"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in Proust (3)


Cats, Gods and Fiction


 Artwork © 2014 M. Chat

Character: it fascinates me. It’s the chief thing I look for in fiction, a profound understanding of human character at the level of depth of Anton Chekhov’s, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, or Virginia Woolf’s, or Marcel Proust’s fiction. 

I recently re-read Chekhov’s My Life and Other Stories. These stories are not so much about plot or language as they are about character, deeply felt and seen.



Character: it is as distinct, as particular in animals as in humans. We have a Dostoyevsky character staying with us for a while. He is dark, silent, taciturn. If you were to describe him as a god, he’d be the panther god, Dionysus. His name is Streak. 

We are fascinated by how different he is in nature from our late cat, Marley. Marley was light, talkative, affectionate. He didn’t favor either of us—he simply wanted to be as close to one or the other as he could get. When we had friends over, he wanted to be one of the guests, was happiest when we set out a chair for him at the table.



If you were to compare Marley to a character in fiction, he’d be Samoylenko in Chekhov’s story, “The Duel.” If he were a Greek god, he’d be Apollo; he inspired poems from both of us.

I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to see more stories that include not just human characters but animals and gods. Guess I’ll have to write some.


Artwork © 2014 Miss-Tic



A Night Alone in Paris

Street art by Pole Ka


Richard is sick in bed. He caught the flu at L’Alliance Francaise (one of the hazards of being in school), so I went alone tonight to pick up a book at Shakespeare & Company. And I got sick too, but in a different way.

A bookstore that stays open till 11 p.m. suits me just fine. Since I work at home, I often forget the difference between weekdays and weekends. Walking down St.-Germain at 9:30 p.m., I was surprised to find the cafes packed with people, the art galleries open, everyone in convivial spirits. Oh, right, Saturday night. I stepped into a gallery where a man in a beret was playing a violin, while a dark-haired woman writhed like a serpent in front of a seated audience. It was not particularly artful. Yet the seats were all taken. More people like to watch than get up on stage and perform, so the balance worked.



At Shakespeare & Company, I asked a young woman behind the counter if my Alain de Botton book had arrived. She searched the shelf behind her, speaking to me in English and French. Her English was so perfect, I assumed she was British, but no, she had just started learning it 11 years ago. She gets a lot of practice at the bookstore.



She handed me Botton's, How Proust Can Change Your Life. Margarita recommended it, and she loves Proust the way I love Proust. She’s also reading a biography of Proust, which she said makes him seem like a nasty man, but I find that hard to believe.

I browsed the fiction section and found two Jennifer Egan novels I hadn’t read, Invisible Circus and Look at Me. Extravagant, but I learned from my mother extravagance in buying books. She used to leave bookstores with a box of them in her arms. When I was a child and my parents had more children than money, she’d take us to the library every day for another Wizard of Oz. The passion for reading came from her, and she got it from her mother, Esther the poet, who ran off to Columbia for a year of graduate school, leaving two small children (one of whom was my mother) at home with her parents. While it was an agreement she’d made with my grandfather, who could start his medical practice now after finishing medical school, it was still a shocking thing for a small-town Minnesota woman to do, and I think cost her dearly in her husband and daughter’s affection.


On to the poetry section to see if the book I longed to read last night was there. I’d gone to every bookshelf in our apartment, unsure if we’d brought it or donated it to Antioch, our MFA alma mater, when we moved. Hélas! It was nowhere to be found at home.

But here! Here it was at Shakespeare. I grabbed the only copy of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and headed for the red theater chair in the next room to read a little of each Egan, and decided, of course I needed them both, and then dipped into The Cantos.


The French woman clerk came in with an English colleague to put some art books to bed. They were bedding the books above me, and to both sides, so I offered to move. No, no, they said, in the relaxed way that characterizes this bookstore.

We talked about learning English and French. Terry said that he surrounded himself with French people, played soccer with an all-French team, sang phrases while he showered, just bore down on it like a jackhammer. He practiced saying words with French friends, asking them over and over, “Am I saying it correctly?” After four years, he was fluent. Both were fluent in both languages. But, they teased each other, “I can still tell you’re French when you say certain words.” “Well, I can tell you’re English,” she sing-songed back.



I listened to a couple speaking German.

Another couple came in and spoke Spanish, from somewhere in the Americas.

