On this day in 1871, Marcel Proust, arguably the greatest novelist in…..ever…. was born in France. A.S. Byatt, one of my personal heroes, calls him “the novelist she loves most”. Jim Harrison lists his massive work In Search of Lost Time just second to Dostoevsky’s The Possessed in his list of favorites. The great V. Woolf was stunned by his talent. “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence,” she said. I could go on and on.
Confined to his bed in a cork-lined room due to vicious asthma attacks, separated from his beloved society, Proust wrote about the life he couldn’t totally experience. Wrote about it with heady, engrossing detail. More than any other author that I know of, he didn’t simply show you his world, he gave it to you whole, plunged you right down in, mad you feel it. And so, in honor of his birthday, one of my favorite bits from Swann’s Way.
It was the steeple of Saint-Hilaire which shaped and crowned and consecrated every occupation, every hour of the day, every point of view in the town. From my bedroom window I could discern no more than its base, which had been freshly covered with slates; but when on Sundays I saw these, in the hot light of a summer morning, blaze like a black sun I would say to myself: “Good heavens! nine o’clock! I must get ready for mass at once if I am to have time to go in and kiss aunt Léonie first,” and I would know exactly what was the colour of the sunlight upon the Square, I could feel the heat and dust of the market, the shade behind the blinds of the shop into which Mamma would perhaps go on her way to mass, penetrating its odour of unbleached calico, to purchase a handkerchief or something, of which the draper himself would let her see what he had, bowing from the waist: who, having made everything ready for shutting up, had just gone into the back shop to put on his Sunday coat and to wash his hands, which it was his habit, every few minutes and even on the saddest occasions, to rub one against the other with an air of enterprise, cunning, and success.
And again, after mass, when we looked in to tell Théodore to bring a larger loaf than usual because our cousins had taken advantage of the fine weather to come over from Thiberzy for luncheon, we had in front of us the steeple, which, baked and brown itself like a larger loaf still of ‘holy bread,’ with flakes and sticky drops on it of sunlight, pricked its sharp point into the blue sky. And in the evening, as I came in from my walk and thought of the approaching moment when I must say good night to my mother and see her no more, the steeple was by contrast so kindly, there at the close of day, that I would imagine it as being laid, like a brown velvet cushion, against — as being thrust into the pallid sky which had yielded beneath its pressure, had sunk slightly so as to make room for it, and had correspondingly risen on either side; while the cries of the birds wheeling to and fro about it seemed to intensify its silence, to elongate its spire still further, and to invest it with some quality beyond the power of words.