Over the Christmas break I got those emails – any student regardless of course will know the ones. Those emails that detail the ins and outs of the modules to come, and, accompanied by trepidation and muted terror (for sanity and bank balance) the reading list.
Initially, Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way wasn’t intimidating, it was one novel (two translations) amongst the tens of others I would have to buy and attempt to read before the 11th of January, coined doomsday on my bedroom calendar. And then it arrived in the post.
Swann’s Way is the first book of a six-volume French anthology dedicated to memory, love, and art; and written in prose that is both long-winded and convoluted. Don’t get me wrong, Proust is genius. I’m pretty sure I’ve expressed my attachment (alongside my equal loathing) to Swann’s Way in other blog posts. It’s one of those books that you’ll congratulate yourself for finishing, something you’ll feel has really bettered you as a human being. It’s filled with content that bibliophiles can really get their teeth into, hell, it’s pretty much one long and gigantic extended metaphor – God knows what for, but guessing is half the fun. But it’s also partially impossible to read to deadline and thus is a lazy lit student’s nightmare. I would later learn that it is also impossible to replicate, but I’ll get to that.
It’s long, about five-hundred pages, give or take depending on which edition you’re reading. And it’s tough going – ornate, written in periodic style, so dense you’d struggle to cut through it with a good attitude and a hacksaw (you know the drill).
Whilst it is undoubtedly one of my favourite pieces of literature to date (its depth is particularly impressive), the actual reading of it was traumatic – I picked it up and put it down about fifty times before passing the “Overture”, I had to reread every other sentence over and over to establish a basic understanding, I spent entire days pouring over it struggling to reach my quota. Suffice to say, it’s a text to read in small doses, a maximum of ten to twenty minute bursts to prevent the better half of your brain from curling into the foetal position and rocking slowly back and forth.
Though one girl in my seminar, now deemed veteran of all things Proustian, read it over a weekend, tackling this classic means starting early. You have to be pretty hard core to handle what was essentially, for her, a weekend dedicated to psychological masochism. It took everything in me to read it over the week before the semester started, with fifty pages being shelved a day – and it felt like self-inflicted torture. Most people still (six weeks into the semester) have not passed the hundred page mark.
Now, with this in mind, imagine being set the arduous and, as aforementioned, impossible task of replicating Proust. Our first memories, a chore in themselves to recall considering that I can’t remember whether I washed my hair in the shower yesterday, were to be rewritten in the style of Proust, as accurately as possible. Yes, my seminar leader (who is otherwise a kind and generous man) warned us of this encroaching task and I, being the dork that I am, decided to get a head start.
The lesson I learnt from this? I am no literary great. I was striving to replicate the cumulative periodic style, ornate and winding sentences, the framed similes and overarching metaphors, internal rhymes and sonority, even the careful placement of punctuation – hey, we spent about thirty minutes in a seminar debating use of the colon as opposed to the comma (apparently the latter speaks of absence?), so don’t judge. And after an age at work? I wrote a short story composed of overlong sentences. That is all.
But I had completed the assignment early, and went into my seminar this week filled with dorky pride. Our seminar leader, proving the adjective ‘generous’ an apt one, granted us an impromptu reading week after being told about mounting formative assessments. The rewriting task was scrapped. I died a little bit inside.
The second lesson I learnt from this? Don’t ever do any work before it has been officially set. Because it’ll bite you in the ass.
So, partially to stop me from ripping my hair out in anguish over the wasted hours, and somewhat because I’m suffering from writer’s block, below is my little recreation of Proust. Though I wrote it with literary greatness in mind, expect little, I only really captured the Proustian tendency to write in really, really, really, long sentences.
For a long time, I would not swim. We would often spend languid summer days beside the sea, I enjoyed my time under the sun constructing sandcastles and playing childish games with rattling buckets and spades, but always noted some undertone of perturbation, an unexplained sensation which could only be accounted for after the musing and recollection of my later years. I would get as far as stepping into the warm water, for I would never try when it was cold, I would stand still as little waves broke around my ankles like the peaks and troughs of an iced cake and in my anxiety I would scrunch my toes into the packed sand and throw my arms wide, within minutes I would become, as I entertained endless possibilities of drownings and washing aways, insensible. My siblings would paddle in the water nearby, and I, envious of their depth and confidence, would observe them; they dove beneath the foam and emerged, heads glistening like the scales of trout, with fists clenched with pretty stones and seashells. From where they stood they beckoned me with flailing arms, my parents behind me on the apex of a hill of stones, gulls diving and cawing above their heads, would smile and usher me on too; the sea was welcoming, I was enamoured with its infinity, the sheer possibility of what hid within, the way the sunlight caught on the ripples and reflected on the swimmer’s faces as if they were peering into a cave of diamonds, but I could go no deeper.
