Second hand Proust

ONE of the pleasures of buying second-hand books is to come upon pages with the previous owner's comments written in the margins, and from these comments try to imagine the person who wrote them. For me this pleasure is intensified when the author of the book is one of my favorites, such as Marcel Proust. Before I could afford to buy the complete volumes of ``Remembrance of Things Past,'' I found in a forgotten corner of an old bookshop a 1928 Modern Library edition of ``Swann's Way.'' Its covers gleamed in scarlet cloth and its title was printed in gold mounted on a black square. I bought it immediately.

When I reached home and sat down with this little volume, I was delighted to see the name of the previous owner written inside the cover and notations with page numbers penciled on the flyleaf. Already I knew some important facts about this stranger with whom I was to share my reading of ``Swann's Way.'' First of all we were members of the same sex. From her notes I decided that she read for knowledge as well as pleasure. Now, as I stared at the precise handwriting, I wondered if she was a librarian, a teacher, or a student. I considered the ink she'd used -- black drawing ink, probably Higgins -- and deduced that she was an artist.

As I riffled quickly through the pages, I persuaded myself that she was French or, at least, read and wrote French as well as English. There were several quotations from the original in her meticulous hand. Perhaps, I thought, she read this book as a companion to the original volume. Why did she do this, I wondered: because she was not entirely pleased with the translation, or because, perhaps, she herself was a translator? In some places passages were amended or amplified by excerpts from the original. In one sentence she changed the word ``accidental'' to ``contiguous,'' or perhaps she meant to insert it. I agreed with her in any case, but hoped that her preoccupation with the language did not dilute her pleasure in Proust.

My impression of my predecessor as an artist seemed to be realized when I read the passages she'd selected for special attention. ``Botticelli Woman,'' she wrote. I found the page and read Swann's thoughts on Odette: ``. . . her air of unrelieved sorrow began at length to bewilder him. She reminded him, even more than usual, of the faces of some of the women created by the painter of `Primavera.' She had, at that moment, their downcast heartbroken expression, which seems ready to succumb to the burden of a grief too heavy to be borne, when they are merely allowing the Infant Jesus to play with a pomegranate, or watching Moses pour water into a trough.''

Then came another note, ``Pigeons,'' referring to a rather long passage that reads in part, ``. . . scattering the pigeons, whose beautiful iridescent bodies (shaped like hearts, and, surely, the lilacs of the feathered kingdom) . . .''

``The lilacs of the feathered kingdom.'' Who but Proust would see that? I sighed and went on to another page note: ``Norman Churches.'' This I knew was under my favorite section: ``Place-Names: The Name:'' It reads; ``Bayeux so lofty in its noble coronet of rusty lace, whose highest point caught the light of old gold of its second syllable; Vitr'e, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with wooden lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness ranged from egg-shell yellow to pearly grey. . . .''

Although by no means as meticulous a reader as the original owner of this little volume, I, too, am often caught by the shimmer of a certain word or phrase, jotting and underlining freely as I glide through the stream of a book. Throughout my reading of this copy of ``Swann's Way,'' my markings for memory or deeper consideration often concurred with my companion reader, particularly Proust's elegant descriptions of objects, views, and beings which set images moving through one's mind.

On finishing the book, I compared notes with my unknown predecessor and concluded that she -- teacher, student, librarian, artist, whoever -- was more scholarly, less impressionable than I, more scientific, less philosophical in her reading. It seemed to me that she was reading primarily for knowledge, whereas I was searching for metaphors. I'm grateful to her for unwittingly sharing her comments with me. They certainly improved my enjoyment of ``Swann's Way.''

Nevertheless, I was disappointed that she hadn't marked, nor even seemed to notice, my favorite of all the passages in ``Remembrance of Things Past.'' This passage not only defines for me the intent and direction of the author but also explains the structure of the complete work. The reader finds the narrator's story as he himself does, with its end in the beginning in the first volume, ``Swann's Way,'' and its beginning in the last volume, ``The Past Recaptured.'' It comes on the very last page of ``Swann's Way.'' I quote:

``. . . how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. . . . The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.''

As I put down the little second-hand, scarlet-clad, golden-titled book, I wondered why the original owner of this copy of ``Swann's Way'' had not marked this passage on the very last page for distinction. Then a dismal thought struck me. Perhaps she hadn't finished the book. I riffled through it backward. As she neared the end, the comments, the notes, the amplifications ceased. There were no underlinings but my own.

Then another thought came to me. Perhaps she had become so enthralled with the story she abandoned her scientific reading methods. I sincerely hope that's the answer. Catherine R. Williams

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