Delhi Proustians – Bois de Boulogne, Paris
Marcel Proust’s garden.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One cold grey morning The Delhi Walla walked into the woods of Bois de Boulogne, a park along the edge of 16th aggrandizement of Paris, one of the city’s wealthiest sections. Most of the trees were bare, except for a few tall varieties that had some leaves clinging on to their higher reaches. In 1881, novelist Marcel Proust had his first asthma attack after a walk in this garden.
While walking, I picked up a yellow leaf from the ground and placed it inside my hardbound copy of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. The final pages of this volume are devoted to this park. Sitting by a lake-side bench, I opened the book to see Bois de Boulogne through Marcel’s feelings.
That sense of the complexity of the Bois de Boulogne which makes it an artificial place and, in the zoological or mythological sense of the word, a Garden, came to me again this year as I crossed it on my way to Trianon, as one of those mornings early in November when, in Paris, if we stay indoors, being so near and yet excluded from the transformation scene of autumn, which is drawing so rapidly to a close without our witnessing it, we feel a veritable fever of yearning for the fallen leaves that can go so far as to keep us awake at night. Into my closed room they had been drifting already for a month, summoned there by my desire to see them, slipping between my thoughts and the object, whatever it might be, upon which I was trying to concentrate them, whirling in front of me like those brown spots that sometimes, whatever we may be looking at, will seem to be dancing or swirling before our eyes. And on that morning, no longer hearing the splash of the rain as on the preceding days, seeing the smile of fine weather at the corners of my curtains, as at the corners of closed lips betraying the secret of their happiness, I felt that I might be able to look at those yellow leaves with the light shining through them, in their supreme beauty; and being no more able to restrain myself from going to see the trees than, in my childhood days, when the wind howled in the chimney, I had been able to resist the longing to visit the sea, I had risen and left the house to go to Trianon via the Bois de Boulogne. It was the hour and season in which the Bois seems, perhaps, most multiform, not only because it is the most subdivided, but because it is subdivided in a different way. Even in the unwooded parts, where the horizon is large, here and there against the background of a dark and distant mass of trees, now leafless or still keeping their summer foliage unchanged, a double row of orange-red chestnuts seemed, as in a picture just begun, to be the only thing painted by an artist who had not yet laid any colour to rest, and to be offering their cloister, in full daylight, for the casual exercise of the human figure that would be added to the picture later on.
Later in the day, while lying on the bed, I flipped through Swann’s Way. The leaf lay on the late-night scene where Charles Swann, an artistic man newly enslaved to love and jealousy, was desperately looking for his mistress, the unfaithful Odette de Crécy, in a Paris street lined with cafes and restaurants. This leaf had completed all the natural functions of its life in a garden in Paris. Now, it was to start its afterlife in faraway Delhi.
First seen in Proust’s novel