I have to admit, I haven’t read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (the literal translation is “In search of lost time”–I love the poetry of that title), but I have gotten to the beginning of the first chapter. While this isn’t much, relative to the entire, multi-volume, 1000-page plus novel, it does mean that I’ve read the 60 pages or so of prologue. Unfortunately, I’d have to track down some altogether too elusive time in order to get further, as the narrative unfurls at a very different pace to what we’re accustomed to today and the work is a rather long one indeed.
Still, the prologue is a wonderful read. In it, Proust captures and evokes the limitations of memory in a way that often made me chuckle with delight: he speaks of how his family would go to a small town, Combray, for the summer, and his memories of it are vague and distant. A common enough experience–we all no doubt have distant memories of some childhood vacation spots.
But then, he digs deeper, reaching around to the limitations of his recollection and attempting to encapsulate those limitations in words and text. He speaks of how he clearly remembers the corridor and his darkened bedroom, in this childhood getaway home, but how everything to the side of the corridor is dark, murky and unformed, because he cannot remember them. The image of a small boy in his bed, lying in his room, and the corridor beyond, surrounded by dim nothingness is a powerful one, that finds its echo in the marvellous dream worlds evoked by Inception and even the memory made real of the dead wife Reya, in Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris, who is doomed and tragic, not necessarily because Reya was tragic, but because that is how her widower husband remembers her: memory as reshaping one’s sense of reality.
I’ve been blogging less often these past days because I have been visiting Vancouver, the land of my childhood and formative teen years. And yet, being here always reminds me that my earliest, most formative of years unfurled in an altogether different environ: India, a place whose vague, murky recollections are accented by the occasional, bright and intensely vivid (but soft-focus) memory of a moment here, an event there. Holi festival, when all of the kids (even the Christian ones, like my brother and me) who lived in our apartment building in a suburb of Mumbai, would run about and squirt each other with coloured water or dust each other with coloured powder. Ganesh Chaturthi, when there would be a big procession and the lord Ganesha, embodied in clay and sculpture, would be taken down to the beach as part of a ritual journey, and sent on a symbolic pilgrimage home. That recollection is seasoned by a sting of disappointment, as I was deemed too young to join the procession to the water with the other neighborhood families.
Still, many of these memories, vivid though they may be, are blurred around the edges, free-floating in my mind–ungrounded and without context or timeline.
There is a wonderful moment, in the opening of A la Recherche, when the narrator, during a visit somewhere, has dipped some little tea cakes into his tea as he ate them. As he sips the dregs, with the little melted crumbs of cake soaked in liquid, his senses remember what has long eluded him–the taste takes him back to his childhood, when he would sip tea-infused crumbs, and the memories are unlocked. Suddenly, Inception-like, the floating, dark corridor finds context. The rest of the summer home, its gardens, and the town of Combray beyond, animates itself and grows vivid and clear in his recollection. It is a magical transformation–memories unlocked.
Whenever I visit Vancouver, I find myself longing for the taste, the smell or the evocation that will unlock those other, more distant recollections; that will ground them in context and connect them to each other, bringing them alive in their full and vibrant splendour.
But for now, the search continues.