Searching for Proust in Los Angeles
By Fanny DaubignyMay 29, 2013
Swann's Way by Marcel Proust
PLEASE TELL US about yourself.
I have been living in L.A. since last June. I relocated from the East Coast for business and family reasons. I work from home. I enjoy outdoor activities, yoga, hiking, and traveling.
Why do you want to join this group?
I have always been intrigued by Proust but was never able to read the book in its entirety. I started in college but stopped after the first volume. I would like to understand more about the context and French culture; for example, what is a French coquette?
Chocolate or vanilla ice cream?
Congratulations! You are now a new member of the Proust in L.A. Meetup group. Your upcoming Meetup is scheduled for next week. Only six days left. Five attending. Please RSVP.
In search of lost time? In search of Proust, or yourself during lost time? Finding Proust, and other readers of Proust, has never been so easy, and thanks to the magic of the Meetup, we can move from the virtual world of readers to meet in reality. Fill out an online questionnaire and join the Los Angeles Proust Project Meetup.
There was a time, long before Meetups existed, when my favorite activity, conversing with people, was actually taking place in real places, serendipitously. From sophisticated Parisian salons, via a tropical campus in the South, to California sunset-lit pool parties, wherever I would go, I would RSVP for two, bringing my very own personal guest with me. Proust accompanied me everywhere I went, often unbeknownst to me. Strangely, I noticed that quickly after exchanging the usual introductory phrases, people would sometimes be more intrigued by the story of my passion for Proust than by my own personal narrative. But more often people would be thrown off. Who would enjoy talking Proust, when red canapés under yellow canopies, flowery, translucent girls and interesting men beckon? Who would ignore them for an awry, indigestible literary masterpiece?
On my first literary date with Marcel Proust, I admit, I fell immediately in love with the book — much less with its author. In fact, I never really cared about knowing what kind of man Proust was in real life. I have always thought that biographies were a sort of easy way to avoid reading the text. Biographies afford a mini-ecstasy, entertainment designed to sugarcoat the bitter explosiveness of the artistic text. Proust himself would probably dislike the new hype: he spent a large part of his life fighting against those literary critics, who, like Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, wanted to interpret a work of art through the life of the author. Honestly, to what extent does one want to know the color of Proust’s mantle? Would this information help us understand a poetic motif or a groundbreaking metaphor? I imagine Sainte-Beuve befriending Proust on Facebook. How many FB postings or profile pics would he need to collect to create a bridge to the actual text? Are we not crashing into the wall every time we behave like bio-obsessed paparazzi? Reality always falls short, and objects of beauty become distorted. Perhaps publishers should post a warning sign on a biography’s front cover: “Beware, dear reader! Objects in this mirror may be more fictional than they appear.”
So when I talk traveling with Proust and about searching for Proust in Los Angeles, I am talking about his text, I am talking about his books. They are the companion. They are the treasure we seek.
Proust in L.A.? You must be kidding. Do people read in L.A.? This was said to me once by a short, gruff man sporting a long blonde moustache. I went home and searched on Google: “Proust Los Angeles” produced almost no results. A mismatched pair? Should we infer that there is no Proust readership in Los Angeles? I could not abide this injustice, and this is how the Proust Project came to mind. The project of creating a Meetup group of an unconventional type: a free, open-to-all literary event curated like an artistic happening. A one-time experience that could not be duplicated or repeated. A reading group functioning like a modern theater play with no set cast, no definitive script, but one text to be played again and again.
The play was in need of a great location. And in Proust’s world, space is not just any space. In a world where frontiers of meaning are often slippery, where ecologies of time are intimately intertwined like branches on a fig tree, only the complexity of an organically shaped space could meet the requirement.
Griffith Park turned out to be the perfect location and Trails Café, with its frontieresque name, would welcome our first meeting. On Saturday, September 10, 2011, an enthusiastic crowd of people coming from all horizons, from different age and social groups, started to gather to commit to a most improbable task: to undertake a collective reading of Proust’s monumental masterpiece and read for as long as it takes. Six months? One year or two? Rich with unpredictability, the odds of non-completion loomed very high, but they were offset by the fantasy of an angel’s flight of reading, which each one of us was eager to take.
STARS AND CLOUDS IN HOLLYWOOD
When I start reading Proust, I see a cloud, a big cloud. Then I see a maze and I am lost, completely lost.
— James, graduate student
On the first day of our meeting, spirits were joyful and happy, yet tension was truly palpable in the air, as thick as the dense gray clouds hovering over us. As big as life, Proust’s novel seemed cloudy and impenetrable. There were no clear signs to indicate which direction to take. Some in the group had no experience at all with the text, while others had already ventured into the thick maze. Claudette, a musician, wondered how the group would react when the “darker zones” of La recherche would be reached, referring to the more shadowy episodes, the sexual outcasts of Sodom and Gomorrah. Others admitted that they could not even go beyond the first page and the infamous one-paragraph-long Proustian sentence. Newcomers had simply no clue what to look for. They were enthusiastic, ready for the hike and in need of a good, updated copy to accompany them during the tour.