Sometimes my father would run down the hillock, stones cascading behind him in an avalanche of his making, and stood beside me facing out towards the horizon, a horizon which too beckoned to me with its sheer possibility. On these occasions he would offer me his hand, and step into the expanse and I would follow; fathers in the eyes of children are Gods and mine was Poseidon, he could tame the unruly waves and calm violent, frothing sea – but my fear was too great and devoid of logic, I would smile and pursue until I felt the wet tendrils creep up to my calves at which point I cried; my father would pluck me from the water, perplexed at my irrationality and disappointed that yet again his attempts to reconcile with swimming has once again failed, he would set me on dry land where I would run sand between my fingers and touch my palms to the ground, as if returning from a tryst with a foreign lover, for which there was no reason but curiosity and a masochistic interest in the unknown. I would take up my seat beside my mother, and as we watched my siblings dive and jump through the waves, my father swimming alongside the buoys far out on the horizon, she would tentatively ask me why I feared the water so, and faced with the same question as a stood with the pit of dread in my stomach and water swirling at my ankles, I could sense no reasonable explanation.
It was through this exploration of fear, the curiosity that is often known to be the life and death of humanity, that I began as time passed to catch the essence of that lingering fog, that parasitic worm imbedded within, hidden but still ensuring my emaciation, my first memory which bullied my subconscious so. I recall a distant family member’s pond, I believe a cousin of my paternal grandmother, but often on this side of the family I fail to distinguish between my relations, they share the same features: a lopsided gait and stout stature, a predilection to speak with the intonation of farmers; they also came in some number: a family photo frequented a local newspaper in congratulation of my great-grandmother’s birthing capability, a woman with a derivative family of well over fifty; I can be forgiven this slight slippage of memory, as I like many others see them only through a dense haze within which details are indiscernible, images and sensations are all that can be recalled. This relation’s garden was particularly impressive, though I remember only greenery and a solitary pink rose bush; I am told she held an annual party as a means of family reunion, from all accounts the party was often a sober affair with little source of entertainment save the finger sandwiches and teacakes. My siblings, cousins and I, undoubtedly impatient with the day’s teetotalism, ran down onto the lawn, women observing from the patio as they gossiped over their cups and saucers, and men looking up from beside the pond within a sparse copse of bushes, wherein several generations of fathers would often collect to muse over the fountains and displays, the foliage, and the koi carp; and so we played tag upon the green.
Though the mind is prone to forgetfulness and many have claimed that little is to be remembered before the fourth birthday, I can recount the point at which, growing fatigued with our game, I had ran, arms outstretched, towards my father who at that point was discussing with a distant uncle the variations of fish one might consider putting in an outdoor English pond exposed to the worst of our inclement weather, and somehow, lacking perception as young children do, I missed my father’s legs and plunged into the water; perhaps it was the shock of cold or perhaps it was the feeling of my head being enclosed, the loss of control as water filled my ears and nostrils, in any case it is this recollection which has lurked in my subconscious since, ensuring my unease in cold waters. I did not experience the sensation of drowning for long, I was never at risk of death or serious harm, my father later noted that my head emerged from the water in my struggle only twice, though the pond was large and deep for a child of my age it was little challenge for my father, a Poseidon even then; he claimed the thick layer of residue at the pond’s bottom and, perhaps more crucially, my flailing and kicking limbs, his only difficulty – the realities which delayed my rescue. I recall my struggle, and I recall, though admittedly behind the murky haze of memory and muddy pond water, my father’s plunge in after me. He plucked me out and carried me under his arm, to the pond’s far side where he placed me down and I spluttered, trying to steady myself on quavering legs, hands pressed to the ground, running my fingers through the grass as if familiarising myself with the secure and comforting sensation of dry land, which ever since I have preferred to the instability of water, which though enthralling in its expanse, irrevocably shocked my tentative and childlike sensation.