“My love for Proust, or maybe for my father”

The first sentence from Proust that I happened to read was my father wrote. And the same goes for all the other sentences of Proust that I read for the first time. That was how I discovered Proust, through my father’s handwriting. Ironically – which does not escape me despite the fact that more than five decades have passed – is that, inexplicably, Proust’s trait recalls that of my mother, not my father. His was a dry, angular, rigid writing, never a squiggle, characterized by sudden and irregular angles, which tried in every way to appear masculine, while my mother’s handwriting resembled that of Proust, not as convoluted as a thread chaotic, anonymous, difficult to recognize, in several places almost the handwriting of a child, unripe, lazy, mischievous. And I do not miss another irony of fate, which however goes in a completely different direction: my father read Proust while he was alive; my mother, already after half a page of “On Swann’s side” lost her patience. He never went further.

When I first saw the name of Marcel Proust, I was fourteen, and I discovered it in my father’s diary one afternoon while I was secretly reading it. I knew that as a young man he had enjoyed it, and I wanted to know the details of that full life. In his diary, which began in 1932 at the age of seventeen, I discovered many things about him: the uncertainties, the doubts about himself, the shyness, the sadness, the love stories, the cunning and disenchanted ability to understand people. But most of all I found lists of titles he was reading. He had the amazing habit of copying passages by authors he admired into his diary. Pages and pages transcribed by hand and reported by Plutarch, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Flaubert, Marcus Aurelius, but above all pages and pages full of Proust’s passages.

When, finally, I confessed to him that I had discovered Proust by peeking into his diary, what struck me particularly was our conversation in the rue du Ranelagh while we were going to visit an aunt. He described Proust’s long sentences, how unusually musical, lyrical, yet funny, and insightful they were not only about others but especially himself. He was the greatest writer of our century, but perhaps, my father added with his usual unfailing tact, I might even disagree. I was young and, as a result, I was supposed to have a rebellious soul, and then, that same year, I had recently discovered James Joyce. At our destination, we passed an old door that gave off a strange stale smell that was quite familiar to me, as it reminded me of the old water pipes in my grandfather’s house when the tap was turned on in the kitchen. “How do you still remember it?” my father asked me. “When he died, you were only two.” Speaking of perfumes and memories, Proust was the greatest, he added.

After an unbearably long visit to that very old and sickly aunt, my father and I found a bookstore and he bought “In the shadow of the young girls in bloom”. At my age, according to him, I would have found myself on the fly in Proust’s adolescence. I started reading it that same evening. About thirty pages later, however, I put the book down. Why? my father asked me the next morning when I informed him. It touched me too closely, it almost seemed to be talking about me, I explained. What I avoided revealing to him was that I wasn’t dying to know myself, at least not yet. It was also my way of avoiding telling him that he was right, because nothing I had read so far could rival Proust. I never changed my mind about Proust. What I will never understand is how much of this lifelong love is for Proust or rather for my father. I don’t want to know.

Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by espresso.repubblica.it.

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