The first question: “Is it better to read the French or English edition?” asked Denise, a translator. “Reading the French edition is just too challenging for me; I prefer to read the English one.” And she had a suggestion. “I have the C. Prendergast edition, a Penguin Pocket edition, and I love the footnotes. It gives the reader such a clear understanding of the historical context.”
Of course, tastes do vary, and many could not read in French. And like Denise, Proust aficionados tend to recommend the English edition overseen by Christopher Prendergast. While some readers may be bothered by the disparity of the styles, the inconsistency of the wording, or, more generally, the free interpretation of the translator, the Prendergast edition has the great merit of offering a different translator for each volume. The polyphony of the voices matches perfectly the kaleidoscopic vision of the writer, in my opinion. (I also love the delightful colors and Art Nouveau motifs of the covers.) After some discussion, the group agreed and voted for the Prendergast edition. The French version (Garnier-Flammarion edition) would remain our safety net.
Josh, an undergraduate in architecture, noticed that À la recherche du temps perdu bears two different titles in English: In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. A discussion in the group followed. Rather than seeing the double entente as a dead end, we saw in the ambivalence of the English version, a double entry to the text: on the one hand, the passivity of the “remembrance”; on the other hand, the active process of the search. Even in Proust’s title, there is both chocolate and vanilla for all.
“What type of reader do you think you are?” I asked the group. “Are you more of the emotional or rational type? Do you remember via the senses or via intelligence?” Reading Proust is as much a matter of the heart as it is of reason. You choose your way: Swann’s way or Guermantes’s way, we might even say. Both ways work and will eventually bring you back safely to your point of departure. But in order to get back, you will need to accept getting lost. You must lose your time patiently.
Many participants in the group found the world of Proust to be complex, dense, and esoteric. Some described the writer as a serious obsessive-compulsive type, while others wondered about his sex life. I shared with them what Marguerite Duras once said: “Proust, Stendhal and Rousseau do not have a sex.”
At our second Meetup, we discussed la madeleine, the famous episode at the end of the first volume, Swann’s Way. “This passage is so poetic,” Patrick, a yoga instructor, said. “I especially like the metaphor of the village coming out of the cup of tea. It looks like an origami work of art.” Susie, though, a freelance writer, said: “I found this whole episode of la madeleine so sad. [The narrator] seems to be in so much pain when reminiscing. I am not sure if I would want to remember my past.”
I never thought of la madeleine as a sad episode like Susie did. This is what is so liberating about reading Proust collectively: the exhilarating yet unsettling experience of getting rid of all preconceived thoughts, and, in my case, getting rid of the intellectual concepts and scholarly notions that have formed a thick crust of jargon over the text, which over the years has sometimes made La recherche seem an insipid, academically processed food. Most scholars find the madeleine episode to be a highly epiphanic moment in the story, a joyful self-revelatory moment, helping the narrator to recapture parts of his childhood in Combray. Thanks to the group discussion, I now may look at la madeleine as a sad episode — and see what comes out of my own cup of tea. But as someone said in the group, do we really want to remember? If so, are we willing to pay the price? We know we all have lived moments we do not want to remember. Do I want, for instance, to remember the so called friend who, in a discussion one night about Proust, told me that he wanted to “terminate” our friendship because I did not want to be his Odette? No, this type of memory can be left on the plate.
I also said that René Descartes, in his Discours de la méthode, attempts to get rid of his preconceived thoughts, clichés, and stereotypes to build a brand new edifice of truth. The narrator of La recherche, I said, pursues this same Cartesian, and very American dream: get rid of the old to create something new.
The group liked this idea, and we talked about how, seen in this new light, reminiscing is no longer simply a sad or joyful experience, but a creative attempt to build a beautiful architecture of truth, time, and beauty.
After all, it is not every day that we can contemplate, clearly shaped in our cup of tea, the perfect reflection of our life.
Intrigued by the beauty of this poetic passage, the group participants started to ponder their own cup of tea. At this point, we were all craving the same food: sipping of the same tea and tasting of the same madeleine; eventually we started to think of reading Proust as a meditation exercise: putting our mind and body at rest. The control of our mind would progressively cease and our body would become the stage for involuntary memories to resurface. Crystal-like stones, lurking out of the murky waters of our inner plains, would slowly rise to the surface, acting like stepping stones, upon which we could mindfully bridge our past, present, and future together. Looking up and within! In the charming company of memories, skies suddenly clear up and clouds disappear. “Reading Proust soothes me,” James, an undergraduate student said. “It sounds like a lullaby to my ears. There is something vital to it.”
We later came to see la madeleine as a solid platform, on which one could step and pause for a moment before proceeding further into the thick, dense, and thick maze of La recherche.
