We strive all the time to give our life its form, but we do so by copying willy-nilly, like a drawing, the features of the person that we are and not of the person we should like to be — Proust
Time Regained (Raul Ruiz, 1999)
Dear friends and readers,
On and off I have been trying to finish or read books Jim was in the midst of still in his last year of life, e.g., Steadman’s Labours Lost and remembering other books and movies we enjoyed together.. During the 1970s Jim and I read the Palliser novels together — after together watching the Palliser series on PBS. I’d finish a volume and give it to him, and he’d read it, and then we’d go on to the next until we’d reach the end of The Duke’s Children.
So, for the sake of the reference to Trollope (a rare English novelist Jim did read):
How to Catch Aunt Harriette
Mary Cassatt has her in a striped dress with a
child on her lap, the child’s foot in a wash basin.
Or Charlotte Mew speaks in her voice of the feeling
that comes at evening with home-cawing rooks.
Or Aunt Harriette sometimes makes an ineffable
gesture between the lines of Trollope.
In Indianapolis, together we rode the belching city bus to
high school. It was my first year, she was a senior. We were
nauseated every day by the fumes, by the unbearable
streets. Aunt Harriette was the last issue of my
Victorian grandparents. Once after school she
invited me to go with her to Verner’s.
What was Verner’s? I didn’t ask and Aunt Harriette didn’t say.
We walked three miles down manicured Meridian.
My heels rubbed to soft blisters. Entering an empty
wood-echoing room fronting the sidewalk,
we sat at a plain plank table and Aunt Harriette
ordered two glasses of iced ginger ale.
The varnish of light on Aunt Harriette
had the quality of a small eighteenth-century
Dutch painting. My tongue with all its buds intact
slipped in the amber sting. It was my first hint
of the connoisseur, an induction rarely repeated;
yet so bizarre, so beyond me,
that I planned my entire life from its indications.
– Ruth Stone
It’s not often one finds a reference to Trollope in recent women’s poetry. It’s also filled — replete — with allusions to older high art, the sort of images and stories one finds in women’s art (Mary Cassatt) and moves out to larger issues (Charlotte Mew’s poetry is about WW1), and evokes the Victorian novel through Aunt Harriette and exquisite 18th century and Dutch paintings by the place the aunt takes the niece to for iced ginger ale.
Alice Vavasour (Caroline Mortimer) in the window-seat of Matching Priory (Pallisers 2:3, scripted Simon Raven)
In the last two years of Jim’s life he had a copy of The Captive still on his TBR pile on his table in the front room. He did read, preferred the modern French novelists (e.g., Life: A User’s Manual). Myself I’ve read up to about 3/4s of the second volume but never managed to get any further. I’ve tried a couple of times but get bogged down in that budding grove. It’s too lush, too coy. I wanted to read Rose thinking she would get me into Proust again primarily because Jim read well into the 5th volume (way past Sodom and Gomorrah and up to The Captive). All in English where I actually did read Volume 1 in the French (occasionally using the English as a crib) and Roger Shattuck’s little book on the whole. He went slowly, savoring passages as he went.
So I thought I’d cheat; I’d read Phyllis’s Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust. But where Stone succeeds, Rose fails. With the best will in the world to read Rose’s supposed recreation (I thought) of her experience of Proust as part-confessional, part-autobiography (in the mode of Richard Holmes’s Footsteps, Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel), I cannot. I surfeited quickly with the outpouring of the details of her TV watching. I have given up. There is entirely too much Rose and too little Proust. It’s as if the balance that Mead had kept up has been overturned. Gorra is all James; Mead is 25% pretend Mead and 75% Eliot, but Rose is 90% Rose and 10% Proust.
So she is no substitute, no help in understanding either. I shall have to read Proust to read Proust. I’ll have to be content to aim at Volume 3 (The Guermantes Way) in English eventually, maybe read Pinter’s great screenplay, La Recherche du temps perdu: A Proust Screenplay. And then maybe buy or rent Ruiz’s Le Temps Retrouvé
Jim’s last favorite movie was Time Regained. He had a copy on his laptop and on the long train trips we’d take places he would watch it. It’s been wiped out now as a friend made efforts to retrieve other things from his computer and now the ipad has been re-geared to be mine. In the 1970s he and I did see the movie Un amour de Swan and agreed we didn’t didn’t care for it that much as what it did was rip out just the (powerful) sequence of Swann enthralled by Odette, omitting the little boy before and after. And the narrator — the whole point and Jeremy Irons had been so good as narrator in Brideshead Revisited (in fact making that picture the great experience it still is — Jim and I sat through it together twice).
Rose really is too much like Cornelia Otis Skinner. Her self-deprecating joke against her self boomerangs. As I recall I thought her 5 Victorian marriages overrated and that Jim would never have gone near it.
What used to make life,