Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evening Reading: Combray

When I first moved to Regina 21 years ago this coming July, I was a single mother who found herself in a curious, lonely and wonderful situation.  Beginning in the summer of 1990, Veronica spent six weeks each summer with her dad in Winnipeg.  How does a mother describe, honestly and without guilt, what it is like to be temporarily childless?  I'm not sure I can capture the delicate balance between loss and freedom.  I can only describe how I answered the loneliness with reading.  Because my house is high above College Avenue and because I have two enormous evergreens in my front yard, in the summer my bedroom seems like a refuge up in the trees.  From my bed, I can watch the slight changes in the sky and the light, feel the breezes from two directions hovering above the sheets, listen as the human and animal world prepares for the slight silence of sleep. And read.  When my eyes and mind are tired, I simply stop reading (though I always have my notebook with me) and let my mind drift around in the problems a poem or a scene is giving me.

While fall and winter might have found me for a passive hour in front of the TV that would be an antidote to the day's busyness, watching TV in the summer seems almost heretical, as if I'm spurning one of the world's great lonely pleasures, though of course I'm only alone now until Bill comes to bed to read aloud to me, which seems to put a buffer between the mind-busy day world and the world of sleep that is sometimes so illusive for me.

Reading Combray, the first volume of my sabbatical reading, In Search of Lost Things, seemed like a doubled--even mirrored--pleasure.  I suspect this first book  functions as an introduction to the other eleven, so preoccupied is the ageless yet aging Marcel toward the end about his future as an artist.  His childhood memories are replete with sensual experience that might make passages of "fine writing," but he cannot imagine the point of view, the world view, the philosophy that will give shape to the sensuous beauty of his material.  In another way, this chapter is a single synecdotal night that is infused with loss.  It begins with a sleepless night and the grief he feels--and even anticipates--because his mother will not leave their dinner guests to kiss him and tuck him in for the night.  It ends with an equally sleepless night during which he recreates for himself his bedroom at Combray, only to find at the first glimmers of light that nothing is in his right place and that he's left that magic, if grief-filled, time.

Until the taste of the madeleine, this seems to be his single memory of childhood; the tea-infused baking bring back a plethora of free-floating memories that tell us much about the values held by his family and his childhood historical moment, about gardens, about religious observances, about illness and death.  Much of Combray is narrated in what the narratologists call the iterative:  that is, Marcel narrates one time what has happened many times, over and over, conflating individual occasions, as if Easter services or a particular walk or the habits of his Aunt Leonie and her visitors have become almost ritualized.  Among these memories are scattered a handful of scenes, like seeing Mademoiselle Gilberte Swan or glimpsing the Duchesse de Guermantes or overhearing Mlle Venteuil berate her father in a scene that will resonate throughout his life.  These thread their way through the two paths of his family's country walks, the Guermantes Way or the Meseglise Way, which seem to stand for ways of being, approaches to living, placing emphasis on sunshine or rain, on the choices one makes to accept the rhythms of weather, on formal gardens or on riverside meadows.  So this extraordinarily, floating,  almost-narrative--a narrative line as insubstantial and impressionistic as a large Monet water lily--is of course tightly and purposefully organized.

But at its centre lies the contemplation of the pleasure of open windows between spring and fall, the pleasure of sleeplessness on summer nights, the pleasure of  ritualized walks, of reading indoors during the heat of the day, the sound-world just outside the window.   Marcel's pleasurably-evoked yet grief-filled night left me feeling as if I were  looking into the strange ornate mirror of my own past sleepless summers.

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