1 June 2017

Lingering in the Proustian Moment ...

Well, I've finally made it to the top of literature's Mount Everest ... That's twenty years of my life which I'll never get back!

But - it was definitely worth it. The view from up here is amazing, and I have a feeling every other book I read from here on after will be slightly different because of my having made it all the way through this one. It's hugely pleasurable, hugely entertaining, mind-numbingly tedious and immensely boring in places. It's both frustrating and exhilarating. It, shocks, it surprises, it cloys, it flows, it gushes, it's tart and acerbic, it's sweet and mellifluous - it's all things, and it's nothing. A wonder, and a waste of time. Marcel's a ninny and a prig; he's a genius, he's witty and wise - he's all these things and more, just like this book - this book is everything, it's life; it's memory and experience, it's thoughts in and out of time. It's excellent, it's clever, and, despite initial appearances, it's surprisingly well crafted, and odd to say at the end, but it even feels - concise ... if that can possibly make sense of such a phenomenally long and long-winded book?

Henry James summed up the experience of reading Proust as one of “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine.” And it’s true, reading Proust is exquisite boredom. Andre Gide was the reader who famously turned down Proust’s great book when it was first offered to the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1912, hence Proust resorted to having Swann's Way published privately. Gide later noted his error. Proust was then published by Gallimard; and in 1919 Proust won the Prix Goncourt. The rest, as they say, is history.

… Life is a piece of cake, if you take the time to think long and hard enough about it.


For me, reading Proust was oddly like meditating. I’d read ten or twenty pages in a sitting. Sometimes it was hard to get into, but after persevering for a few agonisingly aeon-like moments, one soon found that the flow of words would suddenly, inexplicably and effortlessly carry you off on the current. Submitting to the gentle meander, either drifting along, or letting one’s head spin in the pedantically fussy eddies of his particularities, reading Proust is akin to turning one’s brain off – or rather slipping it into neutral and letting your consciousness coast along. At times I did wonder if reading Proust is in fact unhealthy; as, when reading Proust, one can’t help but automatically suspend one’s critical acuity. It’s an impossible book to ‘close read’ as the many themes he ambles through and around continually send your mind off on its own self-absorbed tangents. You can’t help reflecting on your own life and times, prompted by Proust’s gentle ruminations, and it takes several pages before you suddenly awaken and realise you’ve been reading without reading. It’s an infuriating habit. Reading Proust cultivated it, and I’m sure it had a negative effect upon my other reading – certainly, when during my studies, I frequently found my mind wandering and unable to concentrate on whatever academic article or book I was meant to be reading, suddenly having to stop and retrace what was nothing more than a meaningless blur of words stretching back over an endless sheaf of pages, I found myself mentally shaking my fist and blaming Monsieur Proust for turning my mind into a lackadaisical blob.

E. M. Forster is right to poke fun at Proust’s famously long sentences:

“A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving to have been in the accusative case.”

But they do serve a higher purpose. The book is all about transcendental experience. There is no real plot, so to speak. The book is an encapsulation of that internal reverie which we all manage to execute in the lightening quick instant it takes to think and feel everything within. Like a momentary flash of self-reflection before we fall into sleep at the end of a long day. Like a dream in which all of our memories coincide and happen simultaneously, sparking new thoughts, reflections and revelations only half of which we will ever fully recall or examine in close detail. And that is why we are all Proust. His colossal monument, as he likens it himself, is to help us comprehend the cathedral of the mind in all its intricate enormity:

“How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him! To give some idea of this task one would have to borrow comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts; for this writer – who, moreover, to indicate the mass, the solidity of each one of his characters must find means to display that character’s most opposite facets – would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces like a general conducting an offensive, and he would have also to endure his book like a form of fatigue, to accept it like a discipline, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, cosset it like a little child, create it like a new world without neglecting those mysteries whose explanation is to be found probably only in worlds other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing that moves us most deeply in life and in art. In long books of this kind there are parts which there has been time only to sketch, parts which, because of the very amplitude of the architect’s plan, will no doubt never be completed. How many great cathedrals remain unfinished!”

Proust’s great work is a cathedral. It is whole, intricate, vast, open, overwhelming; a maze and a labyrinth in which to lose oneself – and although it is unfinished (the last volume has its technical flaws aplenty, which had he lived longer he’d no doubt have polished and smoothed into proper shape), it is surprisingly complete. I feared there wouldn’t be, but happily there is a sense of an ending. When you get to the final word, as with the harmonic variations in a great symphony, you realise Proust has actually managed to bring you full circle. It really is a book unlike any other. 

