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Thursday, 13 May 2010

Night Train (II): Marcel Proust


File:Claude Monet - The Gare  d'Argenteuil.jpg

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.

I would ask myself what o'clock it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home.

I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood. Or I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.

File:MS A la recherche du temps perdu.jpg

Marcel Proust, from Du coté de chez Swann (Swann's Way), 1913: Volume One of A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, 1922

The Gare d'Argenteuil: Claude Monet, 1872 (Musée Tavet-Delacour / Musée de Luzarches, Conseil général de Val d'Oise)

A la recherche du temps perdu: Du coté de chez Swann, first galley proof, handwritten revisions by Marcel Proust (Christie's)


Curtis Roberts said...

Curiosity, and a great, lifelong interest in night trains, something that is obviously widely shared, kept me reading.

I had never seen this powerful, accurate Monet, nor the Proust galley proofs, which could comprise their own post with no words added, just a label.

The three pieces –- the childhood/adolescent beds in the Nabokov and the Proust, one actually rolling and one with a suggestion of trains, but both very French, conjoined with Celine’s adult, sui generis, New York on Mars/Total Recall train dislocation experience, along with their associated images, of course -- are a powerful, mind-expanding combination.

TC said...

Thank you very much indeed, Curtis. It seems we share this preoccupation.

My childhood was haunted by distant night train whistles, and the myriad imaginal vistas they brought with them.

As soon as I was old enough to ride the Elevated downtown by myself, I began to do my own haunting -- of the (then) seven major railway terminals in Chicago.

The very sight of a locomotive encrusted with ice and snow after a long run was enough to spark endless visions of sweeps of country I had not yet seen.

Later I would ride certain routes, like the New York Central line up through Michigan, so many times at night that I could identify the stops, almost, from how long it took the brakes to wheeze their way to a stop.

That fascination continued on through many years of night train travel in many countries on several continents. And would include many memorable experiences, some good, some not so good.

The worst was probably riding through Yugoslavia in the time of Tito, leaving Greece the train was stopped in the middle of the night and uniformed police came through the compartments, checking papers. In what developed into a Kafka-comes-true episode, I was removed from the train, and, as it pulled out again on its way, interrogated at length by trackside.

I think I was guilty of being on "the wrong side". Otherwise I cannot account for it.

TC said...

And oh yes, thanks for the comments on the images. The Monet: great beyond words. And the Proust proofs: well, we can see that he was a perfectionist. Indeed, how else could he have become so perfect? (That set of corrected galleys, by the way, brought, I believe, something like 664,000 pounds at the Christie's auction.)

Curtis Roberts said...

Your Yugoslavia story brings to mind any number of movies and also Graham Green's Stamboul Train. That sort of action and the phrase "you have no rights at a border" terrify me. Once we were pulled off the street and into a police station in Barcelona because (we later learned) a somewhat unbalanced woman thought we were photographing her. The police explained nothing to us during our 20 minute detention and kept poker faces until finally sharing the "joke" with us. I won't even go into our problems in Mexico City.

I know what you mean about characteristic, identifiable brake sounds. There's nothing at all like trains at night.