SWANN IN LOVE
There are so many reasons to read Proust. “I am an insomniac,” Max, a rare book dealer, told us. “And I remembered about this character in La recherche having a hard time sleeping. So I thought I should read the book to find peace and sleep.”
There are so many excuses to abandon reading La recherche.
For some readers, the book is either too long, the style too obscure, and the man — I mean the narrator — too crazy. Before truly entering Proust’s La-la-land, how many of us have walked in the dark groping and fumbling shamefully while desperately looking for the exit door? Return readers sometimes confess their preference for the “in and out” literary indulgence over a heavy five-course meal.
There is no reason to feel ashamed. Proust would not hold a grudge against us. Inconstancy is one of the most valuable currencies in Proust’s world. Look at Odette, the Faubourg Saint-Germain socialite, the ultimate French coquette who is desperate to enter the highly coveted, aristocratic salons of the Guermantes’s aristocratic circles. (Bob, a social service worker in the Proust Project Meetup, admitted, “I read Proust because I want to know everything about ‘the French coquette.’”) Odette, whose coquetry might just be the reverse side of her shrewd ambition, knows the fallacies and inconsistencies of our minds better than anyone. In the salons of the infamous Madame Verdurin, where the Wednesday meetings are precisely articulated around a strict policy of who is “in” or “out,” Odette is a regular. These “rendezvous de mercredi” are the reality shows of the early 20th century, everyone jousting for social importance, bourgeois wannabes competing to see who owns the “hip factor.” You were “in” if you were directly or indirectly linked to the aristocratic circles and “out” if you were like Swann, an amateur, wandering freely outside all castes, categories, and definitions.
One could surely argue that Verdurin may not the most brilliant mind of La recherche, but she makes us wonder: Is there a life outside the social circle anyway? Are we doomed to be “in?” For sure, nobody wants to be left out and everyone wants to stay in. We meet up at Meetups because social circles are important, because we want to be part of a group and not just atomized, industrially processed identities.
As we meet, at the Trails Café, Proust progressively appears less threatening, almost comforting. The book turns into a smart companion to guide us in the labyrinth of our social networks; an etiquette manual, which helps us decode the sexual cues from the friendly ones; a self-help book to cure us in case of acute socialitis. After reading the passage of la madeleine, the Proust readers sitting together in Griffith Park were slowly regaining a sense of space and time. James, Max, and Bob were reconsidering their grand entrance into La recherche. The hike could resume. In the distance one could only see the bright white lanterns of the Griffith Observatory.
NAME’S PLACE: THE NAME
For most people, Los Angeles is a city that first and foremost evokes a variety of visual experiences — experiences that are often tied up to the memory of a particular film scene: driving on Sunset Boulevard at night in a convertible Cadillac or pulling up to Mulholland Drive to come across the ghostly figure of an amnesic beauty wandering on a lost highway.
Los Angeles appeals more to my ears than to my eyes.
At the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax, the very dissonant harmony of the place, with its full cacophony of colors, sounds and smells, can conjure up the jarring tones of a contemporary opera, but more often I hear humming in my ears the more humble sound of pop music. Like crunchy popcorn, a particular song of an Irish band regularly pops up in my ear when I drive the deserted streets of Los Angeles: “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Oddly, this song works for me like “la petite sonate de Vinteuil” in Swann’s Way: when Swann is falling in love with the coquette Odette (who will not reciprocate his love), he suddenly understands, while listening to Vinteuil’s sonata for piano and violin, that, as in the experience of falling in love, the experience of listening to music is made of two antithetical moments: one, the unnamable pleasure of love at first sight and, two, the painful necessity of having to name the cause of the particular pleasure. Swann realizes that Mrs. Pleasure will eventually meet Mr. Pain, that, after 25 years of marriage, he would have to face that Odette was not his type of woman!
Pain or pleasure? That is the question we came to in our last meeting, which is no surprise, since we are halfway through Sodom and Gomorrah. Can we live in an eternal state of suspension, where repeated epiphanies of the senses create the illusion of living in an eternal Edenic reality, where names, tags, labels, and etiquettes would be strictly prohibited? A free, imaginary country where streets have no names? Or will the pain of our limitations, of separation, of incompleteness, always be around the corner?
In our group, now nine months into our project, we cannot always name the magic, nor can we always name the discomfort, associated with reading Proust. In Proust’s world, names feel distant, remote, out of reach, glowing like big white letters in the sky. Fancy-looking but unattainable. For some of us, reading Proust remained a path too steep to hike, but for many it remains too compelling to stop. This is where we are. At nightfall, on the edge of Los Angeles, we continue to make the leap of faith into Literature.
Fanny Daubigny is a French-born, Los Angeles–based writer. She teaches at California State University, Fullerton. She is currently developing a research project on Marcel Proust in Turkey and is working on her first collection of poems.
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