Marcel Proust briefly caught on film in 1904

It took me twenty years in all to read it, with two lengthy sabbaticals between volumes, which, I think means I near enough read it in real time. Starting aged twenty and ending aged forty, I've spent exactly half my life with this book happening in the background. I'd always assumed that once I'd finished reading it that that would be it - never again! It was such a long hard slog in some parts, yet in others I flew through it, caught upon the wave. The actual reading of each volume was relatively short, between two and four years, depending on various outside factors. But now I've finished (much to my deep surprise) I can sense I may well one day find myself drawn back in again ... But not just yet, I'm going to savour that final sweet taste of the madeleine, and continue to enjoy the view a little longer from up here, on the top of the highest mountain ...

You can leaf through Marcel Proust's original notebooks, here.

1 May 2017

The Here & Now

A few days ago I was struck by a deeply melancholy thought. It happened during the morning rush hour as I stood in a crowded Tube train. A feeling of complete detachment came over me. I was aware of the jolting motion of the carriage passing through the darkened tunnel and all the people hemmed in around me. They all seemed to be wrapped up in the cares of the here and now. People who had given time and careful thought to the clothing they wore. Presentable and business-like. Some were absorbed in copies of the morning Metro. Some were busy with whatever functions of their mobile phones would still work underground. Others were already at work with pen and sheaf of business papers or reports, a few typing on laptops. Some were students studying. A group of suited business men and women stood close by, discussing impending business meetings, financial strategies and sales forecasts in voices raised over the familiar rattle and whine of the train as it hurtled along its tunnel. Suddenly, everything that was going on around me in that carriage seemed so intense and involved, so vitally important, and so utterly of that particular moment. It gave me pause to wonder, and the following thought occurred: Who in a hundred years time would know or care what any of us did that day?

I realise that such a thought could certainly carry a weight of despondency or even despair. An existential stab leaving a bleeding wound of solipsistic nihilism. But the thought arose more from my concerns with the past rather than the present. And this is perhaps one of the profound pleasures that the pursuit of history can engender. The past we are told can teach us about the here and now, and perhaps it can even tell us something of the patterns which may very well shape or create our future.

The prompt to my sudden detachment and its portentous reflection upon the present moment in that crowded railway carriage was in fact derived from a particular project of research. Research can be (and almost always is) an all-consuming enterprise. It fills one’s waking thoughts, both conscious and unconscious; and it can even invade one’s sleeping thoughts as well. This research project is concerned with retracing and piecing together the story of a life lived almost a hundred years ago. And at that particular moment my mind was focussed on – if not exactly a time, then certainly a place which coincided with my own world. That place being London.

When I got off the train and ascended the stairs of Temple Tube Station, I was stepping out into the streets which the subject of my research had mentioned in his autobiographical writings. This was the city in which he had passed some of the formative years I was then focussing upon in my research. In his half-finished memoir he had mentioned Drury Lane and several of the theatres thereabouts. Drury Lane was a street I was about to walk up, just as I always do each day, on my way to work. Naturally, my eye often scans the buildings as I go by, trying to guess their age from the style of architecture. That particular day, as I did this I found myself wondering which of them might have been standing when the subject of my research had himself wandered along this pavement.


My life it seems has been centred upon such a contemplation of the past. It’s the essence of a wider field to which I’ve devoted myself. The past, and ways of looking at and discovering the past, are what I chose to study at school and university; and it is what I’ve since been employed to do, working in a museum. Archaeology is the painstaking piecing together of the past from fragments and interpretation. By comparison, research into the more recent past one would think might be a lot easier, or at least a lot less vague. One would think that plentiful archival, documentary evidence from the century just ended would make creating such a picture of the recent past a relatively simple thing – but the truth is, my present research has shocked me at the fact that this isn’t at all the case. Archaeology has taught me that whole worlds can pass into near complete inexistence, but my present research has taught me that worlds vanish far faster than I had assumed.

The life I am looking at is only some three generations or so back. That is to say the generations of our grandparents or our great-grandparents. It’s a very particular threshold of history and I acknowledge that the parameters and limitations which apply here may not apply to future generations researching our own time and our lives. The early years of the twentieth century witnessed a number of significant advances which mean we are able to hear and see the distant past for the reality it once was in recorded audio and film. It has given us a quaint and perhaps wistful sense of what we think the world would then have been like. But it is a mirage. We can’t know what their world was like in the same way that we know our own, not in the same way that we perceive ourselves, standing each day in the Tube carriage, overhearing others discussing the dynamic imperatives of their day-to-day business and social lives. It is something that history in its relation to the here and now cannot deny. All reality is lived essentially to be lost.

The life I am researching is one that was lived in the time of colonial ambition and the daily reality of an established empire. It was a life which partook of that ethos and actually implemented its ethic as part of our government’s diplomatic service. My research has lead me to look in depth at the world of that time from the personal viewpoint of this person who intimately inhabited it. After leaving London, the imperial capital, he went to China. He lived the foreigner’s world of China in the treaty ports, as they were then known. The semi-colonial settler society of Shanghai, the “Paris of the East.” These were people forging a world of their own, for good or ill as posterity now reflects, far from their native place – in someone else’s nation. But they too, like the people in my railway carriage, thought their business and day-to-day lives were dynamic and important. They spoke of things as though they really mattered and always would matter. Little did they know that by the mid-point of their century, the certainty of that future and their faith in progress would be radically shaken up and almost entirely shattered. 