And then a couple spoke what sounded to me like Chinese, but perhaps was not? Japanese? No, they looked and sounded Chinese.

I went back to reading The Cantos, and read a line about Chinese or Japanese. Hmmm. That was strange.

I asked the woman if she spoke English or French.


Street art by Tristan des Limbes


English, she said.

“I was just wondering if you were speaking Chinese or Japanese,” I said. “And then I read this.” I showed her the line.

She nodded, as if to say, Very strange indeed, but she was looking at me, not the text.

I came in for two books, but I wanted all four. I’m trying to be frugal—the exchange rate from dollars to euros is nuts right now; imagine everything costing one-third extra—but frugality doesn’t apply when it comes to books. I was programmed that way in childhood.



I meandered out into the cooler autumn air, past the oldest tree in Paris, a robina planted in 1636, which has a crutch beneath it like a figure in a Salvador Dali painting. Maybe I’d try a new restaurant I’d passed on the way. I wanted healthy tonight more than delicious, and Le Grenier de Notre Dame promised wholesome vegetarian fare. It was intimate and beautifully lit, and the waiter was warm and wall-eyed, and recommended a vegetable pie, and I sat and read The Cantos, and ate a perfectly delicious, perfectly healthy meal.

I was again ensorcelled by Pound’s way of weaving myth, history, poetry of other times, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, beauty of place, Italian, French, English, German, Chinese, Latin, Greek, his own memories, his obsession with economic justice and wise rule, and the occasional expression of a heart that seemed cracked with scapegoating and hatred—the works. Oh, but the richness.

I read:

       “nothing matters but the quality

of the affection—

in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind

dove sta memoria


The couple two tables away spoke Italian, he in a caressing soft tone, she like a barking dog. She had tattoos on her arms that looked like the exquisite graffiti on the walls around here. I glanced at each of them. I’m fascinated by volume, how some nationalities speak loudly, some softly. Italians, like Americans, speak as if they’re on stage. French people tend to speak as if they’re in the bedroom, and sometimes as if they want you to get in bed too.

I was struck by how softly this Italian man was speaking. But the moment after I glanced over at the two of them, he began to bark back at his companion, as if caught in the act of being too gentle, too refined.

And I walked home at 11 p.m., feeling perfectly safe on a Saturday night in this city where my soul is so at home, sick—sick with love.




The Greek Gods and Goddesses Consider Proust


“A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken.”

     —Part 1, Combray, “Swann’s Way,” Marcel Proust


Hestia: Proust’s home:

I am standing before the walls of his recreated bedroom.

It’s a facsimile, I know, but the walls are lined with the same material.

I have known this story for years, but it’s the thing that moves me, that opens the door to my soul.



Look at this harsh desk—lacquered black, uninviting. But the narrow brass bed with its dusky blue spread—this is where he wrote most of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, lying down, late at night, the cork preventing the light and the sounds and dust of Boulevard Haussmann from intruding upon the unwinding of memory. 

A friend of his, the writer, Countess Anna de Noailles, suggested lining the room with cork.

I search all over Paris for the café in which I can write. But what I really want is a cork-lined room, where I won’t need a fan to block out the sounds of neighbors.

Did any writer who ever lived create a better shell to protect his delicate sensitivity? Like a hermit crab.



Marcel Proust, whose Sun in Cancer in his natal horoscope is reflected in his deep ties to his mother, memory and nature. Has any writer ever written so many lush metaphors about flowers and trees?



“It was in the Month of Mary that I remember beginning to be fond of hawthorns. Not only were they in the church, which was so holy but which we had the right to enter, they were put up on the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration they took part, their branches running out among the candles and holy vessels, attached horizontally to one another in a festive preparation and made even lovelier by the festoons of their foliage, on which were scattered in profusion, as on a bridal train, little bunches of buds of a dazzling whiteness. But, though I dared not do more than steal a glance at them, I felt that the ceremonious preparations were alive and that it was nature herself who, by carving those indentations in the leaves, by adding the supreme ornament of those white buds, had made the decorations worthy of what was at once a popular festivity and a mystical celebration. Higher up, their corollas opened here and there with a careless grace, still holding so casually, like a last and vaporous adornment, the bouquets of stamens, delicate as gossamer, which clouded them entirely, that in following, in trying to mime deep inside myself the motion of their flowering, I imagined it as the quick and thoughtless movement of the head, with coquettish glance and contracted eyes, of a young girl in white, dreamy and alive.”

