A la recherche du temps perdu.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Today is the 20th meeting of The Delhi Proustians, a club for Delhiwallas that discusses French novelist Marcel Proust. Every Monday evening for an hour we read his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time.
Each week we meet in a new venue to dive into the atmosphere of Marcel’s novel.
It is 7 pm and The Delhi Walla is at the Café Turtle in Khan Market. I am with Altaf M, who describes himself as a flâneur, and Sanchita Guha, deputy editor of Marie Claire magazine. Ms Guha says she has never read Proust.
“I had heard of Proust for years and had read some excerpts online from Remembrance of Things Past and had forgotten till I went to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and was introduced to his tomb by my friend Daniele,” says Mr M. “This book has played on my mind and has been on my holiday reading list for years. I aspire to read it someday and in the meanwhile, I will dip into his writing when I feel like reading aloud.”
Desperately hoping for both of them to like Marcel, I say, “While some people say that Proust is very dense, the fact is that he is very funny. There are some parts in which I burst out laughing. Let me read one such portion.”
I flip through Swann’s Way, the first of the seven volumes. But, strangely, I am unable to find any light-hearted passage.
Both Proustians are watching me.
“Yes, I will read this part,” I say. “It is about a pretentious and stupid society lady who had come, as Proust says, from an undistinguished middle-class family. I think we will enjoy it.”
The Verdurins never invited you to dinner; you had your ’place laid’ there. There was never any programme for the evening’s entertainment. The young pianist would play, but only if he felt inclined, for no one was forced to do anything, and, as M. Verdurin used to say: “We’re all friends here. Liberty Hall, you know!”
If the pianist suggested playing the Ride of the Valkyries, or the Prelude to Tristan, Mme. Verdurin would protest, not that the music was displeasing to her, but, on the contrary, that it made too violent an impression. “Then you want me to have one of my headaches? You know quite well, it’s the same every time he plays that. I know what I’m in for. Tomorrow, when I want to get up–nothing doing!” If he was not going to play they talked, and one of the friends–usually the painter who was in favour there that year–would “spin,” as M. Verdurin put it, “a damned funny yarn that made ’em all split with laughter,” and especially Mme. Verdurin, for whom–so strong was her habit of taking literally the figurative accounts of her emotions–Dr. Cottard, who was then just starting in general practice, would “really have to come one day and set her jaw, which she had dislocated with laughing too much.”
My English pronunciation is awful. Are these two secretly laughing at me?
Evening dress was barred, because you were all ’good pals,’ and didn’t want to look like the ’boring people’ who were to be avoided like the plague, and only asked to the big evenings, which were given as seldom as possible, and then only if it would amuse the painter or make the musician better known. The rest of the time you were quite happy playing charades and having supper in fancy dress, and there was no need to mingle any strange element with the little ’clan.’
Are they bored?
But just as the ’good pals’ came to take a more and more prominent place in Mme. Verdurin’s life, so the ’bores,’ the ’nuisances’ grew to include everybody and everything that kept her friends away from her, that made them sometimes plead ’previous engagements,’ the mother of one, the professional duties of another, the ’little place in the country’ of a third. If Dr. Cottard felt bound to say good night as soon as they rose from table, so as to go back to some patient who was seriously ill; “I don’t know,” Mme. Verdurin would say, “I’m sure it will do him far more good if you don’t go disturbing him again this…
“I will stop here,” I say. “This passage always amuses me but today… never mind… yet, I want you both to feel the essence of Proust… Altaf, this is a passage on music. We have read it in an earlier meet but I guess we can repeat it. It is the most beautiful music appreciation I have ever read.”
Mr M starts reading. His voice is grave and comforting.
The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the narrow ribbon of the violin-part, delicate, unyielding, substantial and governing the whole, he had suddenly perceived, where it was trying to surge upwards in a flowing tide of sound, the mass of the piano-part, multiform, coherent, level, and breaking everywhere in melody like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. But at a given moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to collect, to treasure in his memory the phrase or harmony–he knew not which–that had just been played, and had opened and expanded his soul, just as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating our nostrils. Perhaps it was owing to his own ignorance of music that he had been able to receive so confused an impression, one of those that are, notwithstanding, our only purely musical impressions, limited in their extent, entirely original, and irreducible into any other kind. An impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, an impression sine materia. Presumably the notes which we hear at such moments tend to spread out before our eyes, over surfaces greater or smaller according to their pitch and volume; to trace arabesque designs, to give us the sensation of breath or tenuity, stability or caprice.
Mr M pauses to order for banana walnut cake.
But the notes themselves have vanished before these sensations have developed sufficiently to escape submersion under those which the following, or even simultaneous notes have already begun to awaken in us. And this indefinite perception would continue to smother in its molten liquidity the motifs which now and then emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown; recognised only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instil, impossible to describe, to recollect, to name; ineffable;–if our memory, like a labourer who toils at the laying down of firm foundations beneath the tumult of the waves, did not, by fashioning for us facsimiles of those fugitive phrases, enable us to compare and to contrast them with those that follow. And so, hardly had the delicious sensation, which Swann had experienced, died away, before his memory had furnished him with an immediate transcript, summary, it is true, and provisional, but one on which he had kept his eyes fixed while the playing continued, so effectively that, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer uncapturable. He was able to picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical arrangement, its notation, the strength of its expression; he had before him that definite object which was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished, quite clearly, a phrase which emerged for a few moments from the waves of sound. It had at once held out to him an invitation to partake of intimate pleasures, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing but this phrase could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.
Ms Guha is looking interested. I request her to read the famous madeleine scene, my old tired trick of converting muggles to Proustians.
As Ms Guha traverses from one sentence to another, phrases that are familiar to me after so many re-readings, I decide that from the next week onwards, there will be no more readings of passages we have already read. Instead, we would continue from the point where we left off in the last meeting. Otherwise we will never be able to finish the novel.
After finishing the excerpt, Ms Guha says: “Marcel Proust has been a stranger to me all these years. Perhaps because the ‘stream of consciousness’, for which Proust may have created the prototype, has never appealed to me very much. I generally like a linear, fast-moving structure in a book; or, a structure that twists that rule, and thereby acknowledge its existence. I did at first have trouble taking in all that was being read by you and Altaf. I realised why when I read this madeleine section in which the taste of a cake dipped in tea opens for the protagonist a huge window of memories.”
The steward comes to clear the plate.
Ms Guha continues: “Proust is meant to be read, not read to. And not just because some of the passages are very long, the sentences almost unending. His writing is a personal interaction between the book and the reader. The novel must have run to seven volumes because Proust saw no reason to edit out his feelings for the sake of the reading public. In a way, the writing of the novel appears to have been an intensely private exercise; its reading must be the same.”
Mr M says, “I enjoyed the reading and I hope to come again, hoping you will have some excerpt posted online beforehand and for those attending to read it – so there is more meaningful discussion about how all of us perceive his writing today or see it playing out in the Delhi context.”
“But I want us to read Proust together and not alone,” I say, “I want to share the experience with others as I plough through Lost Time…”
It is 8 pm. Our time is over.
The 21st meeting of The Delhi Proustians will take place on the stairs of Jama Masjid on June 4 2012.
Where Gate no. 3 (the stairs that face the Red Fort) Time 7 pm Nearest Metro Station Chandni Chowk/Chawri Bazaar
Marcel in Café Turtle