There is a secret kept in the final pages of very long novels, whose taste can be described simply but its full force can only be understood by reaching them through the vagueries of whim, digression, appetite, humor and interruption, that is, through many accumulated sittings or as Aristotle seemed to have said about friendship, over “amoutns of salt” accumulated in the many measures of a pinch. In short, through time. That secret that the very long read of a very long book holds in its final pages is the opening of an experience of literature as an autobiographical exigency. The matter is, in some sense, really quiet trivial: it takes me a lot of time to read big works.
Of course, time passing is not a matter exclusive to long works. Reading makes the reader age. But short works bring about the memories of the early pages in a manner that does not implicate the reader in the way that very long works do.
Very long works make days, months and sometimes years become lost in the midst or perhaps to the side, the hither side, of distant universes. “Days more populous than Balzac” say Borges matching time and reading in Matthew 25:30. Indeed, very long works allow the reader, if he so chooses, to gauge the number of days of the reader’s life beyond his life as a reader, as they run between the opening paragraph and the closing one. A man that reads the first line of a short story is, more or less, the same man that reads the last ones. But the man who reads the first lines of a work in ten volumes is seldom if ever the man who reads the last ones.
I bought Du côté de chez Swann in Gibert Joseph in the spring of 1998. I plunged into the metro in St Michel to see how far I could hold my breath in the Proustian current. I sat down in the entrails of Paris to read through the first paragraph in French. The first paragraph ran over two pages in my Flammarion edition and turned out to be an impassable hurdle to the anemic strength of my incipient French even if buttressed by the foolish confidence of growing up among the sounds of romance inflections.
If the language was modestly understandable, the incongruence of elements at play in the initial crepuscule of reason in which the book opens made the text impenetrable. The transposition of objects and idea that do not belong together–the hallucinatory identification not just with strange objects or foreign organisms but with the inexact identity of relations and mutual dispositions such as the a rivalry of two historical figures–put the enterprise to an end before I rached Étoile. Here is where I began to lose, or perhaps more accurately, to spend my time with Proust.
I felt both my literary acumen and linguistic skills humiliated and I placed the SNCF green ticket in the first page of the little book where it stayed unperturbed for the next three years.
The next time I opened the book, I was living in New York and my French had been fluent for a while. The green metro ticket was no longer a convenient irrelevance but a relic which turned the book into a devotional object of sorts and, as bookmarks often are, a reminder of outstanding obligations. My Proust had accompanied me through Paris, to Bremen and then across the Atlantic. Our unhappy relationship was now a few years old. More significantly, perhaps, my memory of the man falling asleep in the room, confused about place and identity, had become a somewhat old memory that I could date more or less precisely to the ride on the Paris Metro in the Spring of 98.
Again, I opened the book and read and this time I made it to Marcel’s dramatic farewell to the hawthorns of Combray. The effeminate distress of the child mimicking the anguished cry of a lover in the strange embrace of the thorny plant was where my commitment to the monument of French literature found its new limit. I found the scene truly intolerable. Contrived and absurd, the outpour offensive, the delicacy of the child irksome. Yet, for reasons that I will probably never understand, the scene had a much more lasting effect on me than any of the other more memorable episodes of the first volume. Not fully realizing that the first fragments had been found, I abandoned the search of Proust’s lost time once again.
Once again, the green ticket was put to sleep inside the volume, which adorned my bookshelves expressing the truncated aspirations of the reader I would have liked to be.
Seven years after I left New York, my books arrived in 32 boxes to my small apartment in Berlin. The first book to emerge from the pile of cartons was the very old Proust’s first volume in the Flammarion edition. A bit disheveled, a bit yellowed, perhaps slightly dented.
I left the disorder unattended and almost exactly twenty years after I bought it in Paris, I sat down once more to read Du côté de chez Swann. I could now remember with some clarity the first paragraph, as well as some of its readings. I could remember the room, the pillow, the dream, the uncertain candlelight, the position of the legs, the eye-lids and the scales. and as the rivalry of Francois I and Charles V escaped the narrator’s somnolence into the printed page, then to my eyes beyond the page, this mysterious enmity pulled me back to the morning in the Paris subway, putting into my nose the smell of urine and burnt rubber of the Saint Michel station, it drew the wet floor of Wagram in April, it revived the dim light of the apartment on Rue Laugier. It reanimated the nagging feeling of not having cleaned the breadcrumbs from the black desk where I kept my newly-found love of Brel and Paolo Conte. It offered me the color and smell of the woodfloor of the last floor on Fedelhoren near Ramberti Ring in Bremen where the book laid untouched at the bottom of a tower which also housed Borges and Bioy Casares and then it led to Brooklyn, erecting in that long-lost landscape a host of minutiae that had been swallowed by the kind movements of oblivion. All of these vast territories were familiar and their landmarks and monuments recognizable. But it was quite difficult to know exactly what was the reach of their respective sovereignties even if it was possible to say which memories belonged to what corpus.
For the next three years I read À la recherche du temps perdu. I read mostly in the very early hours of the morning. I am not entirely sure how it started but late in 2017, I would wake up at five, make myself coffee and read. It quickly became my favorite part of the day. I sat to read in Berlin and I also sat to read in Rome and I read in Paris. Frequently I traveled to Brussels and as one book was coming to an end I would go into Filigranes and buy the next volume in the Flammarion edition. Brussels also became part of the Proustian landscape.
The end of the first volume of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs found me in Paris so I went back to GIbert Joseph and bought the second volume also there. Gibert Joseph, also a character in Proust’s time, made a strange and unexpected return in one of the many returns to Paris, while everybody else is in Balbec.
For three years I read only Prous and in those three years , three years passed. They passed for the reader and for the text. The volumes multiplied one next to the other and the green SNCF ticket moved from volume to volume leaving behind the unreliable memories of uncertain hours and days and months and, of course, years and peace and wars and Paris and Venice and Balbec and Sarajevo and Guermantes and Manizales and Méséglise and Stockholm and Rome and then one early morning in Berlin, the news reached me that St. Loup had died.
…tué le surlendemain de son retour au front, en protégeant la retraite de ses hommes.
I remember that moment distinctly and distinctly I remember the sense of loss. and then I remember the sense of discomfort when he first appeared in Balbec. I remember his rather extravagant kindness, his strange humors and unorthodox tastes. I remember a life he lived not too far from my own life and I had a sense not merely of mourning, which for avid readers is no more than a cliché, but a sense of the kind of aging that comes with hearing news about those who we once knew and have not seen in a long time. With the news of the death of St. Loup–with the passage about the death of St. Loup, if one prefers to speak in literary terms–a sense of the work and the way it pushed into the fibers of my life finally started to emerge.
In the late summer of 2019 my son was born and it was in December of that year, a few weeks before New Years, that I finished Le Temps Retrouvé reading to him out loud in the very early morning parental shift. Effectively, the man who had started reading about the collapse of time in the early stages of sleep in a subway car in Paris was no more and had not been for a long time. Twenty three years is a very long time and in such a vast field of view, images become blurred and the contours of objects slip into each other. It becomes difficult at such vast distances to tell the solidity of the rock from the insubstantial breadth of its shadow.
It is this ambiguous territory where the book starts and the book ends. The private universe where what things are can only be resolved in their narration. The permutations and alterations (as Borges had once phrased the literary aspirations of memory) must in the passing of time become transparent like lenses and as such undetectable. One of the most striking things in the Proustian architecture is the birth of the unreliable reader from the ashes of a reliable narrator.