Anne Landsman on resisting, envying, and finally embracing the man in the cork-lined room
I bought the definite Pléiade edition of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu twenty years ago to take to a midwinter artist’s residency, thinking I’d read when done writing, and write when done reading, burning through all three volumes during the month-long stay. I was also going to write a play. Needless to say, I accomplished neither. I wrote a story in a voice I’d never heard and I read the first fifty-one pages of Proust, stopping dead after Marcel dipped his madeleine into his tea. It was a snowy winter and I ventured outside in the late afternoons, learning how to cross-country ski and making my first snowman: a pregnant snow woman, with a small snow dog at her feet. Growing up in South Africa, the only “snow” I’d encountered was powdered sugar, sifting out of a box with a picture of the Alps on the front.
That first incursion into reading Remembrance of Things Past was full of frustration. Years earlier, I’d seen the French film "Céleste," about Céleste Albaret, Proust’s companion, friend, cook, and secretary during the last nine years of his life, when he was writing his enormous novel. I was both thrilled and appalled by his circumscribed existence: asleep until four, up for tea and milk, then writing all night propped up on pillows. When I read the book’s opening pages, I had that cork-lined room in mind, with the sounds of ticking clocks and creaking floorboards, and Céleste’s ubiquitous presence. I knew then—I still know—that was not the kind of writer I would be. My interest in his opus came to a guilty stop; I lost my bearings in his endless sentences, remembering that claustrophobic room and Proust’s isolation. I hated—still hate—being alone. Embedded in Proust’s life and work were my own fears, as well as my most desperate hopes. That winter, struggling to stay inside to write and to read, and not spend every minute outside in the snow, I began the first of many conversations with him. I envied the pillows that propped him up; I hated the pillows that propped him up. I wanted Céleste; I would have hated Céleste. I wanted the cork and the milky tea; I would have torn the cork off the walls and thrown the tea on the ground.
“Anne has ants in her pants,” my father said to my mother when I was a little girl, as if I wasn’t in the room. I’ve always been happier running than walking. I’ve loved the learning to stand on my head, ride a horse, hike mountains, give birth. Unlike Proust, I’ve experienced the joys and struggles of being a parent and a spouse. But stories hold me in thrall, and I’ve skipped many a subway stop engrossed in a good book. And yes, when I finally exhaust myself enough to sit down and write, and the writing goes well, the deepest part of me is fed.
The three volumes came back to New York City. They moved with me, unread, from Fort Greene to Soho to Noho to the Upper West Side, mute witnesses to a marriage proposal, the birth of two babies, the death of my parents, the publication of two books, several renovations, two dogs. I never stopped talking to Proust. Sometimes I couldn’t help railing at him while I tended to a sick child in the middle of the night, walked a recalcitrant dog in the rain, scheduled doctors’ appointments and dinner dates with friends. Proust stayed in bed, writing, while I seethed, stewed, and, yes, often rejoiced at my “delicious burdens.” I might have accused him of being sexist, agoraphobic, spoiled rotten. But I envied his focus, imagining all the pages fluttering to the floor from his bed. He seemed the epitome of male prerogative and privilege: the world turning around the small movements of his hand on the page. He’d become a trope for the writer I wouldn’t be.
Last fall, I gave up the fight and joined the Proust reading group at the Center for Fiction, led by the learned and immaculate Stanton Burnett. Buoyed by camaraderie and finite reading requirements, I began. Twenty years after our first encounter, I was able to hear Marcel as he waited for his mother’s kiss, as he struggled with terrible insomnia, with his grief at his grandmother’s death, with his obsessive loves and compulsions.
His reflections on memory, optics, music and painting (among many other things) awed me, though I lost patience from time to time, falling asleep holding the book in my hands. Proust’s wicked humor and humanity drew me back in. I heard his asthmatic wheezing in those long, breathless sentences and felt his loneliness in those densely packed pages. The final meeting of the group was July 6th. Four seasons had passed, and, as Stan promised, the last book, Time Regained, brought everything to a revelatory close—the pay-off to beat all pay-offs.
Marcel and I still talk, but I’m no longer mad at his self-absorption. I no longer want to pull the pillows out from under him, toss him out of bed. The three unread monsters on my bookshelf have become friends, and now and again, I fix on a sentence I underlined, and the cork-lined room melts away, and all of Paris—and life itself—is there.
A slightly different version of this piece first appeared in PEN America 14: The Good Books
Anne Landsman is the author of the novels The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s Chimney. The Rowing Lesson was awarded South Africa’s two top literary awards—the 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and South Africa’s 2009 M-Net Literary Award for English fiction—and was shortlisted for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. Award nominations for The Devil’s Chimney include the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. She has contributed essays to the anthologies Touch, An Uncertain Inheritance, and The Honeymoon’s Over, and has written for numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. Born in South Africa, she lives in New York City with her husband and two children.