way” (the fragrant hawthorn, the river landscape, the Martinville steeples…). About 60 high school students from the Lycée français and the French-American School of New York did not sleep in that day; they came all the way to the gardens to read Proust outdoors for three hours. Against all odds, they seemed to enjoy it thoroughly! The bravest of them had even made their own attempts at translating the tangled sentences into English. The reading started smoothly. It was a cold day, but beautiful and sunny. By the end of the session, though, the weather had turned on us, and it ended up pouring rain. The students, in groups of four or five, carried on without batting an eyelid. They read as in a choir the different voices of the guests at the Verdurins’ comical soirées. This was one of the most moving and merry moments of the nomadic reading – a moment which thankfully didn’t last too long, for the sake of the freezing readers and listeners.

The Oracle Club

On Monday night, we were at the Oracle Club, a literary salon in Queens, the perfect setting in which to savour “Swann in Love”. The reading took place in the cozy little library, while other attendees enjoyed food and drinks in a drawing-room ornamented with large-scale paintings by the owner, Jenna Gribbon (who was commissioned by Sofia Coppola to create paintings for her film Marie-Antoinette). Rick Moody, who had gotten married just two days earlier, started with the famous passage on the Vinteuil sonata, which “proposed at once to him sensual pleasures, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing by this phrase could introduce him, and he had felt for it a new and strange love.” Donald Breckenridge from the Brooklyn Rail added to the enjoyment of the readings by loudly laughing at the hilarious scenes at the Verdurins' – and there were many.

Simone Subal Gallery

On Tuesday night, we headed to Simone Subal Gallery, in Little Italy. In this beautiful art gallery set in a loft-space, we listened to the scenes with the painter Elstir, the narrator's model of artistic creation, and also took in the evening at the home of the Marquise de Saint-Euverte, where Swann compares social life to a series of paintings. Award-winning biographer Ron Chernow opened the evening by telling us how, at bed-time, he would read novels to his wife, and would know beyond a doubt when the book was bad, because she would inevitably doze off. After Alexandra Schwartz gave an invigorating interpretation of Mme Verdurin’s mundane mimicries, Dominique Ansel, the creator of the cronut (a fancy hybrid of a croissant and a doughnut), carried on reading, while his assistant treated the audience to deliciously warm mini-madeleines. After we found out at the last minute that one of the readers couldn’t be there, Harold Augenbraum eagerly offered his services, and read for half an hour instead of the usual 15-minutes, immersing the audience in the intricate rhetoric deployed by a Swann swept up in the toils of love and jealousy.

Le Baron Chinatown

On Wednesday night, we started much later, to fit into the usual schedule of the night club Le Baron, in Chinatown. Between 10 pm and 1:30 am, more than 200 people crowded around to listen to the twists and turns of Swann’s obsession with Odette (and, notably, to the famous moonlight scene in the Bois de Boulogne). After Timothee Verrecchia, the French owner of Le Baron, began reading from the DJ's usual spot, Tom Bishop, 82 years old, read standing for 15 minutes in fairly bad lighting (discouraging to even the best eyes), but never stopped smiling. He was followed by a succession of young American literary journalists, passionate about Proust. For my part, I had to replace one of the readers on extremely short notice, and frantically read through my passage in the pallid light of the club’s bathroom.

The French Embassy

Thursday, November 14th, the actual day of the centennial, and the 7th and last day of our nomadic reading, took place at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, in the Payne Whitney Mansion facing Central Park (where a French bookstore will soon see the light of day!). We were amazingly lucky to have on display a first edition of Du côte de chez Swann, with a dedication to Marcel Prévost in the hand of Proust himself. Nine celebrated French and American novelists read the last pages in five-minute rounds, to the delight of the numerous audience members. In a contemplative and moving silence, Proust translator Lydia Davis opened the evening with a passage evocative of a reading heading towards its end: “I returned home with Françoise throughout streets that were still bedecked with sunlight, as on the evening of a holiday that is over.” The narrator, anticipating the letter he would receive from Gilberte, writes about the process of reading and writing in a way that magically echoed both our reading and Lydia Davis’s writing of the translation. Following Laurent Binet, Ben Lerner, Catherine Cusset, Marc Levy, Joshua Cohen, Clémence Boulouque, and Antoine Bello, Edmund White gave us the honor of magnificently concluding the marathon : “the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.”

If there is one thing I will remember from the week-long nomadic reading, it is the following: a great number of readers came to me to say how grateful they were that I had chosen either the most beautiful passage of Swann’s Way, or a passage that corresponded so intimately to their own tastes and concerns. Yet, all of the excerpts had been assigned only according to the availability of the readers, totally at random! What better confirmation of Proust's definition of reading as a "friendship", and what better evidence of his outstanding ability to touch readers so intimately that one recognizes a part of oneself on every page.


More images! Download a complete Nomadic Reading slideshow here (pdf)

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