Jeff Peer is a writer, and a student of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. You can follow him on Twitter: @jeffpeer1. He lives in New York City.
The Hôtel des Roches Noires is still open, but it doesn’t look like it. The mid-nineteenth century building has a reticent, withholding quality, even in the glare of a sunny Norman afternoon. Most of the shutters are closed. There are no guests in bathing suits making their way to the waves. Tourists walk along the boardwalk, looking up at it curiously, but nobody goes inside. The wide, Second-Empire facade is not in disrepair. The grass is cut and the paint fresh, but it feels abandoned. It is as if the old building were turning away from you, looking out towards the beach, so wide and desolate when the tide is out. Or maybe that’s just the weight of history. Maybe I am just imagining things, because when I look at it I think of young Marcel in Proust’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, staying with his grandmother in the Grand-Hôtel of Balbec, lying awake in bed and listening for her through the wall, then tapping and waiting for her to come.
Proust stayed at the Roches Noires several times when he visited Trouville as a boy, both with his parents and with his grandmother. Before that, the Roches Noires had already been painted by Monet, twice, once in the background of a busy scene on the beach boardwalk, and once as a subject itself. In these paintings, gentlemen wearing dark suits and ties and hats and ladies in long white dresses with white parasols stand here, looking out towards the waves. Today, the fashionable crowd is nowhere to be seen. The Parisian elite have found more reliably sunny places to vacation than this coast where rain clouds can appear out of nowhere, with no warning. And the few swimmers who do wade out into the shallow waves, in shorts and speedos, don’t look anything like Monet’s overdressed beach-goers. Only the Roches Noires looks the same. Famous buildings suggest secret histories. If I had the chance to explore all the rooms, to climb the stairs and look out through the windows myself, perhaps the feeling would disappear. But instead I just walk around it, stopping to read the sign about Marguerite Duras, who lived in one of the hotel’s corner suites for more than thirty years, until 1996. And then I imagine her inside the old building too, white-haired, dressed all in black, sitting beside a typewriter and smoking.
Be careful when visiting places where the books you love were set or written: reality might not have the same charm as the dream. When young Marcel first visits the church at Balbec, which he has thought so much about, the magic of its name is broken. For me, seeing the place only made the book seem grander, more important somehow, than the half-forgotten hotel still open on the coast of Normandy. And when I got home and read the scene again, it turned out that the hotel in Proust’s novel is more like a much bigger one in Cabourg where he stayed later in life. It wasn’t the Roches Noires at all, and I was glad to find out. You can’t visit the setting of a book by getting on an airplane. There is only one way to get there: reading Proust again, which I am always happy to do.
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.