I just finished In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower today. Just wanted to say. It’s taken me three months and one day to read it, so it seems as though my reading of Proust is getting faster. A bit faster.
This book swung between the two poles of Gilberte and Albertine but it was the three trees, a bit more than half-way though, that made the biggest impact on me. The narrator could not recognise where those trees had come from. As he drove toward and then past them he considered variously that they were from memory, a dream, a long-ago-read novel or perhaps even a reflection from inside his own creativity and intellect: a living, solid representation of the mental effort that Swann avoided, but that the narrator knows he must embrace if he wants to write.
I read those pages on a south-bound train on the North Shore line and I had one of those experiences where the world faded out and nothing existed except the blue expanse of the words crashing into the lines crashing into the pages of the book and the different coloured sands I could see under my feet and the three solid trees in the distance, making a pattern that I knew I should recognise.
I read and reread those pages, but wanted to remember my first time, so I wrote the date into the book: July 9, 2010. All of five weeks ago.
Last weekend I saw my best friend from high school for the first time in something close to 15 years. We had lunch and hot chocolate and talked for hours, but hardly began the process of first remembering our teenage selves and then substantiating those girls we no longer are with all the experience from the years that have followed.
Afterwards I was thinking about the easy familiarity I had with this person who was my best friend as I did my teenage growing up but who wasn’t there for anything that came afterwards and is now a stranger courtesy of all these subsequent years. But how many years does it take to make a stranger? If you’ve properly known someone, will you always know them, even if you don’t anymore and even if you’ve forgotten that you do?
She remembers some of the details of my high school life that I’ve forgotten. Small stuff like that I used to tease my Dad about his grey hair. Big stuff like one particular teacher’s care for and encouragement of me. I think back on that particular teacher with such fondness, but had no idea that the feeling was mutual. I didn’t keep in touch with her and she has since died. Now that we’re grown ups, the rules are that we can’t go back. It really is too late to change the past.
But then my friend asks me about my dogs, not remembering that it was only one dog. One dog who was a major presence in my life, not least because for the first half of his life he wouldn’t make friends with any of my friends. The ground beneath me starts to tilt as I suddenly get a glimpse of the land between forgetting and remembering. It’s where I live, though I’ve never seen it before.
We can rebuild 1980s Brisbane with our memories and maybe we’d recognise it and maybe we’d call it home.
Now that I’m sitting by big glass windows, looking out from the 19th floor over northern and western Sydney, I’ve come to like rain. It darkens and lightens the air and the sky as it comes and it goes. The trees and the horizon appear and disappear and in our empty office the whole show is just for me.
The rain dances around me and I have space on a grand scale in which to think and feel.
Today, I remembered Small World Experience. I went looking for their music on the internet and I found a video. I didn’t know they had a video.
My Brisbane of the 1990s flickers out at me through the gaps in the frames of this super 8 film.
The moments between then and now don’t feel continuous for me. I went away in time and place.
It’s taken me longer to read than any book ever before – four and a half months – and I am quite embarrassed by how long that is. But maybe the explanation is in the fact that I more absorbed it than read it: paying attention to every single word and using the words to fashion pathways and torches and everything else that I needed in order to go where they went. The book is a landscape that I climbed into and I worried only once about whether or not we were going the right way.
The worry was around Swann. I was impatient with him, and his love. But time will lead us through all of its consecutive moments (so we think) and we have no way of knowing what awaits. So much is explained in the second part of the book and those details melt from the light into the shadows to suddenly loom over all the things we realise we don’t know when we get to the end. Everything we do know reflects off everything we don’t. And the book has become a darkening forest, as is the Bois de Boulogne, the Parisian park that Proust’s narrator stands in as it ends. And the past and the present dance around us just as they do him. And I am brought almost to tears on the Eastern Suburbs train platform. Not because what I’m reading is sad. Not because it’s beautiful. But because it’s true. And important. And though I’ve longed to, I’ve never managed to say it myself, or at least, not so well.
As I left the house for work this morning it had just turned midnight in Paris. This time last year and the year before and the year before and the years before, I was in Paris. I saw this midnight in Paris. Day changed to day with a night in between. My night. My midnight in Paris.
