A few years ago, as my friend Tera and I were wandering around the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, I wondered aloud if Proust’s manuscripts were there, either on display or hidden away in some dusty archive. So when we inadvertently befriended a bored security guard, we asked. Unfortunately, neither of us spoke much French. But the guard seemed to understand, became animated, and sent us off down a long hallway with directions to turn at the end. We eagerly complied, only to end up at an exhibit of Louis the Something’s Globes.
Proust’s coveted hand-written drafts of his 3,000 page novel, In Search of Lost Time, have never been on display outside of Paris. When I left the city I thought I had left my chances of ever viewing the spidery scrawl and crowded margins of my favorite author. But now, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, Proust’s papers have made their way outside of the confines of the Bibliothèque national, and are on display at the Morgan Library in New York City.
In conjunction with these celebrations, 192 Books in Chelsea decided to host “Proust in 24 hours” a 24-hour reading of Swann’s Way. And they decided to hold this event last Tuesday, February 19, in other words: on my 30th birthday. As could think of no better way to celebrate, reflect on, and downright ponder the passing of time, I decided to go.
I spent the afternoon at the Morgan with Proust. At least, that was what it felt like, as I enclosed myself in the small, cubicle exhibit and poured over his manuscripts. Never mind that his handwriting was illegible and that, while my French has improved somewhat since my miscommunication with the library guard, my continuing education French classes haven’t quite got me up to the speed of, well, Proust’s vocabulary. I remembered that Proust translated his favorite author, Ruskin, without learning English, and I stared at those pages until I began to recognize the passages I had committed to heart.
On the opening page to Swann’s Way, Proust had drawn a bold line through an entire first paragraph. Then, near the bottom, he had penciled in a line so tenuous and faint it was difficult to discern: “Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure.” In another draft on display the famous madeleine was referred to as a “biscotte”—it originally had its source in a commonplace slice of toast. This toast to madeleine transubstantiation will forever stand in my mind as the quintessential transformation of life into art.
Sufficiently immersed in Proust, I dropped my bags at The Jane Hotel and headed up 10th Ave to 192 Books. The small, one-room carefully curated bookshop was cozily packed with people crowded around a small table where Adam Gopnik and Anka Muhlstein would introduce the 24-hour reading. Champagne was poured and madeleines nibbled as we listened to Gopnik read an exchange of letters between Proust and André Gide, who declined to publish Proust. Muhlstein talked about her new book Monsieur Proust’s Library, which chronicles the literature Proust both references and draws from throughout his novel. There are over 200 characters in In Search of Lost Time, and a good many of them are readers.
We had quite a few readers that night at 192 books. I felt privileged to be among them as I took my turn at the mike. And while I did not make it through the entire 24 hours, I did stay long enough to hear the madeleine dipped into tea, and of how its taste conjured up a past believed to be lost, the narrator’s panacea, and one for us all, against the forward turning of the years.
I thought that was the end of my Proustian pilgrimage to New York City, but I was wrong. The following day, as I was walking down 5th Avenue, I glanced in the window of Bergdorf Goodman. The luxury department store had decided to go literary, giving five window displays over to great moments in literature, among them, In Search of Lost Time.