My Proustian Summer
a Scottish summer over forty years ago, when pining for a girl who I lost to an
Eric, I read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I was convinced that having
been absorbed into time past, in effect, living with the dead, I would bounce
back like Lazarus. Eric was taking M. on a greyhound tour of America. All I
could offer was my jumper on a cold night.
Submerging myself in the seven volumes burnt the boats of my wounded pride. Without realising it, I was submitting myself to Locke’s negative capability at its most unrelenting, ‘sponging up impressions without preconceptions or personal prejudice or any of the certainties’. Proust’s mind was at the helm. I was on the high seas of his ‘mirage of analogies which lets one escape from the present’. Although, claiming that his consciousness had no control over remembrances, Proust steers the ship of things past with the inevitability of Baudelaire’s Captain Death.
Proust’s youthful writings on Baudelaire’s ‘Une Charogne’, The Carcass, saw the azure skies and encircling clouds as ‘angels of death’, but baulked at the maudit poet’s veneration of a dead woman’s body:
O my beauty, say to the worms
Who devour you with kisses
That I have kept faith with the divine essence
Of our decomposed love.
In the most absorbing autofiction of the 20th century, I lived Marcel’s hurts and jealousies, and forgot my own. Proust humoured life and life humoured him with the joys and pains of existence. When declining health made death his constant companion, Proust withdrew from the world, and took to writing the past into the future before it was too late.
At the outset Proust had only a vague idea of what he was sponging, but finds out as it is absorbed. ‘The impression for a writer is as experimentation for the scientist, with the difference: for the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes, and for the writer it comes after. Sometimes the impression comes when least expected, and is brought to light without personal effort. That’s when the experiment works. When we write with preconceptions the results are not truly ours. Only those things belong to us that we draw out of the obscurity inside us.’
This meeting of negative capability with the objective correlative (TS Eliot’s ‘mechanism by which any form of art evokes emotion’), Proust saw as a gift not to bury, but to give life to. He wouldn’t fluff around anymore, waiting for la mort vrai to begin, but would live and die vicariously, inspired by involuntary memories brought on by chance concurrences, setting down facts as events under description that take readers out of themselves and their preconceptions in order to evoke a universal high.
And so, having regained time, at twenty-four, I resolved to give myself a choice and a future. The choice was to experiment as a scientist on others’ hunches, though always keeping in mind the negative hypothesis (they could be wrong). The future was to move to London, where as a closet writer I would leave myself open to chance and, like Coleridge’s poet-chameleon, capable of being happy by default. Even if ‘that thing called love’ would be beyond me, as Bergotte said to Marcel, I ‘would always have the things of the mind’.
But I learned something about ‘the intermittences of the heart’ that Marcel knew only too well, the found and lost and found again. M. turned up in London and, as luck would have it, I didn’t lose her to her travelling companion, Eric. When we met I realised he was what Proust coyly called an ‘invert’. We became friends.
Sufficed to say, M. saved me from myself, not least from my misreading of Baudelaire’s line about a cat ‘Quand mes yeux, vers le chat que j’aime/ tires comme par un aimant’. I thought ‘aimant’ was a lover not a magnet. Charles was attracted to evil eyed cats, street dogs and woman, dead or alive, past their best. But his redeeming analogies were not ‘mirages’. And pace Proust, there was no need to escape ‘the present’. Hell on earth no more existed than hell in heaven. The world might not be ideal, but in it you could live a tacit idea that made the real even more real when you thought about it. Kierkegaard knew that but I had not discovered him yet. It took me forty-three years to realise that love is a growing pain, and complicity is its happy outcome. I was fortunate.