Dave Robbins: How the memory of Marcel brought me back to my student days . . .
About this time 100 years ago, an asthmatic homosexual lay in bed in a cork-lined room at No 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, correcting the proofs of what would become one of the most famous – least read – books of all time.
The writer was Marcel Proust. The cork lining was to keep out noise from the street. The book was Swann's Way, the first of seven volumes that comprise In Search of Lost Time.
The book – like Joyce's Ulysses – nearly didn't get published. It was passed between publishing houses and refused by all.
Eventually, Bernard Grasset took it on, and wished he hadn't. Proust was the kind of writer who can't let go; he revised his novel on the proofs, sometimes attaching lengthy rewrites. And I mean lengthy: one amendment measured two metres.
Eventually, in November 1913, 1,750 copies of Du Côté de Chez Swann were published, with Proust contributing 1,000 francs to the cost. Grasset described it as "unreadable" and Proust's brother said it was so long that you needed to be very ill to have the time to read it.
Yet, it was an immediate hit. Proust kept working on other volumes of the novel until his death in 1922.
Fast forward 70 years to 1983, and a stout undergraduate attends his first lecture in French literature at UCD's campus in Belfield. The lecture theatre is full, perhaps 300 students attending. You could smoke in lectures then. Some students, trying to appear cool, light up and blow smoke upwards, so that it hangs in drifts near the ceiling.
The lecturer speaks in French and is talking about the man in the cork-lined room. In the spring of 1922, the lecturer is saying, Proust greeted his housekeeper Celéste Albaret with the words: "Ah, dear Celéste, I have great news to tell you, something enormous. I wrote the word 'end'. Now I can die."
A few days later, my tutor Johnnie Grattan (now professor of French at Trinity), says we must read this, the "least read" book in French literature. Worse, we must write an essay on it. Then, as now, no one read Proust. They alluded to him. They were so familiar with his themes they could convince themselves they had actually read the books.
His name became shorthand for endless descriptions and multiple characters, for forensic descriptions of society events. Proustian came to mean detailed and encyclopaedic. No one read the words. Life was too short.
But we did. In French, some of us, the swotty ones. In translation, most of us, though we were careful to bring the French editions to our tutorials. And the effort was repaid many times.
Proust, like Joyce, wanted to give a portrait of an entire society. Proust went for breadth – his book covers decades and introduces hundreds of characters. Joyce went for depth: just one day in the life of a city.
Both were hailed as masterpieces of Modernism. In truth, Joyce seems much more modern; Proust still has the dust of 19th-Century writers such as Balzac on his boots.
As I struggled through Proust's work – there are so many characters and his sentences are long and complex and unfold like a concertina – I was hooked.
I was fascinated by his take on memory. In Proust, you see characters over time and from many angles. The book is so long that your own memory of the characters comes into play. Then there is the central moment, when the narrator tastes a Madeleine cake, and the memories of his life in Combray come flooding back. This subject – "involuntary memory" – has always interested me, and it's something I have tried to write about here and elsewhere.
The power of memory, the place where memory turns to nostalgia – all these are fascinating subjects.
Now, of course, my memories of Proust are caught up with that time in 1983 when I was a young student, a piece of human blotting paper ready to absorb whatever university life threw at me.
And the mark Prof Grattan gave me for that essay? You know, for the life of me I can't remember.