Happy Ides of March! — some new writing and I read the big book, part 2

Hi friends — it’s also my half-birthday and in honor of this silly non-holiday, I’m sharing, not just one, but two new items.

I posted my latest “Why I write about…” and you can read it here:

https://medium.com/@stephaniebarbhammer/why-i-write-about-shakespeare-b6be2b35025c

And…. my fun conversation with Don and Tom of WRITING ON WHIDBEY ISLAND went live yesterday and you can listen here:

https://writingonwhidbeyisland.com/2022/03/14/stephanie-barbe-hammer-magical-realism-and-more/

I’ll also share my latest, amazing experience with reading Proust. As some of you know, I started climbing the mountain of the “big book” last year. I have finally trekked my way to volume 4 and am slowly making my way through the drawing rooms of upper crust Paris, towards a revisit of the seaside resort, Balbec.

A quite brilliant and well-read friend expressed to me recently her utter disdain for Proust, along with all the other people in her French class who all remember how bad the book was (I think they were referring to Swann’s Way). I don’t think my friend meant this in a mean way, but to be honest, I took it very personally. Indeed, the extended, somewhat mocking negative remarks really hurt my feelings. I felt hurt on Proust’s behalf, and I felt hurt on behalf of a reading experience that is — frankly — unlike any other reading experience I have ever had. And I’ve had alot of them (I have a Ph.D. and two Masters degrees in literature and writing).

Here’s one of the amazing things about Proust. The book is so long, that it violates expectations about how a novel is supposed to work. The call to adventure, the raising of stakes, the descent, ritual death, confrontation, personal transformation, and so on — all those “usual” aspects of a novel get stretched and distorted so that nothing “happens” when or as it is supposed to. Reading Proust is an exercise in patience. My spawn laughingly noted that it’s a book that is the opposite of a page turner. And that’s right — it is. You have to wait and wait for something meaningful to happen. Just like in life, or in my life anyway. But when that meaningful thing happens in Proust, it strikes you with a unique force because you’ve almost forgotten about the thing that happened earlier, and you’re just trying to carry on.

Spoiler alert (a hilarious idea, when thinking about Proust): In volume 2 ( I think), the narrator Marcel goes to Balbec, a beachside resort with his grandmother. He is a teenager at this point in the story. He has terrible anxiety issues and health problems, so his grandmother and he have developed this code to communicate between their adjoining hotel rooms. He knocks on the wall, and she knocks back to let him know that he’s not alone and not to worry and that everything is going to be ok.

(If you know Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you will recognize this interaction. Whether consciously or unconsciously — Safran Foer borrows this idea in his novel, to a startling and moving effect).

This scene with the grandmother is one of the most lovely and charming scenes in Proust. It’s gorgeous. you slog through the dialogue to get to these moments.

The reader has to read through 2 more volumes (one of them is the longest in the group — so long that it got divided into two), to get back to Balbec. Now Marcel is an adult. But… it’s the first time he’s been to Balbec since his grandmother died. And that’s when it hits him. In the hotel room. She’s really dead. She’ll never knock on that hotel wall again.

My own grandmother’s 22nd Yahrzeit was March 1st. My beloved colleague, and big sister, French History expert Theda Shapiro died 7 years ago yesterday. Both of these women were extremely comforting and kind people. Brilliant readers, both French speakers. I stayed at the houses of both of them. They both took care of me when I was sick.

I got to the moment I just described in Proust last night and I burst into tears. I weep as I type these words right now.

Grief is a crazy thing. It’s not direct, and it’s not linear. We do not have memories that stack up in a neat pile and we do not proceed through our lives in a neat, horizontal line, point A to point B manner. We grow and change maybe, but it takes a LONG time for those changes to take root; our realizations are not placed in a convenient location on p. 100 of our lives. They happen long after the fact, in a moment when we least expect them. They may not occur til p.700.

Proust’s big book understands all this. So, the author makes you wait for 2 books to give you the callback on the wonderful grandmother. Marcel collapses in grief, although the grandmother has been dead for a while. But now he gets it. And now, so do we. Oh yes, that’s right! She really matters. The people who I have loved and lost, really matter. I MISS THEM RIGHT NOW IN THE PRESENT, EVEN THOUGH THEY’VE BEEN DEAD A LONG TIME.

I felt a release and a sense of both recognition and being recognized by this author, who had the patience and brilliance to craft this big experience, so that I — along with the narrator — can get the space to miss my own grandmother and my brilliant friend. Proust’s big book makes that space for you. It insists that you take the time. That’s why time is in the title.

courtesy http://davehebb.com/

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