Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 44.2 (Marcel Proust)

The Guermantes Way
Proust, Marcel
The Guermantes Way

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

A few years ago, Lori and I drove across the country. It was a kind of working vacation, as the purpose of the trip was a series of readings I'd set up along the way. My book Human Scale had just come out, so it seemed like a good time to do some readings to support it. It was also a great excuse to visit the west coast, see some old friends, and visit some interesting places.

Our journey took us through Cleveland, where we visited some old friends from my NYC days, then down to Louisville, where we passed an uneventful night. We drove through Tennessee, skipping Nashville in favor of Memphis. My first reading was in Norman, OK, where I read with Charles Alexander. After Norman, we drove through the Texas panhandle down to Santa Fe, where we spent a couple of nights before heading to Tucson for my next reading with Tyrone Williams. The third reading on the trip took place in Los Angeles. Due to a late change of schedule, we ended up staying in Santa Monica for three or four days.

I hadn't spent much time there, so we were pretty open to just seeing as much as we could. All of my poet friends told us that in addition to visiting many of the standard tourist attractions we should visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology. There are entire books devoted to this out of the way museum in Culver City, so I'll let you read about it yourself in one of them.

The reason I bring it up today, under Proust, is that one of the attractions inside the museum was a device designed to help you experience Proust. Suspended behind a piece of glass are displayed a tea cup and a plate of petits madeleines, those iconic cookies that will forever be associated with Proust. I believe the ords from the book as also part of the display, either on the wall inside or on the glass itself (or possibly both).

Three black plastic discs across the front of the glass are connected to three plastic tubes that blow the scents of the madeleines & the tea into the nostrils of vistors, who lean forward and press them into a hole at the center of each disc. I am not sure why there are three tubes and not two. Perhaps one blends the two scents or something like that.

One of the charming things about the museum is that there are few explanations. Even when things are explained the explanations generally make things seem more opaque. A dream-logic pervades the place. Everything is terribly familiar and seems to make sense until you wake up and try to think it through with your conscious mind, at which point it makes no sense at all.

Earlier that year, in July I believe, Lori, Geoffrey Gatza, Donna White and I were invited to celebrate John Ashbery's 80th birthday near where he group up outside Rochester. The party took place at a the  house of an old family friend and many of those in attendance were friends and relatives who had known John since he was a boy. One of the treats served at the party was a tray of madeleines. Geoffrey got so excited by this that he brought one home, preserved it, and set it into a frame that now hangs permanently on the wall in his apartment. I am not sure how he preserved it, but it hasn't aged a bit.

from The Guermantes Way

The early-morning twitter of the birds sounded tame to Frangoise. Every word from the maids' quarters made her jump; their every footstep bothered her, and she was constantly wondering what they were doing. All this was because we had moved. It is true that the servants in our former home had made quite as much stir in their quarters on the top floor, but they were servants she knew, and their comings and goings had become friendly presences to her. Now she even made silence the object of her painful scrutiny. And since the district to which we had moved appeared to be as quiet as the boulevard we had previously looked out upon was noisy, the sound of a man singing in the street as he passed (as feeble perhaps as an orchestral motif, yet quite clear even from a distance) brought tears to the eyes of the exiled Frangoise. And if I had made fun of her when she had been distressed at leaving an apartment building where we had been "so well thought of by everybody," weeping as she packed her trunks in accordance with the rituals of Combray and declaring that our former home was superior to any other imaginable, I, who found it as difficult to assimilate new surroundings as I found it easy to abandon old ones, nonetheless felt a close sympathy with our old servant when I realized that the move to abuilding where the concierge, who had not yet made our acquaintance, had not shown her the tokens of respect necessary to the nourishment of her good spirits had driven her to a state close to total decline.

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