There was an elephant in my room last night. A pink one.
It flew in through the open French window at dusk, clattered about a bit and then hid itself where I couldn’t chase it out again. Seeing that it had apparently settlde down for the night, I gave up the hunt and went to bed myself.
This morning it was clinging to the inside of the curtain; I opened the window and poked my visitor out. It sat trembling on the windowsill, evidently traumatised, so I did what I would have done for a bee and gave it a large blob of honey. Maybe I killed it with kindness? Eventually it stopped fluttering and lay perfectly still, its nose and feet in the honey. Dead.
What a privilege for me to have been honoured by its visit. I feel quite sad that I wasn’t able to save this very beautiful creature. RIP.
My gorgeous elephant hawk moth
Another elephant-related incident – a tenuous link, only because elephants never forget – occurred a few days ago. An old school-friend contacted me to ask, given my elephantine memory, if I could recall a song we sang in primary school (that’s over 60 years ago!). All she could remember was that Miss Stevenson had taught it to us and it contained the word Innisfree. As far as I was aware, we never sang Yeats’s poem so I knew it wasn’t that, but from deep in the swirly mists of my childhood arose a faint melody, flitting in and out of my consciousness but – like my moth – never quite catchable.
However, the following day I suddenly knew the title: The Flight of the Earls. Instantly, the melody returned and most of the words. Not Innisfree but Innisfail, the old poetic name for Ireland. I googled it, and found that it was a poem by Alfred Perceval Graves, set to a haunting melody by Charles Villiers Stanford. Neither name meant anything to me, but I was glad to be able to free my friend from her torment of forgetfulness.
What bothered me in all this, though, was that the name Miss Stevenson also meant nothing to me, although I distinctly remembered singing the song at school. My friend sent me a succinct description: “Grey hair, straight style, usually in grey clothes. lived till she was 102.” Sounds like a typical schoolmarm, but despite racking my brain nowhere can I find either an image of her or an echo of her name. The melody, however, lingers on. And so do the lyrics. I’ve been singing this old song as I go about my chores. Poor neighbours!
The subject of memory has been quite topical for me lately. In Sanibel library, towards the start of my vacation, I found a thousand-page biography of Marcel Proust on sale for two dollars. The size of this is commensurate with its subject, of course: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu may not be quite the longest novel ever written but it certainly looks impressive on a bookshelf (over 3,000 pages).
Now when I was about 20, my BA (Hons) course included a couple of trimesters studying the French novel. My reading list included hefty tomes by Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Gide – and of course Monsieur Proust, whereby the book on which we were to be examined was the double volume of Le Temps Retrouvé, which is the final link in the chain bringing the story full circle. That of course obliged us to read the entire set of seven volumes – no easy task in the limited time available – and it was competing with such heavyweights as Les Misérables, L’Assommoir (which is also one of twenty books in the Rougon-Macquart series) and my candidate for the most boring book ever published, Bouvard et Pécuchet.
I was able to boast truthfully that I had read all of Proust in French but I didn’t admit I had retained nothing! There just wasn’t enough time to digest all the imperfect subjunctives and unfamiliar vocabulary, and I was lucky in the exam that I was able to choose other works to write about. During the intervening half century, I’ve played with the idea of re-reading this magnum opus but – until now – it’s remained a vague idea.
Although the Proust biography was a bit heavy going for beach reading, I did manage to finish it (and bring it home for future reference), as it piqued my interest in Proust once more. Then I discovered I could purchase the version intégrale of A la Recherche for Kindle for a mere 2 euros! This time, I have the leisure that was lacking in my youth, the patience to linger over the notoriously interminable, serpentine sentences and the maturity to discover the charm, humour, profundity of thought, intensity of analysis, richness of language, the vivid evocation of la belle époque, and the sheer poetry of Proust’s account of his search for lost time.
I’m normally a fast reader, but here I have met my match. In four weeks, I’m only two and a half books down, four and a half to go, halfway through Du Côté des Guermantes. I know already that when I finally reach the end, I’ll have to start re-reading from the beginning to refresh my memory: maybe this is a project for the rest of my life! I think I will have to buy the hardbacks. Surely I’ll find a set in the brocante.
They will look very impressive on my bookshelf.