Delhi Proustians - A Day in Combray, France

Delhi Proustians – A Day in Combray, France

Journey of a lifetime.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

It was raining lightly when the train reached the station. Carrying Swann’s Way in one hand, The Delhi Walla walked through the town.

The streets were empty. A creaky wooden bridge curved over a narrow stream that teemed with black ducks. The dark green waters reflected the inverted images of trees. The back alleys smelled of wet grass and wood. Flowering bushes decorated the windows of gable-capped houses. Cows grazed on the mossy grounds. The black and grey steeple of the church of Saint-Jacques followed me wherever I went.

One day in September, I was a literary pilgrim to a town that is believed to be the setting of some of the most memorable passages in Swann’s Way, which is the first part of In Search of Lost Time, the seven-volume work by French novelist Marcel Proust.

About two hours south of Paris lies the town of Illiers, called Combray in the novel. During the centenary celebration of Proust’s birth in 1971, it was renamed Illiers-Combray.

Proust was a Parisian aesthete, but the genesis of his great work is supposed to have its origins here in Illiers, the hometown of his father, who was a grocer’s son.

In 2013, the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, printed just before the First World War. With a cast of more than 200 characters, the volumes encompass over a million and a half words, and cover the years 1840 to 1915.

Called À la recherche du temps perdu in French, In Search of Lost Time was first published over 14 years in 15 volumes. Proust began writing it in Paris in 1906, finishing a draft in six years, but kept re-writing until his death in the confines of a cork-lined sickroom in 1922. Time Regained, the final part, was published five years later in 1927.

I had only a vague notion of Proust when I chanced upon a second-hand copy of Swann’s Way at the weekly Sunday Book Bazaar in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj. The Modern Library hardbound edition was stacked between books on European cinema. The bookseller told me that these yellowed volumes had come from the house of film critic Amita Malik who had recently died of cancer, her library finding its way to this pavement.

In three years, I finished reading all the seven volumes — about 4,000 pages. It should be a formidable accomplishment since, according to author Vladimir Nabokov in his famous lecture on Proust, “a superficial reader will get so bored, so engulfed in his own yawns, that he will never finish the book”.


I found the novel an entertaining mix of poetry and meanness. Sample this: “She’s an ex-whore. Her husband’s a Jew, and she comes here to pose as a Nationalist.” Or this: “The charms of a passing woman are usually in direct relation to the speed of her passing.”

Proust, a half-Jewish homosexual, is the Jane Austen of the aesthete. Like the English author in her drawing-room novels, he, too, sent his characters hurling around in a tornado of love, spite, bad manners, society parties and gossip — except that he did it in slow motion, recording each thought, feeling, idea and action with precision, often summoning perspectives on painting, music and architecture in seemingly endless sentences.

The memories of my day-long visit to Combray are fresh in my mind. I walked past a school named after Proust. The outer wall of one house, close to a parking lot near the railway station, was painted with his portrait. A local bakery sold madeleines, the teacake said to have inspired Proust to write his novel — but it’s a myth!

The highlight of the day was the visit to the Marcel Proust Museum. It was home to Proust’s aunt with whom he spent his childhood holidays. The gate had a bell, a real old-fashioned metal bell.

Feeling like an intruder, I tiptoed into the various rooms, and went up and down the wooden staircase, which was flanked by marbled wallpaper. The walls in the dining room were lined with Cordoba leather. The drawing room had an oriental chandelier. The kitchen had hexagonal tommette floor tiles and copper utensils hung on the wall. In the room of Proust’s aunt, a plate of madeleines was placed inside a glass case. Proust’s room was smaller. I stood for a long time in front of his bed. It had a red plain-patterned quilt. A magic lantern was placed on a wooden table.

There was no other visitor. I broke the museum rules and secretly took photos of Proust’s bed, the stool by the piano, the stained glass window, the dining table and the view of the garden.

After returning to Delhi, I made a pocket-sized Combray album of those stills.

The museum also serves as the headquarters of the Marcel Proust Society and the International Marcel Proust Institute. The visitors’ book at the reception had fresh jottings in Japanese.

In Search of Lost Time is a depiction of the sensations and memories of an aspiring writer. It is not really a novel but, to use Proust’s words, “a sort of reality superior to that of concrete things”. It is joyful, melancholic and introspective; it has a spirit that feels for things with extraordinary keenness. The book centres around the idea that “the ideal is unattainable and the happiness mediocre”. The lead characters are men and women, each of whose existence is coloured by a passion for poetry, paintings, compositions and historic buildings. They keep withered flowers carefully in the drawers of their desks and instruct in their will what music should be played at their funerals. Through their stories, and his own, the narrator, I think, is occupied in remembering a vanished past — the novel’s central concern.

Since a great number of pages in the book are devoted to the infighting and backstabbing rampant in Parisian salons, a reader from that city would feel a special affinity for Proust; so might a Delhiite. Describing his visit to the colonial-era India in the 1940s in his travelogue Jesting Pilate: The Diary of a Journey, Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, wrote:

How often, while at Delhi, I thought of Proust and wished that he might have known the place and its inhabitants. For the imperial city is no less rich in social comedy than Paris; its soul is as fertile in snobberies, dissimulations, prejudices, hatreds, envies. Indeed, I should say that in certain respects the comedy of Delhi is intrinsically superior to that which Proust found in the Faubourg Saint-Germain and so minutely analysed. The finest comedy (I speak for the moment exclusively as the literary man) is the most serious, the most nearly related to tragedy. The comedy of Delhi and the new India, however exquisitely diverting, is full of tragic implications. The dispute of races, the reciprocal hatred of colours, the subjection of one people to another—these things lie behind its snobberies, conventions and deceits—are implicit in every ludicrous antic of the comedians.

