My arrival in the First Arrondissement of Paris, sans luggage, has had one advantage, besides familiarizing me with the personnel at United Airlines, who, in the last 36 hours, still haven’t returned my toothbrush, my clothes, my medical prescriptions, the books for my research, or anything else I had packed. It has been a monk-like existence in the sixth-floor apartment, the sole excursion being to my beloved Galerie Mazarine at the La Bibliothèque Nationale de France again. Amid the Parisian students, I figured one more grubby, earnest person would pass largely unnoticed and unremarked.
Here’s what else the seclusion has done: It has brought me at last to Marcel Proust. In all the whoop-de-do about Proust’s madeleines, passages like this one, early in Swann’s Way, tend to be overlooked. It’s the one that sold me as I read on the train, and read in my studio overlooking the Louvre:
“But even with respect tot he most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well at nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear. No doubt, in the Swann they had formed for themselves, my family had failed out of ignorance to include a host of details from his life in the fashionable world that caused other people, when they were in his presence, to see refinements rule his face and stop at his aquiline nose as though at their natural frontier; but they had also been able to garner in this face disaffected of its prestige, vacant and spacious, in the depths of these depreciated eyes, the vague, sweet residue – half memory, half forgetfulness – of the idle hours spent together after our weekly dinners, around the card table or in the garden, during our life of good country neighborliness.
The corporeal envelope of our friend had been so well stuffed with this, as well as with a few memories relating to his parents, that this particular Swann had become a complete and living being, and I have the impression of leaving one person to go to another distinct from him, when, in my memory, I pass from the Swann I knew later with accuracy to that first Swann – to that first Swann in whom I rediscover the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact resembles less the other Swann than he resembles other people I knew at that time, as though one’s life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality – to that first Swann abounding in leisure, fragrant with the smell of the old chestnut tree, the baskets of raspberries, and a sprig of tarragon.
For a different take on Proust, the famous madeleines, and “odor memory,” try here.