            —Part One, Combray, “Swann in Love”



I am in the midst of the great adventure of reading Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, nearly finished with Lydia Davis’s translation of Volume One, Swann’s Way.

“What ravishes me is his metaphors,” I say to Helen.

“Ah, yes,” she says. “I returned to Proust when America invaded Iraq. An antidote. Before that, I’d never made it through more than 40 pages.”

“Same with me. Ouch!” I say as the acupuncture needle pierces my thigh. “But this time I’m finally ready for him.”



“I read ten pages a day,” she says. “And got through about 1,000 pages.” She finishes with two needles near my ankles. “What stayed with me is his definition of genius: ‘to transpose and transform.’ It sounds trivial to use this as an example, but I thought of that watching a documentary on Coco Chanel. Do you know where she got the idea of those boxy jackets with trim?”

“Let me guess. From military jackets?”

“No. From a bellboy in front of an Austrian hotel where she was staying. He wore a little Tyrolean jacket.”

“That’s it! She transposed and transformed the design.”

She leaves me to float down the river of meditation.

I think of the dinner the night before on our friends’ boat on the Seine, of the meal Jeannette created for the seven of us.


Daedalus: the craftsman:

This perspective, this genre, close first person, subjective stream of consciousness, stories in poetic prose, memories of the artist’s life: this is it for me. Memories told through the senses, things, the real.

The tug back to writing fiction, reading Proust.

Yet wanting to continue writing about the present.

How to braid the past and the present? What to call these pieces, bits, threads?



“When all of that was finished, there came a work of art composed expressly for us, but more particularly dedicated to my father who was so fond of it, a chocolate custard, the product of Francoise’s personal inspiration and attention, ephemeral and light as an occasional piece into which she put all her talent. If anyone had refused to taste it, saying: “I’m finished, I’m not hungry any more,” that person would immediately have been relegated to the rank of those barbarians who, even in a gift an artist makes them of one of his works, scrutinize its weight and its material when the only things of value in it are its intention and its signature. To leave even a single drop of it on the plate would have been to display the same impoliteness as to stand up before the end of a piece under the very nose of the composer.”

            --Part One, Combray, in “Swann’s Way” 


Ares: Proust’s possessions:

In Proust’s room at the Musée Carnavalet, the following furniture and objects are gathered from the three successive homes he held in Paris after the death of his parents: 102 Boulevard Haussmann (December 1906-June 1919):

8 bis, rue Laurent Pichat (July-September 1919);

44, rue Hamelin (October 1919-16 November 1922). 

Lit (bed)

Bureau (desk)

Bibliothèque (library)

Chaise longue (chaise lounge)

Tapis (rug)

Portrait du docteur Adrien Proust, père de l'écrivain, par Louise Brouardel (portrait of Doctor Adrien Proust, father of the writer)

Plaque de jade, cadeau de la comtesse de Nouailles (jade plaque, gift of the countess of N.)

Glace à main (hand mirror)

Brosse avec monogramme en argent (brush with silver monogram)

Épingle de cravate, en or et corail, par Cartier (gold and coral tie pin)

Plateau en métal argenté (silver metal tray)

Canne, cadeau du marquis d’Albuféra (cane, gift of marquis d’Albuféra)

Pelisse en loutre (exposée occasionellement) (an otter fur coat (occasionally displayed))

            --Don de M. Jacques Guérin, 1973



Fauteuil (chair)

Paravent (screen)

Table de chevet (bedside table) 

Table de nuit à abattants (bedside table with flaps) 

Lampe (lamp)

Miroir (mirror)

Essuie-plumes en laiton (brass feather duster)

Plumier en palissandre (rosewood pencil box) 

Encrier (inkwell)

Montre gousset (pocket watch) 

Épingle de cravate ornie d’une perle (tie pin with a pearl)

Agenda, cadeau de Mme Straus (calendar, gift of M. S.)

Brosse de toilette en ivoire (ivory clothing brush)

Brosse à chapeau en ébène (ebony hat brush)

Brosse à chapeau en palissandre (rosewood cap brush)

Chausse-pied en ivoire (ivory shoe horn)

“L’Offrande à L’Amour” groupe en porcelaine de Meissen, d’ après Fragonard

            --Don de Mme Odile Gerandan, en souvenir de Céleste Albaret, sa mère

But it is not until I visit the Musée Carnavalet a second time that I see the objects that mean the most to me: a stack of notebooks on the shelves of the bedside table, medium size with lightweight cardboard covers, like the ones that Moleskin makes. They are probably facsimiles, but I instantly know that I’ll settle on this size, this kind, after all my experiments with writing notebooks.



