Tag Archives: Christopher Lydon

500 people: Week 33–34

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

As we reached the end of lockdown and got out into the parks to picnic in groups of (mostly) the legal five or fewer, we seemed generally even less likely to talk to random strangers. However, I had some genuinely warm transitory encounters in those last two weeks.

1. Monday 27 September. The Emerging Artist and I were exploring Pyrmont, at the edge of our permitted 5 k radius. We were about to climb a short flight of stairs signposted ‘Cliff Walk’, when a woman who was busy with a trowel in a small vege garden beside the stairs called to us: ‘Going up to the windy place, are you?’ So we stopped to chat: it transpired that she is a little older than I am, has lived in the area for 10 years or so, and manages the hilliness with some difficulty; she cultivates this little garden as a community service as well as the windswept one in her own back yard; her husband, older than she is, is active in a community recycling project.

2. Thursday. We were back in Pyrmont with Ruby, where she frolicked among water spouts and we had leaf-boat races in a shallow waterway. Between activities, the EA asked Ruby if she’d like a snack. A young masked man sitting just within earshot spoke up: ‘Oh, what snacks are there?’ Not that he wanted to know – this was clearly an invitation to chat. But I told him what I knew of what was on offer at the little kiosk. The conversation expanded, so soon we knew he lives in Camperdown, and that we have places in common where we go with our young ones (his daughter was asleep in a stroller next to him). He gave us a number of tips about good places elsewhere in the Inner West. When he and his daughter headed off, it was with the possibility of meeting again.

3. Monday 4 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a man and a woman picking mulberries – or rather, he was reaching up into the branches looking for ripe mulberries while she was eating one he’d found earlier. I picked one from the opposite side of the tree, and gave it to the EA, saying, ‘I hope they haven’t been poisoned.’ The young man didn’t catch my exact meaning (I was masked and I’m guessing English wasn’t his first language). He said, ‘Oh no, they are mulberries.’ The young woman stepped in: ‘We ate some yesterday, and we’re still here!’ This is a different tree from the one in Week 32.

4. Monday, on the same walk, we passed the Earlwood Spoon Project. People are invited to decorate wooden or plastic spoons, make them into characters of some sort, and add them to this installation. There’s another, smaller installation along the Wolli Creek section of the Two Valley Trail. The recent heavy rain and wind had laid the spoons low, but someone had rendered them upright and orderly. Two youngish women were bending over the display, exclaiming: ‘Look at the bride!’ ‘There’s Wally!’ and so on. I inserted myself by telling them of the recent devastation, and then all four of us spent a little while pointing out clever creations: Homer Simpson, Chuck Norris (?). Someone apologised for swearing. A brief good time was had by all.

Photo by Penny Ryan

5. Tuesday evening, I was walking through our underground garage, maskless though we’re supposed to be masked in the common areas, and listening to a podcast – the Thoroughly Modern Mozart episode of Christopher Lydon’s Open Source. To prevent further ear damage I don’t use ear buds, and I was filling the garage airwaves with the sound of a classical piano. When a masked man with a shock of black hair appeared, I hastily turned the podcast off and fumbled for my mask. We nodded to each other – frostily on his part, I thought. Then he called back over his shoulder, ‘Whose is that piece?’ I could tell him it was Beethoven, but I was way out of my depth, so the conversation couldn’t go much further.

6. Sunday morning. We were helping some friends scope out an apartment they are considering putting an offer on – they’d done their inspection, this was just the environment. A woman emerged from a ground-level apartment and we bailed her up and plied her with questions: strata arrangements, rules about pets, use of the swimming pool, public transport, most convenient shops, development proposals for the nearby green space …

7. Sunday afternoon, it started to rain a few moments into our regular Cooks River walk. We persevered, and a couple of minutes later overtook a large woman who was walking with a stick. As we passed her with the usual nod and smile, one of us said, ‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ She managed a wry grin: ‘Sort of!’

Running total is 228. Let’s see if I manage to be any more sociable with strangers now that the Sydney lockdown is officially over.

Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, première partie, ‘Combray’

Someone on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast recently was talking about À la recherche du temps perdu aka In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. It was one conversation too many: I decided I had to bite the bullet and read the bloody thing. (My late friend Will Owen almost pushed me over the line in 2014 by writing – here – about his experience with it over several decades. The pressure to read it has been building.)

So I bought a copy of the Gallimard quarto edition, all seven novels in one huge, heavy volume, small print and thin paper, 2401 pages, a bargain at just under $90. If I read 200 pages a month I could get through the whole thing in less than two years. So that’s what I decided to do. Rather than review the books as I finish them, I’ll aim to give a monthly update.

