Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Remembrance of Things Past

When we were making our plans to move here from California, someone dear to me asked incredulously, "You're moving to France, and you've never read Proust?" She was right, of course. How could I expect to understand my adoptive country without having absorbed À La Recherche du Temps Perdu? My literary friend very kindly gave me Un Amour de Swann, a small section of the whole work. In French. One is given to understand that Proust must be read in the original; it is all about the language. I noted that she, who ostensibly does not speak French, had underlined and made notes in the margins. I, who should have spoken French, flipped through the pages, eyes swimming, and filed the book on a shelf next to the other unread French novels I had begun to collect.

Finally I can say I have rectified this situation....well sort of. I have at least read some of Proust, although I admit, in English translation. Here is the story:

A few weeks ago we had a printmaker, and her filmmaker husband, come stay at Maison Conti on the way between their homes in London and Lucerne. Every time a printmaker has come to stay with us, I have become friends with them. Friends far-flung, but kindred spirits nonetheless. Hjørdis and I spent a long time in my studio trading ideas and techniques. She also told me that not 40 minutes drive from our house is the Proust museum, which in the several years we'd lived here, we had never discovered. Located in the village of Illiers, (renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the 100th anniversary of Proust's birth),  Tante Léonie's house is kept very much as it was when young Marcel came to stay each year at Holy Week. In his book Proust names the village Combray, and it is to the times spent there that he is recalled when he tastes that famous madeleine. Hjørdis and Hans-Peter are making a movie about the village, and she urged me to visit and create a set of prints based on this local resource.

And so I have begun. We arrived in Illiers-Combray after lunch one day recently and were the sole visitors in the museum. I was armed with my camera, which hung around my neck as we paid our entrance fee and were given free rein of the entire house. It seemed so wonderful and slightly insane. I snapped pictures in every room in order to gather my visual data for the illustrations/prints to be developed. We spent about an hour discovering all the corners of this funny old place and reading Proust's corresponding descriptive passages provided in the brochure we'd received at the entry. As we finished our self-guided tour, we saw a sign which read "Please, no photographs in the house." Hmm. Well, I do apologize, but make here the suggestion that the request be posted at the entrance rather than the exit.

I have launched my project and will post my first results here next week, if all goes well. And Proust and I curl up together every day now as I discover what I have been missing all these years.

My literary friend came to visit us last month. I'm so sorry I didn't know of this place while you were here! It makes a wonderful day trip from Montmirail and there are nice walks and other Proust sites to discover nearby.

Here is Marcel Proust in 1887, several years after he stopped coming to see his aunt Léonie. He developed asthma when he was nine and was unable to visit the countryside again.


  1. Just discovered your great blog. I have been re-reading Proust and blogging it from the US in "Reading Proust in Foxborough."

    Know a big of French, but have to read in English. Thanks so much for REMINDING ME that Proust spent Holy Week at Tante Leonie's, because now, this week, I can enjoy those passages again, even as spring (finally) comes to Massachusetts. Would love to visit your atelier, but alas, I'm a (mostly) unpublished writer, not an artist, but I do love prints and have many on the wall.

  2. Looking forward to seeing more photos!!

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  4. About that sign to not take photos... that was probably only for tourists and not the French who tend to do their own thing in such wonderful style. And seeing you are part French now, well you can ignore the sign too...

    Can't wait to see what you come up with.