By Laurence Raphael Brothers
For a long time, I used to go to bed early….
I shut the book. The opening of Swann’s Way was so familiar that I could summon an image of the first page from memory. There was hardly any point to reading the printed words.
“Hey,” said the woman. “I was in the middle of that.”
She was reading over my shoulder in bed. I realized this was a dream, one of the sort that Proust wrote about on the first page of his great work. Marcel (not Proust!) describes how he used to summon imaginary women into his dreams as a sickly youth.
Having realized I was dreaming, I took stock of my situation. The linen undersheet was cool and smooth, and the white quilted comforter which covered the two of us was even more pleasant. I could feel her breath in my ear. I didn’t know who the woman was. I didn’t want to turn to face her. I was afraid of what I might see.
“Hey!” She poked me in the side, not hard, though. “The book,” she said. “Open the book.”
“What?” This was more initiative than I was used to from people in dreams.
“I was in the middle,” she said. “Open it back up and let me read it.”
The book’s gilt-edged pages gleamed in the dim candlelight. It was heavy for its size, with maroon leather covers chased in gold. There was no title or other printing on the cover or spine, but I knew it was mine and that I’d had it for a long time.
I felt a little uneasy about the situation, so I temporized. “Why do you want to read it? There’s no way we’re getting through even a single volume of Proust in one night.”
“But we were reading together,” she said. “Please.” She moved her hand to my shoulder. It felt nice, but I hesitated anyway.
Maybe she sensed my reluctance because she sighed. “It’s not really Proust. But it’s got all of Proust in it that you remember, and all of every other book you remember too. And more besides.”
“And you want me to give it to you.”
“No!” she cried. “You mustn’t do that!”
“What? First you say you want it, then you don’t.”
“I want to read it with you. You could guide me through it.”
“Please,” I said. “Give me a hint, at least. I don’t understand at all.” Talking over my shoulder at her was annoying, but I had the feeling I shouldn’t turn toward her. It was a very strong feeling.
“Look,” she said, “if you have an infinite thing and you give it to me, you won’t have infinity yourself anymore. You wouldn’t like that. It would be bad for you.”
“That’s kind of you, I guess, but I still don’t know why you want to read it.”
“All I know is I’ve lost something. And I think maybe you can help me find it again.”
“Lost something? Like a memory? That’s the only thing you can find in a book.”
She hugged me then and laughed in delight.
“Yes! Now I remember. I don’t have a book of my own. I lost it, somehow.”
“I get it,” I said. “Proust is all about recalling lost memories. The madeleine. His mother’s kiss goodnight. Gilberte; Mademoiselle Swann. And if you read the book–”
“If I read your book. Everyone has a book that contains all the things they know, all the things they care about. Well, almost everyone. I guess I lost mine. But I bet your book has lots about memory and stuff like that in it. Because you love Proust so much. And if I read it–”
“You can find your own book again?”
“I hope so.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s read it together.”
She scooched up to better look over my shoulder, and I moved the book to where she could read it more easily. And then I felt it happening. The dream was coming to an end. Things were already turning gray and fuzzy. Soon I’d lose her and she’d lose me and the book too.
I turned to face her and I had no problem doing that, but my vision had deteriorated to the point I could barely make her out; just a vague silhouette. And yet I thought I knew her. I thought I remembered her from a time long gone. From when I was young, perhaps. I held the book out to her.
“Quick! Take it!”
“I know! Just do it! This could be your only chance!”
She reached out and I let her take the book…. Her fingers brushed against mine, and we fell away from one another into darkness.
I awoke in my own real bed, alone, with no woman, and no– what? I couldn’t remember. I managed to get to my feet despite the gaping hole in my head where things I’d treasured had once resided. As I rose the dream faded and I could barely recall it at all. Something to do with Proust…. I fumbled for my copy of Swann’s Way there on the nightstand. It seemed I’d never read the final page before. Tears ran down my face and I didn’t know why. I blinked them away and the last line came clear in my vision.
…remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.