Thursday, 6 September 2012


The end of A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur  is mysterious, and seems like a key to everything I've read before and not understood or not paid enough attention to.

Narrator, grandmother and maid are spending what seems like several summer months at the Grand Hotel in Balbec. Siestas appear to be imposed by the grandmother,  though he comments several times how much he loves spending time on his own, the sweetness of it, and how exhausting it is to spend time with other people whom he always wants to please. He seems to succeed in pleasing very well, in fact something else is going on, because people mostly are attracted to him, desiring his friendship, for instance the painter Elstir - this is unexpected and unexplained.

At the end of the narrator's rest period, Francoise - the devoted family maid - opens the curtains. This is more complicated than one may think, as they have been pinned shut.There was a mention earlier about Francoise and the pins, but at that time it was unexplained. One has to forge ahead trusting that all will become clear. (I of course thought that I'd forgotten something or not read thoroughly enough.)

All along, in this section, Proust writes about the sun - how it slipped past the barrier of curtains, a golden bar on the wall, how it created a pattern on the carpet which he delighted in bathing his naked feet in and then finally when the curtains are fully drawn (open), the world beyond appears as a mummy which has been unwrapped - desemmaillotee - and revealed in its golden-ness. End.

The real world is from the past, dead and golden.

Proust wrote A la Recherche after the death of both his parents. He shut himself up, and wrote. In this book he describes separating from his mother at the railway station, how he wept leaving her. Once arrived in Balbec, he does not mention her again, she is gone from the story and he has adapted to the new circumstances. One understands better why he went 'searching for the lost past', recreating what had been through his writing.

Have picked up a short booklet by Samuel Beckett, Proust (1931, Grove Press) who writes learnedly - to my mind obscurely at times - about Proust, Time, Memory and Habit. Proust writes about habit and Habit, two different experiences. The lower case habit is what enables us to live our lives without acknowledging the fact that we are about to die, or could die at any time - to live as if our lives extended for ever.

Some people I know often make complicated plans for the distant future. The plans may even involve other people. They appear to believe that they are in control.

At the moment of giving birth, I experienced how much the creature of biology I am, not in control of anything at all. You might say, but that was a special moment...Our genetic makeup decides a lot for us. Free will is an illusion - see Sam Harris' recent book of that name.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The home and the heart

Have finished reading James McNeish's Touchstones (Random House, 2012), all in one day.The narrative is framed by his relationship with his father - the last and best photo is of him. The other photos seem to have suffered in the printing, one of them at least is all shadows.

McNeish worries away at the notion of the 'outsider', a leitmotif in his life, as a writer, a New Zealander overseas, or a Pakeha among Maori - though there is Maori in him, too. One stretch of his life was spent removed from the rest of the country, 15 years writing from a sand-spit where he lived with his wife. Asked in a recent interview where home was, he said: "Wherever my wife is".

Writing in a remote place is also the subject of Colm Toibin's latest book of essays, New Ways to Kill your Mother, about how writers achieve the distance from home needed in order to develop their writing. In Brian Moore's case, he left his mother-country, Ireland. The end of his life was spent in an isolated spot on California's coast. Toibin writes: "Imaginatively he lost touch with Ireland and never fully grasped North America". The perils of exile, the damage.

This does not apply to McNeish, a New Zealander writing about his own people. But the same theme is in his book - the need to get away,  to meet new people in different countries, to  see oneself and one's culture in as broad a context as possible.