Imagine a collage, an assemblage of the entire output of august artists, especially those of fin-de-siecle France, those one-time upstarts and latter-day establishment pillars we have since learned to label “Impressionist”. Imagine too this vast canvas repeated in multiple shades, so that not only does it present to the eye a vast, near limitless, expanse of colour, of detail, of form, of fine ladies in finer drapery, of gardens replete with blooms of every season, of carriage-jammed Paris streets shining through murky wet evenings, of multi-coloured lilies afloat on a surface of quiet lakes or stilled streams of rural France, of dancing girls performing their ballet or rehearsing their slender limbs in outline at the bar, but also it revisits every view from multiple angles in different colours, at different times, from different perspectives with different impressions. We seem to see the same things repeat, repeatedly, but always different, always changed, always vivid. And imagine this presented not only in the bright colours of the original, but also the imposed hues of vividly recalled memory that knows every scene, but cannot fix exact date, time or form, so that they re-form truly solid, living structures reconstructed from what the original eyes only partially recorded. And then close those eyes, so that the images can be drawn from their memories, those indelibly, but perhaps inaccurately filed images that we have collected inadvertently by virtue of the unfinished act of living. And then we share that experience.
And then, in the words of the author, himself, so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
But the imperative is that we must try. We have but one chance shot at this moving target we call ‘life’ and our aim is, by its very nature, wayward. We remain forever unsure of the boundary between what we remember and what we imagine, especially when one merges into the other in that uncontrolled manner, that imposed confusion of blurred edge that inevitably results when we attempt to focus on a passing image and have only a memory of its momentary impression on the mind to recall whatever detail it shed.
And the result? The result is a passing stream, an ever-changing, forever variable vista that always comprises the same view, the same solid objects that once, or perhaps still, peopled its banks. And, from the distance of time, who can ever be sure what we felt? Who can be sure of motive, of consequence, of intention or stratagem? Who can testify that those remembered words were spoken in love, hate, respect, derision, criticism, praise or merely to pass the time we now realise we never had? It is irony that perhaps lasts longest, as in an invitation to dine with an acquaintance of the family, M. Legrandin?
Only the day before he had asked my parents to send me to dine with him on this same Sunday evening. “Come and bear your aged friend company,” he had said to me. “Like the nosegay which a traveller sends us from some land to which we shall never go again, come and let me breathe from the far country of your adolescence the scent of those flowers of spring among which I also used to wander, many years ago. Come with the primrose, with the canon’s beard, with the gold-cup; come with the stone-crop, whereof are posies made, pledges of love, in the Balzacian flora, come with that flower of the Resurrection morning, the Easter daisy, come with the snowballs of the guelder-rose, which begin to embalm with their fragrance the alleys of your great-aunt’s garden ere the last snows of Lent are melted from its soil. Come with the glorious silken raiment of the lily, apparel fit for Solomon, and with the many-coloured enamel of the pansies, but come, above all, with the spring breeze, still cooled by the last frosts of wirier, wafting apart, for the two butterflies’ sake, that have waited outside all morning, the closed portals of the first Jerusalem rose.”
The question was raised at home whether, all things considered, I ought still to be sent to dine with M. Legrandin.
Irony, then, leaves its mark, but not as deep as the scars left by the cuts of young love, obsession or jealousy. In a vast, detailed and probably reconstructed memory of M. Swann’s relationship with Odette, a woman he initially likens to an image from a Botticelli painting in the Sistine chapel, we share the heart-racing exhilaration of a man becoming obsessed with the sensual beauty of a desirable and available woman, we euphemistically accompany him in adjusting the flowers that decorate her bodice and then we suffer the gnawing, destroying doubts about her motives that grow out of an all-embracing, near-destroying jealousy.
There is, of course, much socialising. It would not be far from the truth to observe that these people spend more time worrying about whom to include and whom to specifically and justifiably exclude from a guest list than they do at work, in their beds or on the road. And the decisions are usually based on class, that universal categorising and branding of quality that seems to suffuse and smother human society in whatever age and every place, the very quality that revolutions might occasionally but unsuccessfully seek to eradicate. And what happens at these gatherings remains primarily social, whatever the focus of the soiree.
If the pianist suggested playing the Ride of the Valkyries, or the Prelude to Tristan, Mme. Verdurin would protest, not that the music was displeasing to her, but, on the contrary, that it made too violent an impression. “Then you want me to have one of my headaches? You know quite well, it’s the same every time he plays that. I know what I’m in for. Tomorrow, when I want to get up – nothing doing!” If he was not going to play they talked, and one of the friends – usually the painter who was in favour there that year – would “spin,” as M. Verdurin put it, “a damned funny yarn that made ’em all split with laughter,” and especially Mme. Verdurin, for whom so strong was her habit of taking literally the figurative accounts of her emotions – Dr. Cottard, who was then just starting in general practice, would “really have to come one day and set her jaw, which she had dislocated with laughing too much.
And this is a place and time where no-one lives life by halves, where no person is ever truly reticent in expressing emotion, even when that which is quite sincerely expressed may, at some later date, convey at least the partial sensation of over-statement. She had been taught in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long-necked, sinuous creatures, the phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking their ultimate resting-place somewhere beyond and far wide of the direction in which they started, the point which one might have expected them to reach, phrases which divert themselves in those fantastic bypaths only to return more deliberately with a more premeditated reaction, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl which, if you strike it, will ring and throb until you cry aloud in anguish to clutch at one’s heart.
Viewing this vast, sewn together patchwork of art, this mixture of people thrown together by time and the filter of memory, may at times feel like making an ocean journey by small boat, rigged with too scant a sail, a boat that, often becalmed, seems to drift. The real trick, undoubtedly, is to relax and go with the flow. That’s life, it seems.