I have to admit I did not finish it in one go. I got as far as The Cities of the Plain, about four inches through the six-inch-fat hike that was the Penguin edition (currently out of print), before having to take a flight home. It was not until a wet holiday in Wales some years later that I slogged through the finishing tape. By which time I was ready to start at the beginning again. And it was not until some years after that that I kept a long-cherished promise to myself: to retrace Proust's footsteps in the beautiful landscape of Combray, the fictional name he gave to Illiers, a little town some 40 miles south-west of Chartres.
First impressions are bathetic. A few dismal grey streets huddle on a scarcely perceptible hump in a very flat plain. The only distinguishing feature is a steeple like a cocked mitre, which due to the flatness of the surrounding land, follows you for miles around. But give it time. Both town and landscape have charms that steal over you slowly, like the rhythm of Proust's sentences themselves. There is the house off the main square where the young Marcel, the novel's narrator, stayed with his Tante Leonie, a fictional amalgam of Proust's maternal grandmother and aunt. It is a handsome bourgeois villa with blue shutters, pantiled roof, and a courtyard garden where Proust sat under a chesnut tree and read. Inside there is an atmosphere of meticulous Edwardian gloom: a dining-room full of clocks; a kitchen festooned with copper pots and barometers; a bedroom with flowered wallpaper and a very high bed by the window from which Tante Leonie spent her last years staring out at the activities of Combray/Illiers.
She is the perfect metaphor for Proust himself, who at 34 succumbed to the neurasthenie that had afflicted him from childhood and spent the rest of his life mining his memories in a cork-lined room in Paris. Beyond the village and following the walk described in Volume 1, Du cote de chez Swann, you cross the little Vivonne, with its shaded green currents and mossy rocks, and come out into a park lined with hawthorn hedges. Brown and tattered in late summer, they do not look like a fitting subject for 30 pages of incandescent prose. But at the Societe des Amis de Marcel Proust, they assure me that in early May, when they have reading weekends here, it's heavenly.
A wander across high fields - the Illiers steeple bobbing along beside you - brings you out at the village of Ste-Eman. It is midday and the heat has descended like a guillotine. There is a rattle of plates from within, an inviting scent of bifteck. A dog scratches its ear in a doorway. A man sits on a step smoking. Pottering along with a copy of A la recherche in hand, and pausing now and again to turn a few pages, you experience the pleasure of watching genius at work, transforming the quotidian, the discarded, the mundane, into a landscape of glory. As Proust put it, it is a lesson in the redemptive powers of the imagination.
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