At the end of last week I found a time capsule. It was filled with books:
Everything by Scott Fitzgerald. A couple of the volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography. Literary Theory by Terry Eagleton. Books on roller skating, break dancing, being a disc jockey. Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace by Dale Spender. Harold Pinter, Joan Littlewood, Caryl Churchill, Bertolt Brecht. Autobiographies by Dorothy Hewitt and Boy George. Cyberpunk. The James Herriot novels. Backlash by Susan Faludi and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Radclyffe Hall, Anita Loos and Anaïs Nin. Lots of books on Marilyn Monroe. Mikhail Sholokhov, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemmingway. Everything (up to the mid 90s) by Jeanette Winterson and Greg Egan. Almost the entire Sesame Street Library Volumes 1–15 (just missing Volume 13). Biographies of Nico and Malcolm McLaren. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. George Orwell. Truman Capote. Gertrude Stein. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was read during the space of one afternoon while I reclined on a 1930s daybed on our front porch (or at least in my memory it is a 1930s daybed). That afternoon happened about 15 years ago.
Ok, I’ll admit something now that I didn’t when I wrote about Pavement last weekend. I cried through a lot of the middle part of their reunion gig. It’s not that unusual for me, my favourite songs often make me cry. At the time I thought it was the time travel aspect of the show, the sense they gave me of getting the last 10 years back. Ten years that were so full but that passed in a blink. Ten years that did a slow dance with my youth and then disappeared and left me standing, confused.
But it wasn’t until I was cooking last night and listening to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that I understood the implications of the time travel. During that show Pavement captured and made tangible moments from my past that I thought were gone forever. And I didn’t think that was possible. During various attempts at various diaries throughout my life I’ve tried to capture moments too, but it’s never worked. The experience was so unexpected and I was so happy. But I was also aware that they were giving me something I’m afraid I’ll never have again. Not just the 10 years, though god knows they’re important, but the sense of being able to hold moments that I thought were lost forever
even though they slipped through my fingers again as the songs ended.
I went to the Olafur Eliason exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art a few weeks ago. There was a lot there to wonder at, but the piece that fascinated me most of all was The white colour circle. I spent a long time looking at it, went away and then came back again to sit down in front of it and look some more. So many shades of white like so many shades of nothing. Or, so many shades of everything.
If time does not flow like a river, if the moments we live can be not consecutive, if they can be like the pigeon holes with the light shining on them in random order in Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late, then I see all the shades of white and almost-white as another representation of this idea.
But it also made me think about living moments concurrently. Scientifically, I’m sure this doesn’t work because our consciousness can only be in one place at one time, but what if? What if all those different shades of white were all the moments we could live at the same time? Like all the radio stations playing on the dial at once in Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck.
In each patch of white lives a moment. But is it predetermined or is it ours to do as we please with?
I experienced time travel on Thursday night. I went to see the Pavement reunion show at the Enmore Theatre and they took me right back to the 1990s. I saw them a few times in the mid-to-late 90s and was at their last-ever (to that point) concert in London in 1999.
On Thursday night suddenly I found myself back there, sitting in London’s Brixton Academy, on the brink of my life changing. These last ten years melted away and the precious years of the 2000s were all in front of me. And the band still makes incredible noise. Maybe even better than before. The sensation was bittersweet and beautiful.
My friend J came to stay a couple of weekends ago. I was telling her about an article I’d read in the 2nd–15th February edition of The Big Issue, where the author had been taking photos of decaying shop signs in his neighbourhood, prior to the buildings being demolished, and in the process had met an old lady who remembered what all the shops had been when she was a little girl. The encounter had been magic but reading the article I’d felt nothing at all, except a vague sense of impatience to get to the end. I was almost angry about the exquisite piece of writing he could have created, but didn’t. How much he could have made me think and feel, but didn’t. Though there was one sentence I loved: “It’s as if the woman is picking up pieces of a jigsaw and showing them to me”. Then J told me about a website she’d discovered that showed the work of a photographer called Sergei Larenkov, who has overlaid photos of modern-day St Petersburg with photos taken during the Siege of Leningrad. Examples can be found here and here. Astonishing. If only I could scratch away at the surface and find the living history on my own city streets.
Which brings me to a quote by William Faulkner that I found by accident yesterday: “The past isn’t dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” I haven’t had time to even start thinking about the implications of what that means, or researching the context in which he said it, so I think you’ll be hearing more about that from me later.
I read Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck last week. It was exciting to discover that a writer I love is interested in the physics of time, and has used those scientific ideas as the basis for what is such a good story. I recognised loads of the science but learnt about new things too: wave functions and entanglement. I think I need to read a book about quantum physics. (An easy book. Written for the lay person.) And she had some wonderful images/metaphors: entering a building via the past (absolute genius), and reality being like a series of radio stations all available on the dial at once – a brilliant description not just for alternate realities but, to expand further in a direction that interests me, for the all the different moments of our lives. I’m going to read this book again.
And to end on a scientific note, I read yesterday that the the Chilean earthquake from last weekend has shortened Earth’s days. As did the 2004 Sumatra earthquake. Time is going faster. What does that mean?