by Dennis Abrams
Why can’t I quit this blog?
I am, I promise, going to wrap things up this week in preparation for the launch next week of Project D — the four major novels of Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky. Until then, for today’s post, the last section from Alain de Botton’s Hos Proust Change Your Life, from the chapter entitled “How to Put Books Down,” and the last symptom of which might indicate that you might be an overreliant, overreverent reader:
“Symptom no. 5: That we will be tempted to visit Illiers-Combray
Travelling by car southwest of the cathedral town of Chartres, the view through the windscreen is of a familiar northern European arable landscape. One could be anywhere, the only feature of note being a flatness to the earth which lends disproportionate significance to the occasional water tower or agricultural silo asserting itself on the horizon above the windscreen wipers. The monotony is a welcome break from the effort of looking at interesting things, a time to rearrange the twisted accordion-shaped Michelin map before reaching the chateaux of the Loire, or to digest the sight of Chartres cathedral with its claw-like flying buttresses and weather-worn bell-towers. The smaller roads cut through villages whose houses are shuttered for a siesta that appears to last all day; even the petrol stations show no signs of life, their Elf flags flapping in a wind blowing in from across vast wheatfields. A Citroen makes an occasional hasty appearance in the rear-view mirror, then overtakes with exaggerated impatience, as if speed was the only way to protest against the desperate monotony.
At the larger junctions, sitting innocuously among signs vainly asserting a speed limit of ninety and pointing the way to Tours and Le Mans, the motorist may notice a metal arrow indicating the distance to the small town of Illiers-Combray. For centuries, the sign pointed simply to Illiers, but in 1971 the town chose to let even the least cultured motorist know of its connection to its most famous son, or rather visitor. For it was here that Proust spent his summers from the age of six until nine and once again at the age of fifteen, in the house of his father’s sister, Elisabeth Amiot — and here that he drew inspiration for the creation of his fictional Combray.
There is something eerie about driving into a town which has surrendered parts of its claim to independent reality in favour of a role fashioned for it by a novelist who once spent a few summers there as a boy in the late nineteenth century. But Illiers-Combray appears to relish the idea. In a corner of the Rue du Docteur Proust, the patisserie-confiserie hangs a large, somewhat puzzling sign outside its door: ‘The House where Aunt Leonie used to buy her madeleines.’
Competition is fierce with the boulangerie in the Place du Marche, for it too is involved in the ‘fabrication de la petite madeleine de Marcel Proust‘. A packet of eight can be had for twenty francs, twelve for thirty. The boulanger — who hasn’t read it — knows that the shop would have had to close long ago had it not been for In Search of Lost Time, which draws customers in from across the world. They can be seen with cameras and madeleine bags, heading for the house of tante Amiot, an undistinguished, rather sombre edifice that would be unlikely to detain one’s attention were it not for the fact that within its walls young Proust once collected impressions used to build the narrator’s bedroom, the kitchen where Francoise prepared her chocolate mousse and the garden gate through which Swann came for dinner.
Inside, there is the hushed, semi-religious feel reminiscent of a church, children grow quiet and expectant, the guide gives them a warm if pitying smile while their mothers remind them to touch nothing along the way. There turns out to be little temptation. The rooms recreate in its full aesthetic horror the feel of a tastelessly furnished, provincial bourgeois nineteenth-century home. Inside a great perspex display cabinet next to ‘tante Leonie’s bed’ the curators have place a white teacup, an ancient bottle of Vichy water and a solitary, curiously oily-looking madeleine, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be made of plastic.
According to Monsieur Larcher, the author of a leaflet on sale at the tourist office,
‘If one wishes to grasp the deep and occult sense of In Search of Lost Time, one must, before starting to read it, devote an entire day to visiting Illiers-Combray. The magic of Combray can really only be experienced in this privileged place.’
Though Larcher displays admirable civic feeling and would no doubt be applauded by every patissier involved in the madeleine trade, one wonders after such a day whether he is not at risk of exaggerating the qualities of his town, and unwittingly diminishing those of Proust.
More honest visitors will admit to themselves that there is nothing striking about the town. It looks much like any other, which doesn’t mean it is uninteresting, simply that there is no obvious evidence of the privileged status which monsieur Larcher accords it. It is a fitting Proustian point: the interest of a town is necessarily dependent on a certain way of looking at it. Combray may be pleasant, but it is a valuable a place to visit as any in the large plateau of northern France, the beauty which Proust revealed there would be present, latent, in almost any town, of only we made the effort to consider it in a Proustian way.
Ironically, however, it is out of an idolatrous reverence for Proust, and a misunderstanding of his aesthetic ideas, that we speed blindly through the surrounding countryside, through neighbouring non-literary towns and villages like Brou, Bonneval and Courville, on our way to the imagined delights of Proust’s childhood locale. In so doing, we forget that had Proust’s family settled in Courville, or his old aunt taken up residence in Bonneval, it would have been to these places that we would have driven, just as unfairly. Our pilgrimage is idolatrous because it privileges the place Proust happened to grow up in rather than his manner of considering it, an oversight which the corpulent Michelin man encourages, because he fails to recognize that the worth of sights is dependent more on the quality of one’s vision than on the objects viewed, that there is nothing inherently three-star a bout a town Proust grew up in or inherently no-star about an Elf Petrol station near Courville, where Proust never had a chance to fill a Renault — but where if he had, he might easily have found something to appreciate, for it has a delightful forecourt with daffodils planted in a neat border and an old-fashioned pump which, from a distance, looks like a stout man leaning against a fence wearing a pair of burgundy dungarees.
In the preface to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Proust had written enough to turn the Illiers-Combray tourist industry into an absurdity had anyone bothered to listen:
‘We would like to go and see the field that Millet…shows us in his Springtime, we would like Claude Monet to take us to Giverny, on the banks of the Seine, to that bend of the river which he hardly lets us distinguish through the morning mist. Yet in actual fact, it was the mere chance of a connection or family relation that give…Millet or Monet occasion to pass or to stay nearby, and to choose to paint that road, that garden, that field, that bend in the river, rather than some other. What makes them appear other and more beautiful than the rest of the world is that they carry on them, like some elusive reflection, the impression they afforded to a genius, and which we might see wandering just as singularly and despotically across the submissive, indifferent face of all the landscapes he may have painted.’
It should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes.
To forget this may sadden us unduly. When we feel interest to be so dependent on the exact locations where certain great artists found it, a thousand landscapes and areas of experience will be deprived of possible interest, for Monet only looked at a few stretches of the earth, and Proust’s novel, though long, could not comprise more than a fraction of human experience. Rather than learn the general lesson of art’s attentiveness, we might seek instead the mere objects of its gaze, and would then be unable to do justice to parts of the world which artists had not considered. As a Proustian idolater, we would have little time for desserts which Proust never tasted, for dresses he never described, nuances of love he didn’t cover and cities he didn’t visit, suffering instead from an awareness of a gap between our existence and the realm of artistic truth and interest.
The moral? There is no great homage we could pay Proust than to end up passing the same verdict on him as he passed on Ruskin, namely, that for all its qualities, his work must eventually also prove silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous to those who spend too long on it.
‘To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.’
Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.
More later in the week…