Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure …
Swann’s Way, the first installment of Marcel Proust’s seven-part series, In Search of Lost Time, is a book countless people have started — and a far more countable number have managed to finish.
It starts with the unnamed narrator’s confession that he used to go to bed early, then moves to meditations on sleep and sleeping and bedrooms and waking up and going to sleep and … frankly Proust is rather difficult to adequately summarize, which was why Monty Python’s “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” sketch worked so well.
Nathalie Vanderlinden isn’t interested in summarizing Proust.
Back in 1995, when she was living in Paris (among other jobs she held at that time, she donned the costume of Chip and, sometimes, Dale at EuroDisney), she bought a copy of Swann’s Way. She got through the part about sleep and sleeping and bedrooms and going to sleep … and she stopped. Repeatedly. For decades.
“It can be very soporific,” admits Vanderlinden, who hails from Belgium and lived 17 years in Brussels before relocating to San Francisco six years ago. When we meet at a Mission District cafe, she comes in from the cold and removes her scarf — revealing a second scarf.
“It’s very dense,” she continues, describing Swann’s Way. “The sentences are very long.” The first 50 to 80 pages can be a shlep, she says — “and the rest of the book is written in the same way.”
But “it’s an important book. And a book everyone is afraid of.” So she decided to read it. In full. To you.
Your humble narrator first encountered Vanderlinden at the 24th Street station, standing atop a small platform, with her hardback copy of Swann’s Way held only inches from her round spectacles as she read out loud, in her mother tongue.
Not quite knowing what to make of this, other BART patrons had tossed money into her bag — three whole dollars. Vanderlinden appreciated this: “That’s nice. That’s a connection — I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I like what you do.” But this was not a money-making venture.
“Even though people don’t understand, they can hear the flow and sound of my voice,” says Vanderlinden in her mellifluous accent (like so many French speakers, she apologizes for her English, but clearly possesses a deeper understanding of language structure than most any American — and subsequently drops a word like “soporific.”).
“It’s about seeing someone reading, committing to something, and sharing in the public space. I wanted to say something difficult.”
When Vanderlinden, who is now in her 40s, relocated to San Francisco six years ago, her then-husband was “a tech person.” She describes herself as “a lifelong cook” and she knew she’d find work. And she did, as a chef in a Japanese restaurant in the Mission.
But, before that, she studied film as a student in Belgium, after flirting with the notion of becoming an actress and attending a conservatory. That’s a path not taken — but, clearly, not wholly abandoned.
“I wanted to put myself into this world,” she says. “I was so frustrated writing poetry [in French] and nobody reading it. Nobody even understanding it. So this is how I started.”
There are easier ways to tackle Proust’s masterwork than to read it, in French, to passersby hustling for a train. But this is Vanderlinden’s way.
“I wanted — how do you say? — I wanted to put literature into the world. Contre vivant. To make it alive.” She laughs.
“I am into this kind of thing.”
Unpacking the deeper elements of Proust is easier when someone isn’t unpacking your elements. Sadly, this happened. On multiple occasions. During a recent reading at 16th Street station, a disturbed man shouted at her, snatched away her book, and hurled it.
“I don’t think this is a person who hates Proust,” she said after the fact. “I just think he was mentally ill.”
She didn’t call the police, but they came nonetheless. The officer, she says, told her that reading in the station was not appropriate. But she told him she wanted to keep doing it. Fine, he said. She should relocate to the 24th Street station which, he said, “is a little less crazy.”
So she went there. She read. The same mentally ill man showed up again. He threw the book again.
Plus ça change.
In between shifts at her day job as a chef, Vanderlinden has several more readings planned in November and December. They are set to last between 100 and 190 minutes and are subject to change due to inclement weather — or inclement passersby.
These are long sittings, but they’re nearly practice for her next big thing: a Dec. 19 reading of Swann’s Way, from cover to cover, at Ateliers Mommen in Brussels. This performance, on the 19th day of the last month of the century’s 19th year, figures to take 19 hours.
Now, that … that’s a lot of reading. But Vanderlinden says she can work for 19 hours straight, and giving birth to her son took about 19 hours. So, in that context, even reading Marcel Proust sounds like light duty.
Vanderlinden adds that, last year, a Nigerian man set the world record for marathon reading: 120 hours. “If he can do that?” she says. “Nineteen hours? That’s nothing.”
But for her? It would be something. Maybe everything.
“I don’t want to stop. I want to live through the book and I want the book to live through me. And I want people to see this.”
“I think,” she continues with a smile, “it’s going to change my life. My fantasy is, it’s going to change my life.”
She plans to read from 2 p.m. until 10 a.m. the next day. People will be there for the start. Fewer will be there for the finish. How Proustian.
And, after it’s all done, she will go to bed early.
The 16th Street BART station has been a literary hot spot for years, so it’s no surprise to find Proust there. I believe Andre Gide felt the same way you do about the first 50 pages when he famously trashed Swann’s Way after the novel first came out.Gide subsequently begged forgiveness, as do many. That opening sequence is not so much about about “sleep and sleeping and bedrooms and going to sleep”, as it is about the time between sleeping and waking — that moment, nanosecond, maybe two, when we are no longer asleep, but not yet fully awake and don’t really know where, sometimes, who, we are. In another instant, consciousness kicks in and we discard or forget the previous moment. Not Proust. It’s that in between moment that Proust slows down, examines, explores — a moment, unremarkable, inconsequential, universally shared — as an opening into the workings of the mind. Meditation aficionados may sense something similar to their practice. That Proust is able to observe the content and movement of his mind at that level, in such fine detail, to represent that moment in words, to sustain the act of writing over 3000 pages, not to mention to make the reading compelling, and endlessly entertaining, is an astonishing human act. Kudos Nathalie. In our Trumpian times, it helps to remember who we really are.
Great article on a great author and a brave reader. Thank you Nathalie for performing this much-needed public service. And thank you Joe for letting us know about it. Reading Du Cote de chez Swann certainly changed my life when I was eighteen and set me on a life-long path. I sincerely hope it will do likewise for Nathalie. It probably will do so even more dramatically, since she is doing a courageous public act and I just read the book in my freshman French class.