On an autumn evening in 2013 we were having dinner in my garden, when the talk turned to Proust and A la recherche du temps perdu; it was the centenary of the publication of Du côté de chez Swann. My friend Alan had never attempted it, while I had tried three times to get beyond The Guermantes Way into the Cities of the Plain; I always stalled there, and then I would have to go back to the beginning again because of all the bits I’d forgotten. So the Proust book club was born: we and some like-minded friends would meet every three months or so and over two years would read the whole thing, inspired by each other’s industry, or too ashamed to give up. Well, we did it, with a mixture of people, some falling by the wayside but most soldiering on until the end, reading in French or English or both, in a variety of translations and editions. When we finished, I found myself missing Marcel and his world, so when I heard that Clive James had written a verse commentary on Proust, I was delighted. I have to say though that the title Gate of Lilacs gave me pause for thought. I rang Alan.
“I can’t remember any gate of lilacs in it,” I said. “Hawthorns yes, obviously, and apple blossom, Japanese chrysanthemums and cattleyas, but not lilacs. Do you think I’m going to have to read the whole thing again to find them? Shall I google ‘lilacs in Proust’? ‘Gate of lilacs’ sounds like a song by Brassens, but I’m not sure which . . .”
We sang a few snatches of likely Brassens songs: “Quand je vais chez la fleuriste, je n’achète que des lilas.” It was fun, but not conclusive. How could I write a review of a book when I couldn’t even place the title?
I needn’t have worried; that was the essence of the thing: be patient and all will be revealed. Trust both writers, Proust and James: the seemingly random will have meaning.
Clive James tells us, in both prose and verse, that he learnt French by reading Proust in the original, yes, the whole thing, and he tells us in prose, in one of the wonderful notes that follow the verse, that the Gate of Lilacs is the Paris Métro station (as well as the Closerie des Lilas brasserie frequented by Hemingway) and, for him, therefore, the gate into Proust’s world, which is itself a gate into the world of French literature and culture, which in turn leads into what we might call the world of civilisation, which is James’s world, where with him as our guide we brush shoulders with Diderot, Chamfort, Montesquieu, Akhmatova (yes, Mr James, accent on the second syllable, of course), Leonid Pasternak, Renoir and Monet, Colette, Cocteau, Reynaldo Hahn, Diaghilev and many, many more . . . we move with him through time and space and perhaps to feel quite at home in Clive James’s world we need to share his nostalgia for a more recent past, where the Impressionists still hang in the Jeu de Paume Gallery in the Tuileries (with Bergotte weeping in front of Vermeer’s patch of yellow) and where Renoir’s lovely painting La loge is still in the old Courtauld in Bloomsbury.
James knows that this world is not to everyone’s taste, that there will always be some who, like Kate Maltby writing recently in The Times, would “rather read Potter than Proust” (Harry, not Beatrix). He doesn’t despise them for it; as he says, his “own daughters both revisit / all of Jane Austen every year or two, / And neither feels the need for information / About a bunch of snobs across the Channel . . .” But neither does he want Proust to belong only to a tiny elite; his book is written in a spirit of intellectual generosity and optimism, as when he recommends the six-volume set: “a heavy number, perhaps, to lug to college, but what else do you want with you, The Lord of the Rings?”
James says he is not a Proust expert and that this is not a work of literary criticism, but he is a Proust appreciator, and that is what matters: “. . . and yet Swann’s love / For Odette, which included her bad taste, / Assures us of Proust’s seriousness, of how, / Within the limits of his birth, and class, / And poor health, and of being just one person, / He made the whole of life his stamping ground, / Even our jealousies and weaknesses . . .” What Proust does for Swann by understanding him, by accepting that his love for the terribly flawed Odette is as much a part of him as the exquisite taste and savoir-vivre that has made him beloved of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Clive James does for Proust. He shows us how Proust can have an anti-Semite like Léon Daudet for a friend and might even have forgiven Cocteau his flirtations with the Occupation (had he lived to see them) because he knows that flirting is what people do, and yet still be “the wise and brave soldier for Dreyfus” aware that there are some things he could not forgive: “If the well-connected world conceives a taste for cruelty, kiss it goodbye.” Just as James — rightly — doesn’t let us forget the price Paris paid for saving its architectural integrity. This is the James of Cultural Amnesia, expressing disgust so eloquently while saving what’s left from the wreckage.
Proust, of course, doesn’t need saving. But, like the time capsule that would give future generations some idea of how we lived and what we loved, this book contains so much that does need saving, that James holds precious and can’t bear to imagine forgotten. Perhaps it is rather a lot: fifteen verse “rhapsodies” each responding to a different aspect of “Lost time”, an introduction explaining how he came to write it, a postscript discussing the verse form, and then the notes that lead in and out of what Proust actually wrote (mainly out) — all are random, rich and rewarding. In the end, it’s hard to pin down just what Gate of Lilacs is: a love letter to Proust? A taster for the uninitiated of what to expect? One side of a conversation between James and the reader about European culture at its best, a conversation full of “Have you read . . . ? Did you ever see . . . ? You must go to . . . “ and “I think you’d love . . .”
That’s what I wanted to do when I finished Gate of Lilacs: carry on the conversation. That’s got to be good.