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.
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.