Sheltering in the London Tube during an air raid in World War Two

As I say, whole world’s can vanish, and sometimes very quickly. The lives of individuals even more so. In fact, it is a wonder to me that anything of ourselves lasts at all. Just think of the countless generations of our distant ancestors of whom we know absolutely nothing. It’s remarkable to think that any of us might be remembered beyond the immediate generations who knew us. In the course of human history, for the great majority of people, the significance of their personal lives is lost, not in the passing of an age, but in an instant. It is a sad and melancholy thought. Who in a hundred years will know or care what any of us did today?

Or is it? – Perhaps it is if you are preoccupied with the search for historical facts or insights into the lives of people long since passed. Or, perhaps, if you are concerned with your own prospects of immortality, particularly in our own time when the hankering for our own personal “fifteen minutes of fame” has seemingly never before been so widespread nor so ardently desired. Perhaps not though, when one considers all those generations of anonymous ancestors who have lived countless lives before us as part of that continuum of the self which has culminated – at least at the present time – in us personally and the lives which ultimately we lead only for ourselves. And there are advantages in anonymity.

 The contemplation of history, I find, can be as interesting and even as enthralling as all that history itself contains. To return to an essential point from an altered angle, without history we can’t truly know who we are or where we – and the world we live in – might be going. Who does not delight to hear our grandparents speak of their own early lives and in our hearts and minds to compare and contrast ourselves to them at a similar age? And with present technologies changing at such a fast pace we can now all say that we remember the world before the invention of such and such a … [fill in the blank, as you wish].


History is in some senses the leap-frogging of memory. The time-machine equivalent of the theory of the six degrees of separation. Our grandparents told us of the early years of the last century, and the great events of their time – the two world wars, for instance. But we forget that their grandparents before them – as Thomas Hardy once marvelled of his own grandparents – could tell of the wars of the Napoleonic era. Worlds do disappear perhaps faster than we realise, but we can also reach back further than we might have suspected if only we took the time to stop and see. More so even if we take some time to stop and perhaps make only the smallest record of ourselves and the life we are living for those who are as yet still to follow; those who may well one day – in a hundred years perhaps – want to look back and find us, who may in time seek to know something of a world which has all but vanished in its turn. In that sense, then, my morning’s melancholy commute, has perhaps – for a moment at least – transformed a Tube train into a time machine. Perhaps one day it may well help to transport someone back to our own time – I can’t help wondering, what sort of world they will imagine it to have been?

Click on the images for links to their source

14 April 2017

A Tenebris Ad Lucem ...

The Miserere, (or Miserere mei, Deus), a setting of Psalm 51, written by Gregorio Allegri (c.1582-1652) sometime around the 1630s for the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where it was performed each Easter as part of the Tenebrae Service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday. Tenebrae means ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’, hence the Tenebrae Service takes place at dusk, when, during the ritual, the candles in the chapel are slowly extinguished one by one – until only one remains alight, which is then veiled.

The Miserere was a sacred piece of church music, hence it was forbidden by the Papal Authorities to copy or circulate the piece outside the Vatican. But, as a sublimely beautiful piece of Renaissance polyphony, written to be performed a capella by two choirs of five and four voices, it gained a certain notoriety, characterised by a transcendental air of mystery for those who had heard it, thereby gaining an even greater sense of mystery for those who had only ever heard tell of it.

It is impossible not to be moved by this piece of music. The first time you hear that high C is a musical moment you are likely to recall long after it has gently faded away to nothing. Ever since I first heard the Miserere it’s been one of my favourite choral works. And my liking for the piece of music grew further when I first heard the story of how the Miserere came to be known and delighted in beyond the walls of the Sistine Chapel. According to this story, on April 11th 1770 – when he was fourteen years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome with his family and attended the Holy Wednesday Tenebrae Service at the Sistine Chapel. According to surviving family letters he was so struck by the piece of music that later that same day he wrote it down from memory. He returned to the Chapel on Good Friday to hear it performed once again and to correct his copy. For this act of early 'bootlegging', instead of getting into trouble, the young Mozart was later invited to an audience with Pope Clement XIV and rewarded with a Papal Knighthood (the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur; see here) on July 4th 1770. From this transcription the Miserere was first published the following year in England.

Here are the Tallis Scholars performing Allegri’s Miserere in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome in 1994. And I’m dedicating this to the memory of my dear friend, Kate.

Image at the top shows an Angel conquering Death, by Richard Westmacott (1775-1856), who also sculpted the pediment frieze of the British Museum (click on the image to link to its source)