I read the opening words – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – about a month ago, and was immediately glad of my decision to read the books in French and not to labour over translation. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of that sentence, and I imagine even harder to reproduce that un-pin-down-ability in English. The commonest version – ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’ – is clear enough, but the verb’s tense is all wrong: if Proust had meant ‘I used to go to bed’ he would have written ‘je me couchais’. But the more or less literal translation, ‘A long time ago I have gone to bed early’, sounds odd. Maybe it does in the original French, and maybe the translators know that if they write something odd in English the readers will grow suspicious of them … Anyhow, if I even notice such fine points as I read I’m not labouring over them. Nor am I looking up unfamiliar words – and mercifully my years of studying French forty years ago seem to have left me with a fairly adequate passive vocabulary. I do need to reread many of Proust’s famously convoluted sentences, and that, it turns out, is one of the pleasures – to sort out how the parts of what at first looks impossibly complex fit together as in a well-constructed machine.

So I’ve now read ‘Combray’, the first of three parts of the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way. I feel like leaving at that, not because it’s been hard going, but because these 150 or so pages turn out to have been, well, fabulous, and I don’t feel any need to continue. (I will, though.)

After 30 pages in which the narrator (so far we don’t have a name for him) remembers going to bed early as a child and suffering terrible anguish because his mother doesn’t come to give him a goodnight kiss despite a number of ploys to trick her into doing it, he is overwhelmed with memories of his childhood triggered by the smell of a shell-like biscuit dunked in herbal tea. The memories are centred on the summers he and his family spent with an invalid aunt in the village of Combray (A fictional village when he wrote about it, but the village of Illiers, believed to be its model, recently changed its name to Illiers-Combray), and are structured according to the two paths that lead from the aunt’s house to the village church.

That’s it.

And it’s fascinating. A friend told me she’d given up on reading Proust because he’s such a wanker; I said, ‘Yes, but in the original French he’s such an over-the-top wanker that it’s brilliant.’

At least twice I laughed out loud. The first was at a description of asparagus. For me, having to work for each word, there’s a wonderful process of struggling through a thicket of extravagant language describing the extraordinarily subtle colours and imagining the asparagus spears as delightful creatures who had metamorphosed into vegetables to come at the end of the sentence to a relatively plainspoken reference to how asparagus affects bodily functions: ‘changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum‘ / ‘change my chamber pot into a perfumed vase’. (You can read a translation here, though it tones down the early extravagance and then misses the joke by continuing with the elevated language – ‘transforming’ for ‘changer’ and ‘bower of aromatic perfume’ for ‘vase fe parfum’ – until the very end.)

The other laugh-out-loud moment had a similar sense of coming out into the light after struggling through a thicket. The narrator remembers his fascination as a child with water plants swinging back and forth in a current. He likens them to people who wake up each morning resolved to change their lives but always revert to their established self-defeating habits. He ups the ante, invoking Dante’s fascination with the sufferings of the damned, saying that Dante would have liked to have gone on at greater length about those sufferings if Virgil, striding ahead, hadn’t made him catch up, comme moi mes parents / ‘As my parents did me’.

Both these are examples of how fabulously the writing works at a sentence level. I didn’t really worry that it seemed to be going nowhere. I dread to think what a film adaptation would look like. I guess it would have to play up the chaste lesbian frolic the boy accidentally eavesdrops on one evening, or his visit to a beloved uncle and innocently reporting back to his parents about the nice lady who seemed to be living with him, or the comedy about his antisemitic grandfather. But those elements aren’t central. In the last couple of pages of this section he brings it all together. What he has been showing us is a place, and the people in it, that are deeply embedded in his mind, even formed his mind (sans le savoir / ‘without knowing it’), so that he responds to people or places now because, whether he’s aware of it or not, they stir some yearning for that place. ‘The flowers that I am shown for the first time nowadays don’t seem real flowers to me.’

And suddenly it’s profoundly moving. His narrator talks about a future when the paths he describes will be overgrown and the people he saw there will have died, when all that will remain of them will be what he has remembered of what that child saw, and smelled, and thought. I find myself thinking how, of the billions of humans who have ever lived or are living now, every one of them has had their individual rich deep connection to the earth, awarely or otherwise. Few people could articulate it as fully as Proust, even if they wanted to, even if they had the time, but he’s bringing to the foreground something that’s inevitably there for everyone. And then I think about climate change and how, optimistically, we’ve got 12 years to make big changes if the earth, the air and the water are to keep sustaining us. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

Added later: I can’t believe I didn’t talk about all the very funny stuff about his family: his aunt who never leaves her room, and won’t let anyone visit her who tries to jolly her into going out, but likewise bans anyone who believes that she is very sick; the maid; M Swann, the neighbour who made an unfortunate match; Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom the narrator glimpses just once as a vision of loveliness who gives him a vulgar signal, etc. I expect there will be more of that in the coming sections (though probably not of the aunt, whose death has come as a shock because I had come to believe that absolutely nothing was going to happen).