Other people’s memories can be annoying. Like me you are probably surrounded by relatives and friends who remember everything that you yourself have forgotten or repressed, especially the most embarrassing moments, and share them in public at every opportunity. I would prefer not to be reminded of the stupid things I did when I was six, or even sixty. If you are related to someone who has total recall of the past it’s like living inside the National Security Agency – no scrap of data is left unrecorded.
Memory is on my mind, if not in it, because we are celebrating one of the greatest literary feats of memory in history, Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. I call it a feat of memory, not imagination, because the author put his whole life into it. We are not spared a single detail of his difficult days and sleepless nights, his meals and illnesses, his conversations, his daily walks, and the people he met: such a memory!
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first of the seven volumes, “Swann’s Way. A full length movie production of the entire epic would take six months to watch. But even without a movie starring Daniel Day Lewis, Proust is a cultural icon.
Nobody could call this huge book easy. I doggedly read the whole thing years ago, in an English translation. Later I set myself the task of reading it in French. I failed, for two reasons: my French is so bad, and Proust’s is so good. He has sentences that go on for three pages, and he uses the most complex grammatical structures that the diabolical French language can provide.
The novel begins and ends with memory. Characteristically, the story begins on page fifty-one. In this famous passage he visits his old Aunt Léonie when he is already a grown man. He drinks tea, and eats a little shell-shaped cake called a Madeleine. The taste brings back every vivid detail of his past life and sets in motion the unstoppable narrative of the book. Here’s just a fragment from that episode, in the classic translation by Scott Montcrieff and Terence Kilmartin.
“When from a long distant past nothing remains, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
That’s what I call a complex sentence: fourteen subordinate clauses, thirteen commas, and a semi-colon. It reads better in French, but there weren’t enough aspirins in Europe to get me through all seven volumes in the original.
In search of my own long-lost memories, I tried tasting a Madeleine, dipping it in tea as prescribed. I tasted with my pen poised and spare pens at the ready, because this very experience had launched Proust into a torrent of ten million words. The cake was delicious, but I remembered absolutely nothing.
Copyright: David Bouchier