After his parents died, Proust withdrew more and more from the world. He was enabled to do so because of his inherited wealth, what Virginia Woolf advised writers to have: a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year.



“What is meant by 'reality'? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable--now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech--and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading LEAR or EMMA or LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU. For the reading of these books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life. Those are the enviable people who live at enmity with unreality; and those are the pitiable who are knocked on the head by the thing done without knowing or caring. So that when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.”

            —Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”



Proust on being possessed by erotic love: 

“Swann remained there, disconsolate, embarrassed and yet happy, with this envelope which Odette had handed over to him quite fearlessly, so absolute was her confidence in his discretion, but through the transparent glazing of which was revealed to him, along with the secret of an incident which he would never have believed it possible to discover, a little of Odette’s life, as in a narrow illuminated section cut directly out of the unknown. Then his jealousy had an independent, selfish vitality, voracious for anything that would feed it, even at Swann’s own expense. Now it had something to feed on and Swann was going to be able to begin worrying each day over the visitors Odette might have received at about five o’clock, and begin trying to learn where Forcheville had been at that hour…. His jealousy, like an octopus that casts a first, then a second, then a third mooring, attached itself solidly first to that time, five o’clock in the afternoon, then to another, then to yet another.”

            —Part Two, Swann in Love, “Swann’s Way”



Proust as (literary) aphrodisiac:

"Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures--there's something sexual in it--that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that.... How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped--and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp."

            --Virginia Woolf (before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway)




Proust, whose health was delicate most of his life. In the room at the Carnavalet, his silver metal tray is powdered white from the medicine he took for his asthma.



Proust, who circulated in the fashionable Paris salons of the early twentieth century, before retiring from social life to write during most of his waking hours the last fifteen years of his life.

What an unerring eye he has for the snobbery, falsities and malice of the hostesses, courtesans and aristocratic gentlemen of his social circles.



“It was after dinner at the Verdurins’. Either because Forcheville, feeling that Saniette, his brother-in-law, was not in favor in their house, wanted to use him as a whipping boy and shine in front of them at his expense, or because he had been irritated by a clumsy remark which Saniette had just made to him and which, in fact, had gone unnoticed by those present, who were not aware of the unpleasant allusion it might contain quite contrary to the intentions of the one who had uttered it without any malice, or finally because he had been looking for an opportunity to induce them to banish from the house someone who was too well acquainted with him and whom he knew to be so refined that he felt embarrassed at certain moments merely by his presence, Forcheville answered this clumsy remark of Saniette’s with such coarseness, hurling insults at him, and emboldened, as he shouted, by Saniette’s pain, his dismay, his entreaties, that the wretched man, after asking Mme. Verdurin if he ought to stay, and receiving no answer, had left the house stammering, tears in his eyes. Odette had watched this scene impassively, but when the door closed on Saniette, lowering as it were by several notches her face’s habitual expression, so as to be able to find herself, in her baseness, on an equal footing with Forcheville, she had put a sparkle in her eyes with a sly smile of congratulations for the audacity he had shown, of mockery for the man who had been its victim; she had cast him a glance of complicity in evil which was so clearly intended to say: “That finished him off, or I’m very much mistaken. Did you see how pathetic he looked? He was actually crying,” that Forcheville, when his eyes met that glance, sobering in a moment from the anger or simulation of anger which still warmed him, smiled and answered:

            “He needed only to be friendly, and he would still be here. A good rebuke does a man no harm at any age.””

            —Part Two, Swann in Love, “Swann’s Way”




Like most great geniuses, Proust had profound mystical vision. I think of William Blake, of W. B. Yeats, of Albert Einstein, who said, “We can only draw lines after Him.” 

“I find the Celtic belief very reasonable, that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, effectively lost to us until the day, which for many never comes, when we happen to pass close to the tree, come into possession of the object that is their prison. Then they quiver, they call out to us, and as soon as we have recognized them, the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and they return to live with us."



“It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.” 

            —Part 1, Combray, “Swann’s Way



“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

            --Marcel Proust