the past is dead, long live the past

“It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.” Proust, The Way by Swann’s, Penguin, 2003: p47.

I read this one afternoon almost two weeks ago. I’d been with my parents that morning looking for the flat in Newtown they’d spent a few months living in 40 years ago. We found the street easily enough but they struggled to identify where the block of flats was. We narrowed it down by a process of elimination (the flats were new when my parents moved in and the building they’re located in is the only one on the street from that era. Everything else was either much older or brand new). But the building itself brought no sparks of memory. My mother eventually confirmed that it was definitely the right place because she recognised the clothes lines in the backyard, from which a couple of my father’s shirts had been stolen. Shirts my grandmother had sent him from London.

Ten years after this experience my parents were back in Sydney, this time with me. We spent a few months in a flat in Burwood. Two days after our Newtown expedition we went to find that Burwood flat. My father identified the house it was in straight away. I hardly remembered it. I knew it must be the right place though, because of the park across the road, the park where K and I used to swing on the swings and then jump off from as high as we could. The park today has elements of a new playground and elements of an old playground. The new playground has soft material underfoot, so that when children fall the ground will be kind. The old playground consists of an ageing swingset and it has concrete underfoot, as did all my beloved play areas from my childhood. But are those old swings old enough? I don’t think so. I remember K and I swinging together, right next to each other. And these swings are in a circle, if they’re the same ones we would have been swinging across from each other. But I can’t say for sure.

I don’t remember the house from the outside but I have impressions of what it was like to be inside. We had an upstairs flat and K and I had the run of the building. I remember the time there was a storm and lightning came in the window on the upstairs landing and K and I screamed. Or was it just me? I remember the metal slinky going slowly down the stairs to the ground floor. I don’t think it was mine, it was K’s. I think I’d had one and somehow it had broken and I was so envious of hers at that moment. I remember the man who liked sherry who had to go away one Saturday morning. Was his flat across from ours? My dad was helping him in some way but I wasn’t allowed to go in.

Proust’s memories of his childhood in Combray existed only around the trauma of his bedtimes, every other moment was contained in a past that he thought was dead to him. Until he ate the madeleine, and then almost like a stage set all the lights came on and each room in that house lit up and made itself known to him and then it wasn’t just the house blazing with light but the street outside and then the whole town.

We continue to wait for our own dead past to rise again from our memories. In the meantime I content myself with reading Proust as if it were a commentary on my own life.

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