Letter from Paris – The Reluctant Proustian, Marais
Proust’s reader in Proust’s city.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is a man of another time. On streets, he is shocked to see women with cigarettes. At home, he paints, and plays piano and cello. In drawing rooms, he animates the polite gentry with his gentle humor. In bazaars, he looks out for old objects. And he is embarrassingly chivalrous–he always enters the restaurants first not only to keep the door open for you but also to save you from the trouble of negotiating with the waiter for the ideal table. Of course he is as courteous to waiters as he would be to the gentlemen of the Jockey Club.
And his standards are set a little too high. He doesn’t like Gustave Flaubert (“no fantasy in style”); he actively dislikes Guy de Maupassant (“stories are stupid”); he adores Henry James (“so difficult”).
And he belongs to the society of the friends of Marcel Proust, though he himself is shy about his membership–“It is my women friends who take me for a Proustian,” he says.
The Delhi Walla meets Laurent Meynard one sunny afternoon in Marais, the old Jewish quarter in Paris. Mr Meynard, who lived in Proust’s city for more than 30 years, now spends most of his days at his partner’s farm in Saint-Pierre de Vassols, a village in Provence, southern France. His friends claim that the house is so huge that the dining table alone could accommodate 50 people. “An exaggeration,” says Mr Meynard. “It is fit for only 20.”
Reluctant to be taken as a blind follower of Proust, Mr Meynard dares to make an unsacred reference to the buttery teacakes that were immortalised in Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu. “I don’t necessarily like madeleine,” he says, and after a pause, adds,” That doesn’t mean I necessarily dislike them.”
Mr Meynard says that he first picked up Recherche when he was seven. He then lived at his family home in Corrèze, south-central France. “One night I overheard my mother’s friend telling her in the other room that she ought to pay attention to me or I would end up like little Marcel. To find out that why I should not become another Marcel, I started to read Proust.”
The young Laurent finished the whole of Proust-all the seven volumes of Recherche– within a year. He read the novel again at 18. He is now in his 50s and he confesses he has never stopped reading Proust. “Recherche is like the Arabian Nights stories that never ends. Each time you dip into it, you discover something different. Proust is always new.”
But he insists that not much ought to be read into this passion for Proust.
Walking briskly on a busy street, Mr Meynard passes by an 18th century doorway, and suddenly stops. He puts on his green-rimmed glasses and begins to carefully examine the wooden carving on the door with his finger. Looking as absorbed as a poet probing the color of a romantic rose, his expressions, alas, betray a kind of sensibilities that is exclusive to readers of Recherche alone. In short, our gallant man stands exposed as a dyed-in-the-wool Proustian.
You too have become a Marcel
7. (a painting by Laurent Meynard)