Bookstores and Lovers

It’s always exciting to read about a bookstore opening, rather than closing, though in the case of Albertine, the new bookstore hopes to revive the interest in things French formerly the purview of the now defunct Librairie de France.

The bookstore is named after Albertine, an important character in Proust’s famous novel Remembrance of Things Past; or now the newer and more literal translation: In Search of Lost Time.

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I haven’t reread the novel in a very long time, and I’ve forgotten large chunks of it, but the ending of the book has always stayed with me. The last volume in the new translation is called “Time Found Again,” and in it the narrator encounters many figures from his past life, some transformed beyond recognition. I recently had something of a “Proustian” experience, at least in the probably scrambled recollection I have of what I read: seeing, recalling, even retrieving the irretrievable,  and in that flash, recapturing time.

Every memoirist is in some way indebted to Proust’s “recherche” as we desperately try to recapture an elusive past, often shaped by love affairs. When I went back to the novel to check my memory against the text, another sentence jumped out at me. The narrator reflects on the prospective readers of the book he is writing: “For it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers―it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.” That’s the dream–and the gamble.

Proust describes the ravages of age that befall us. Despite his shock at the physical transformations produced by aging, when he enters the drawing room of people he once knew, the narrator finds solace in the sudden ability to recapture emotions and scenes he thought lost to him, and to transmit that astonishing revelation to readers.

Last month, I arranged to have coffee with my college boyfriend, who plays a small but key role in my narrative. When I was first thinking about writing the memoir that became Breathless, I asked  permission to quote from his letters (some fifty years later). He said yes, gracefully, without reservation, but once I published the book, I began to worry about how  he would feel when he read the book (if he were to read it, which of course he hadn’t). We arranged to meet for coffee. I gave him a copy of the book.

We hadn’t seen each other for fifteen years, and before that only briefly when we remet unexpectedly as colleagues, and then sporadically. Despite the injuries with which time had marked our faces, I felt that I still knew the person across from me as he lived in the pages of the book now resting on the table–between us. What I couldn’t know was whether he would recognize that self in my story.

Three’s a charm

Complaining is my default mode, so I thought I’d challenge myself to comment on something unreservedly good on offer this fall season: thrilling books by women writers.

The trilogy by Jane Gardam, starting with Old Filth. Don’t be put off by the title.  Filth is the acronym that sums up the barrister and judge protagonist’s biography: Failed in London Try Hong Kong.
The trilogy―The Neapolitan Novels–by Elena Ferrante, starting with My Brilliant Friend. There are rumors of a fourth volume.
The third volume of Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy, Lila.
The first volume of a projected trilogy by Jane Smiley, Some Luck.

I have no idea why trilogies should be forthcoming from British, Italian, and American women writers this season―though most of the novels have been out and reviewed in the last few years (where have I been? immersed in memoir) and I haven’t caught up with all of them. But the Ferrante (pseudonym―her identity is something of a mystery, at least here) and the Gardam are ravishing. I mean: I was ravished, unable to stop reading, hopeful that the trend is contagious.

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October 9, 2014
11th anniversary of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Sad that she’s missed all these books. An ardent Anglophile, she would especially have loved Jane Gardam’s portrait of aging and England. The painting on the cover of Carolyn’s book is by Vanessa Bell, a painter she much admired. It’s called “The Conversation.” The women are talking to each other, wrapped in intimacy, and there are three of them.