Well, the holidays are over and I’m finding myself using sentences like “I blinked and they’re gone,” that kind of thing. Even though I had a super nice time and I definitely feel rested, I still found myself baffled by the speed at which the days flew by.
I’m pretty sure I’ve activated the ‘Vacation Theory’, developed by author Claudia Hammond, who posits that you can have a subjective experience of time whizzing by while you’re having an enjoyable experience (time flies when you’re having fun) but that later, as you look back on the experience, it will seem like it lasted longer than it really did.
So, I will look back on my holiday fondly, remembering it with a soft reverence, even though I didn’t really go anywhere far from home and I didn’t read anywhere near as much as I planned to.
These holidays, I set out to read Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s famous – and incredibly long – novel In Search of Lost Time. Published in seven volumes, the entire novel is 3,000 pages long and will take the average punter about 45 hours to read.
To whet my appetite, I read the fantastic book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. This is a perfect introduction. It leads us gently and with humour into Proust’s world. This means that, instead of getting frustrated by the length, depth and breadth of Proust’s writing on our first attempt, potentially tossing the book aside for a faster, more dramatic novel, we know what motivated him and his writing, consequently give him more of our time and our patience.
Reading Proust is a sweet experience. And what I love about it is that it slows down time.
Walking hand in hand with the man who ventures to talk about his experience of insomnia, his fears in childhood and his descriptions of people is undoubtedly pleasant. It transports me to the early 20th century in France and, in that sense, even though I said above that I didn’t go far from home these holidays, it did create a nice sojourn for me in Combray, the fictional town where Proust’s character spent the summers of his childhood.
Proust is a master of description, using a stream-of-consciousness style to explore the very experience of being alive in the moment, and the connection of the moment to memory.
Here’s a little taster of one of the most famous passages from Swann’s Way, where Proust dips a little cake – a madeleine – into a cup of tea, igniting a childhood memory:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
For me, the reading experience of this passage created an imaginative explosion – a delight in the way that he had described the mental process, the physical sensation and the emotional connection of such a small moment and his memory, including the way he retrieved it. The universality of it is gorgeous. The distance of time between him and me was abolished by the shared experience of taste evoking memory. Now I am more than happy to continue reading with him, to go to the Combray of his childhood, learning to love and appreciate those around him as he does, through the lens of a kind and perceptive mind, perpetually in awe of him.
Here’s what Edith Wharton said of his work:
"Every reader enamoured of the art must brood in amazement over the way in which Proust maintains the balance between these two manners – the broad and the minute.”
I’ve not finished the book yet; in fact, I’m not even halfway through. While I’m determined to finish Swann’s Way, I’m not sure if I’ll read all seven volumes or just this one. But I’m grateful for what he has taught me so far about how to perceive a moment and capture it in words.
I will look back fondly on my holiday break. In retrospect, the days may seem longer and slower than they actually were. And it's also very possible that my feeling of being rested and calm will get lost in the stresses that so gradually – and sneakily – build back up again as we get stuck into a new year and the projects start to pile up around us.
Perhaps that’s a reason to keep reading Proust, to remind me of the precious nature of time and to experience the moments, fleeting as they are, as deeply as we want them to be.
Best wishes for 2023 dear readers, I look forward to continuing to pass some time with you.
Ps. If you’re curious about the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, here’s a lovely recipe that pays homage to Proust.