I read the Big Book (part 1?)

Dear friends of the unreal —

I have begun — kind of without meaning to — an unreal and at times seemingly impossible reading project.

In a May 21 2021 article for the New Yorker francophile Adam Gopnik likens reading all of Proust’s A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU (IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME) to an attempt to scale Mount Everest. Well, I am underway with this expedition. A couple of days ago, I made it — somewhat breathlessly — through the 3rd volume, Le CÔ de Guermantes, or the Guermantes Way. No, I’m not reading it in French, although I have read two volumes previously in the original. But that was a long time ago. Now, my French is pretty rusty and I don’t think I would live through an attempt to read the whole book in the original, winding, stream of consciousness, one-sentence-can-last-a-page-or-more kind of French. The Guermantes Way is — allegedly — the longest of the volumes, totaling 600 or so pages. At times it felt like I would never escape from the drawing room of a particuliar salonière where, for almost 200 pages, I listened to/read about a conversation about — I don’t entirely remember what. I got out of there just in time to be thrust into yet another drawing room and then a dining room. Mercifully, near the end of the volume, my thus far favorite character — the Baron Charlus — makes a spectacular appearance and engages in a maddening, seductive, and strange interaction with the narrator, interrupted only by the somewhat hysterical narrator’s rending apart of the baron’s top hat. I guess you had to be there to appreciate it.

Why am I doing this?

Answer 1: well, there are alot of “important” big novels that I haven’t been able to get through, because quite frankly they didn’t seem very interesting. I have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature but I have not completed:

  1. War and Peace
  2. Moby Dick
  3. The Brothers Karamazov
  4. The Sound and the Fury
  5. a bunch of other novels that I can’t remember right now off the top of my head

So, on one level, perhaps my attempt to summit The Big Book is in some manner a way of expiating or atoning for my failure to read these other famous books. I can now at least say, “well, I couldn’t make it through _____ BUT I have read all of Proust.”

But that’s not the real reason.

64th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Avenue (my grandparents’ house)

Answer 2: As I proceed through the novels — or the novel sections (since it’s all one book) — I find myself thinking alot about New York City, where I grew up. Specifically Manhattan. Specifically the East Side. Specifically the 60’s and 70’s streets between Central Park and 2nd Avenue. That was my town. Sure, I made forays to Sutton Place (50’s near the East River), and even to the West Side (Central Park West), and I even had a friend who was the son of a professor who lived near Columbia (way up in the 100’s streets on Columbus Avenue [i think, maybe]).

Proust’s Paris reminds me of Manhattan and the hero of the novel, Marcel (who is basically Proust with a few cosmetic changes) reminds me of me.

Proust as a child (right with his younger brother Robert) Courtesy of the Daily Kos

He is an urban child like I was. He plays with this friends in the Champs Elysées, like I played with mine in Central Park. When he goes to the country (he goes to Combray, while I went to the Hamptons), he goes with a fleet of servants and remembers pretty trees, houses and people. I didn’t go with a fleet of servants, but the country was marked off in a very particular way as a place you went and visited with a certain wardrobe, until it was time to come back to the main place you lived, which was a big, important city.

Champs Elysees courtesy of Wiki commons

Marcel and I have other things in common. Like me, he is not a nature person, unless the view of nature allows for a philosophical or aesthetic discourse about a painter, author, or composer he is interested in. Proust has Marcel talking alot about qualities of light and how branches move in the wind. This is how I interact with nature. I don”t hike in it. I look at it. And then I look forward to having tea and cookies and thinking about it and maybe writing a poem about it (I started writing poems when I was 6).

The house in Combray belongs — I think — to Marcel’s mother’s family. The house in the Hamptons belonged to my maternal grandparents. While not exactly French, my grandmother spoke french fluently and had been a ballerina. My grandfather was a dispossessed Russian prince who had become a dress designer for a wealthy circle of patrons. They fascinated me. When I went to the house in the Hamptons — I would walk around for a bit (my father always made me go outside) and then I would go back inside and read. Or I would draw. I would ask my grandparents about their lives in the ballet world or the fashion world . And I would always ask them about their trips to Europe. They knew all about Paris.

In Combray, Marcel’s family often entertains a man named Swann who knows alot about art. My grandparents had friends like Swann: artists, gallery owners jewelers, architects. Like Swann many of them were Jewish, and like Marcel Proust, many of them were both Jewish and gay.

Reading Proust I recognize my family and a view of the city as absolutely central to living a life of excitement and intellectual satisfaction. The country was the place you went to do… I’m not sure what… but you always came back to the city in order to be at the center of things.

In the volume that I have just finished Marcel longs to enter the inner circle of French aristocrats who live in a select area of Paris. I found so much of this part of the book dull, but I think this is because I have had my own encounters with the very rich of New York, and I have forgotten about them and not fully processed what they meant to me. I do not remember having the longing that Marcel has to enter the domains of the Guermantes, but I was certainly impressed by the extreme privilege that I encountered growing up in Manhattan.

And I didn’t have to struggle to cross those thresholds. They were open to me. Or so it seemed.

As I read Proust now, I am remembering incredible Manhattan apartments: spectacular apartments as big as houses. Apartments with portraits and chandeliers and French furniture and antiques and grand pianos and balconies. I even remember one… that had a ballroom.

I did not live in an apartment like that, of course, and to be honest I don’t remember being envious of the kids who invited me into such places. I just remember wondering at these residences. They seemed like places out of a fairy tale. Which is part of the reason I find the fairy tale such a powerful form. I’ve been to urban palaces where real people lived.

My relationship to Manhattan’s privileged spaces changed I think when my father lost his job. We began a curious, tortured attempt to maintain the veneer of an upper middle class lifestyle, while my parents sweated the cash flow and they encouraged and then urged me to be sure to get a summer job every summer and to take on such baby sitting appointments as came my way. To be clear, I remained a privileged, white, heterosexual, christian person. But the anxiety had set in, And I remember going to one — very highly placed — younger friend’s duplex on 5th Avenue, and looking at the new dress that the seamstress (!) was laying out for her to wear to a party and thinking the dressed looked stupid. I think somehow that was the beginning of my disenchantment with Manhattan. That dress.

Marcel undergoes his own version of disenchantment at the various parties he goes to in volume 3 of the Big Book. The Parisian aristocrats to whom he longed to have an entree, accept him, and even like him, but when he enters their world he realizes that that they are nasty, dull, often stupid, and incredibly anti-semitic. The high life is not all it’s cracked up to be, apparently.

We read to encounter lives not our own, to put ourselves into the shoes of someone else, and to live another life through our imaginations. Sometimes, though, that life that we feel is so different begins to ring in — strangely — familiar tones.

Thanks to Proust, I am able to retrace the steps of my atypical childhood and adolescence in Manhattan. My novel forthcoming in Spring 2022 will take up some of these concerns. If you’re a rich person who wants to be something other than be rich, what do you do? How do you break out of the bubble?

In a way I was fortunate that the bubble burst for me, so that I could escape and become someone else, meet very different people, and have a life that lay beyond Manhattan drawing rooms. Proust escaped too. Into the Big Book. The novel is a memoir of his escape. On to Volume 4.

Valentine’s Day party in Manhattan, circa 1961 (author in red)

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