One day while browsing audio books on Audible, I found a recording of The Captive, the fifth, and my favorite, book of Marcel Proust's very long novel Remembrance of Things Past. I checked to see if it was abridged—it wasn't. Good. I listened to a sample of the reader, Neville Jason, who is English, which is perfect. Reading Scott Moncrieff's translation with an American accent will never do. I bought the thing, watched my smartphone transform the information in the air into a file I could listen to, and soon began walking around inside Proust's novel while simultaneously walking around South Seattle. Words in most of the books I listen to leave me as soon as I hear them, but the ones in this recording attached themselves to buildings, street corners, and the leaves of trees. Parts of Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Leschi, and the Central District are now haunted by the clouds of words from my Proustian walks. Clearly something magical happened between the spoken poetry of the French novelist and the city I daily make my way in.
Dog Park Tree
This tree is in Genesee Park’s off-leash area. The dogs here run about in circles, sniff each other, pee on the mud, and occasionally burst into barks and fights. When I passed the park one sunny but cold morning, I heard Baron Charlus, one of the greatest inventions in all of literature and one of The Captive's main characters, being denounced by his young lover, Morel, a violinist. It happens at a party; the baron never sees it coming. The rejection hits him with fatal force, and he’s “dumb, stupefied, measuring the depths of his misery without understanding its cause, finding not a word to utter, raising his eyes to stare at each of the company in turn, with a questioning, outraged, suppliant air, which seemed to be asking them not so much what had happened as what answer he ought to make.” For a reason that’s just beyond my understanding, it was a pleasure to listen to this passage while watching dogs being dogs.
The Captive is about Marcel’s obsession with Albertine, his girlfriend. He believes she is not faithful to him. He suspects she really likes women more than men. He thinks there are desires in her that he will never find and expose. One of the most beautiful moments of madness in the book now floats over these benches and the waters of Lake Washington. It’s the moment when Marcel says that even with Albertine’s body on his lap or in his arms, her interiority is still elusive, inaccessible, out of his grasp. Holding her is like “handling a stone which encloses the salt of immemorial oceans or the light of a star.” He is “touching no more than the sealed envelope of a person who inwardly reached to infinity.”
I very well know that this is the sidewalk next to Beacon Avenue, but I call it Beacon Way because paths and ways play a big part in Remembrance of Things Past—there’s Swann’s Way and Guermantes Way. I also call Beacon Way Bergotte’s Death Way because I can never walk down this path without rehearing the death of Bergotte. It happens like this: Bergotte, the novel’s famous novelist, is not well. He has been sick for some time. But when he learns that Vermeer’s View in Delft, a beloved painting he knows by heart, has been loaned to a nearby museum, he can’t resist. Bergotte leaves his house, enters the museum, stands in front of the work, and is surprised to find a detail he had somehow missed: On a wall in the painting is a “little patch of yellow.” While staring at it, while trying to make sense of it, he has a stroke and dies. In autumn, the leaves on Bergotte’s Death Way are bright yellow.
12th and Cherry
For many years, this corner meant nothing to me: bland apartments, occasional bikes, some traffic. Now this intersection has become interesting, but only because now I always stop and recall Marcel’s inability to have sex with Albertine, his girlfriend, unless she is sleeping. Sometimes she has to pretend to be asleep so that he can have sex with her. “Her breathing, as it became gradually deeper, was now regularly stirring her bosom and, through it, her folded hands, her pearls, displaced in a different way by the same movement, like the boats, the anchor chains that are set swaying by the movement of the tide. Then, feeling that the tide of her sleep was full, I crept without a sound upon the bed, lay down by her side, clasped her waist in one arm….” This passage goes on and on, as the traffic goes on and on.