Proust’s humour, unlike that of Austen’s, leaves you sad. Even the comical passages were not spared from the novel’s task of recording the changes taking place outside his house: in the drawing rooms, theatres, brothels, streets and gardens of Paris.

In Jesting Pilate, Huxley, I would say, gives us the definitive elucidation of the Proustian essence:

Sometimes, when a thunderstorm is approaching, we may see a house, a green tree, a group of people illuminated by a beam of the doomed sun, and standing out with a kind of unearthly brightness against the black and indigo of the clouds. The decaying relics of feudalism, the Dreyfus case, the tragedies of excessive leisure—these form the background to the Proustian comedy.

In Old Delhi, a world of cramped lanes dense with rich histories, I feel an urge to do a Proust, not in terms of writing a seven-volume novel on the Mughal-era city but in delicately interpreting the lives of the area’s inhabitants, in acutely observing their manners and in noting down details of architecture, traditions and stories of streets and tombs. These are elements that could vanish by the next generation. As Proust said in Time Regained (Vol 7), “The only true paradise is the paradise we have lost.”

Once in Nizamuddin East I found myself in the tea parlour of the daughter of the last nawab of Rampur state. Hers was a domain of silver breakfast trolleys, thick carpets and old family retainers. The ex-princess took half an hour to appear, an interval in which I imagined her immersed in her long-winded toilette, possibly dressing up in costumes that follow the traditions of her great house. Instead, the begum sahiba appeared in a nightie.

Sitting down on a sofa, she exuded a feeling as if she were presiding over her late father’s court. Her poise conveyed benevolent autocracy. The sound of her voice was forceful, as if it had never encountered dissent. Her head was raised upwards; the bearded chin pointing towards the painting of her great-grandfather that hung on the facing wall.

The principality of the woman’s dynasty had long dissolved into history. Her own wealth had suffered from subtractions. (Her drawing room in Nizamuddin East was built into a basement, her forlorn palace in Rampur was mired in lawsuits.) But she herself remained firmly enthroned in the entitlement of her blood. Her world had evaporated but she retained the substance of its privileged despotism. The begum was a tragedy, a comedy, a farce — a classic Proustian character.

It was evening when I walked back to the Combray railway station. I met a local townsman who had never heard of Proust.

The last train to Paris had already left. After having a hot chocolate in a café adjacent to a memorial to the town’s young men who died in the First World War, I boarded a bus to the cathedral town of Chartres, from where I could get a connecting train to Paris.

As we drove through the countryside, a co-passenger, on spotting my Swann’s Way, advised me to devote the next few months of my life to Proust because “his book will then stay with you for the rest of your life”.

Today, after knowing Proust, it is difficult for me to read other writers. In the past few months, I have only bought books on Proust and have grown to feel such an intimacy with him that when I try to make sense of a ruined mosque or a crumbling tomb in Delhi and I’m unable to compose my thoughts, I ask myself, “What would Marcel have made of it?”

The other evening I was with a friend who was in the middle of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We were in the Metro train and he spent the whole journey saying, “How could Natasha betray Prince Andrey for someone as fake as Anatole . . . Helene’s a bitch . . . Pierre is clumsy but . . .”

The same night I started War and Peace. It began with a soiree. There were the posh people: a count, a society slut, a confidante of the empress. Some guests gossiped; others talked of Napoleon. Little did these people in this St Petersberg drawing room know that their doomed world was playing out its final symphony, flashing into a transcendental blaze of light just before coming to an end. I immediately felt a longing for In Search of Lost Time.

After my return to Paris from Combray, I visited Père Lachaise, the city’s largest cemetery. It has tombs of people dear to the French heart such as Balzac, Moliere, Colette, La Fontaine, Rachel, Sarah Bernhardt, Maurice Thorez and Proust, whose tomb consists of a slab of black stone. It looks undistinguished.

In 1927, on the fifth anniversary of Proust’s death, Janet Flamer, the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, informed her readers of the conclusion of In Search of Lost Time. The notification was like a lamentation of a world that Proust had built within his cork-lined chamber:

The final two volumes of Le Temps Retrouve, along with Chronique, rather tiresome reprints of his Figaro contributory days, are now available. In Le Temps Retrouve one finds that the glory of the Guermantes has passed. Gilberte is presented as the widow of St. Loup, killed in the war; Charlus is déclassé; Mme Verdurin has married the old prince; Oriane and the duke are divorced. The glamorous style with which Proust established his dynasty and theirs is lacking in his arid descriptions of their decline. Himself dying, as he wrote of their end, he was too weak to ornament their epitaphs. Proust has been dead since 1922, yet the annual appearance of his posthumous printed works has left him, to the reader, alive. Now there is nothing left to publish. Five years after his internment, Proust seems dead for the first time.

Sometimes in the evenings I go to Connaught Place and walk in the park above the Palika Bazaar parking. After a few rounds, I sit on a bench, take out my Combray album from the shoulder bag, and then I wonder, “Did I actually go to this place?”

Perhaps it is possible to live a full life even if your acquaintance with Proust is limited to the story of how a tea-soaked madeleine one rainy evening revived a forgotten memory that made him write his classic.

Perhaps you can justly continue to consider yourself a civilised human even if you find Proust unreadable, or a bore. After all, the great James Joyce, speaking of Proust, said, “I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.”

Mr Joyce, I’m not visiting you anytime soon. I’m content with my visa to Combray.

Combray in my heart