Here’s how I remember it. We were thirty-some on the bus, with our two chaperones, Mme. Colbert and Mlle. Severin, on our way back to Paris from one of our weekends to the countryside. This trip may have been to the Loire Valley, or to Chartres. The afternoon was open and Mlle. Severin had an idea for a spontaneous side trip. The bus stopped at a village where she made a phone call to see if it could be arranged.
Previous weekends we had visited Brittany, the champagne country, and Normandy. I don’t think I speak just for myself in saying that each day in France was a calvalcade of pleasures. We were college sophomores from Kansas. The potatoes alone in some provincial restaurants would have made this interlude spectacular, never mind the cathedrals, the parks, the museums, the air itself. Almost every afternoon in Paris I bought some cheese, a baguette and a bottle of wine to eat and drink on the banks the Seine. Who knew living a life of total cliché could be so ravishing? Even the vending machine at the dormitory was a wonder, French pastries one franc each. My friend Bob gained twenty pounds in two months.
Mlle.Severin got back on the bus, clearly delighted that we were given permission to visit the writer’s house, the one she was doing her dissertation on. His name, if those of us in the back of the bus even heard it, didn’t mean anything in particular.
Soon the bus was nosing its way up one of those narrow French streets not meant for tour buses. Surely this time the driver would get wedged in permanently. When the bus could go no further, we filed off.
Mlle. Severin rang the bell. The door opened and here was a short man with the whitest, silkiest moustache in the world, wearing an even whiter starched shirt and black pants. He looked like he could be the valet for an angel, and his smile was so sweet that even the rowdiest among us pretended to listen as we followed him through the house and upstairs. In one of the upstairs bedrooms there was a cup and saucer on the bedside table, as if the writer had left it there an hour ago. It was a little spooky. Our guide lead us back downstairs to a small in-house auditorium where we sat in chairs facing him and he told us everything he knew about the great writer and the joy in his face was such that we sat still even though few of us understood more than a tenth of what he said, our French so spotty.
Yesterday I finished Swann’s Way, book one of the seven books of In Search of Lost Time. When I tell friends I’m reading Proust, most think I’m being either pretentious or masochistic, or both. I also just read Edmund White’s flyover book about Proust’s life and work. I figured White’s book would help grease the gears.
This is from that book: “Modern readers are responsive to Proust’s tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we, too, no longer take love for granted.”
No longer take love for granted. That goes right over my head. I wonder what the short man with the white moustache would make of it.