Posted on:Monday 18th May, 2020
Living under lockdown because of COVID-19 my daily exercise has been taking the form of a brisk walk around some rather featureless former playing fields next to the River Crane in London, which now functions more like a storm drain than a free-flowing natural stream. These daily constitutionals inevitably conjure up images of other less constrained and socially distanced walks in the past. Marcel Proust concludes the first part of his great novel In Search of Lost Time with an account of a walk in a rather different and much larger park, albeit one that I have visited, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris…
It says something about the modernism and structural complexity of Proust’s writing that he chooses to punctuate the story of Swann’s obsessive love for the courtesan Odette de Crécy with an account of the significance of the Bois de Boulogne to the book’s narrator. In a passage of great beauty the narrator recalls visits to the park in his childhood, contrasting it with a visit made recently as an adult in an effort to recover memories of the former. A walk in the park serves as a means by which Proust explores further his thoughts about memory and the recovery of lost time.
The passage includes a notably decadent theme, the artificiality of the park, a carefully contrived collection of different trees and shrubs, temples and follies (including a windmill). When visited by the adult narrator in late autumn this quite unnatural subdivision of the park into different areas becomes obvious, where in mid-summer it might have been lost in the dense green continuity of the vegetation. This separate, divided and artificial quality is referred to several times in the pages that follow, as if to emphasise the adult narrator’s view of it as tawdry and fake, a composite imitation of nature. At this season the sun’s light, low in the sky, lights up the treetops as though they are ablaze with flames or artificial light, reinforcing these impressions. The adult narrator realises that the park has always been this way. This is a landscape crafted by humans for social purposes, namely for the outings of ‘fair walkers’, and the narrator hastens to the Allée des Acacias and the other spots where these ‘masterpieces of human elegance’ used to be seen.
Sadly this elegantly contrived stage is no longer the same as it was. It is not just the season, or the fact that the style of the dresses is no longer to the narrator’s taste, nor that the men who used to wear ‘toppers’ now go bare-headed, or the fact that carriages have now been replaced by motor-cars. As a child the narrator had come to the park hoping to glimpse Mme Swann (the former Odette de Crécy) in a splendid dress and hat, to him an image of glamour and female perfection, and it is this child’s sense of fascination and wonder that has now gone. Having already compared the park then with a classical arcadia, the narrator describes the feeling he has about it now as being like ‘the death of the gods’. The aging narrator’s fetishism of the past, and his contempt for the present, is the result of his own changing perspective on the world. It is the unbroken wholeness of the past that he seeks to recover by revisiting the Bois de Boulogne, but this is asking for the impossible.
Proust has already cleverly insinuated a few pages earlier that Mme Swann was continuing in those days, and despite her marriage, to court the attention of potential lovers, and to step out with them on walks in the Bois de Boulogne, whilst the carriages lingered behind. Through the innocent eyes of the child, who sees only this glamorous woman, we are given to understand that Odette is displaying the meretricious charms of a high-class courtesan, complete with a range of expressions designed for her current admirers, sometime lovers, and would-be detractors. To the reader she is clearly a high-class courtesan plying her unsubtle trade. The child’s vision was always an illusion, based on a misunderstanding of the adult world. Now, in later years, reality has intruded into the artificial landscape of the Bois de Boulogne (starting with what must be one of the shortest sentences in Proust’s masterpiece!):
‘The sun had gone. Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey, the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood…’
The adult narrator’s visit to the park has been a disillusioning experience. How paradoxical it is, he thinks, ‘to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory’. Indeed, in the absence of Mme Swann as she used to be, dressed in all her rich finery, the whole place has been altered:
‘The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; the houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.’
For me, passages of this kind demonstrate the delightful pleasures to be experienced in reading Proust. Amongst other things he is engaged in an extended philosophical meditation on the effects of time and memory on our sense of place. The Bois de Boulogne is altered by the viewpoint we bring to it. It is literally not the same place that once witnessed the glamorous displays of Mme Swann’s feminine charms. For human beings, Proust suggests, the idea we have of a place, the images we hold of it in our memory, are far more important to us than the place itself, which we are liable to find utterly changed in our perception, even when its physical features and characteristics remain much the same.
As Proust puts it succinctly: ’The reality that I had known no longer existed’.
19 May 2020
Painting: The path in the Bois de Boulogne (1902) by Henri Matisse