In search of lost time
I was reading this book concurrently with In search of lost time, and in some ways that seems a more appropriate title for this book. In search of lost time is Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, and I’m not even halfway through the first of the four volumes, and I doubt that I’ll ever finish it. I’m not really much into blockbuster novels. In fact I’m not even sure what a “blockbuster” novel is except that I associate it with very fat books of 700 pages or more. OK, I liked The Lord of the Rings but that’s an exception. Night train to Lisbon, at 336 pages, is much shorter, but it still took me two weeks to read it. I’d read a couple of chapters, and then read a few pages of In search opf lost time. they seemed to go together.
In this book a high school teacher of classical languages has a chance encounter with a woman on a bridge in his native town of Bern, Switzerland. She tells him she speaks Portuguese, and the sound of the word, Português grips him, and he walks out of his class, goes to town and in a second-hand bookshop he picks up a Portuguese book called A Goldsmith of Words by Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado. He buys the book, and a Portuguese language course to enable him to read it, and the next morning he gets on a train to Lisbon.
He becomes fascinated by the life of the author of the book, who had died some 30 years before, and goes around meeting people who had known him, friends, relatives, teachers and others. He has Prado’s book, and others have more of his writings, and so he speaks from the past, and others have their memories, some of which they share, and so he builds up a picture, and also reflects on his own life, and what it means. So much seems to depend on chance encounters, and so he makes life-changing decisions of the basis of a single word he heard from a stranger on a bridge.
His life becomes a strange mixture of planning to meet people who knew Prado, and also acting on a sudden whim. And so he goes in search of lost time, the lost time of Prado’s past, but also the lost time of his own past, and comes to realise that all we have is memory. He takes photos of Lisbon and the people he met there, and also of his home town, Bern.
[He] went through the pictures once more. And then again. The past began to freeze beneath his look. Memory would select, arrange, retouch, lie. The pernicious thing was that the omissions, distortions and lies were later no longer recognized. There was no point of view beyond memory.
So as I read this book, I found myself going on a journey in search of lost time, a journey of memory. How much of what we are lives in the memory of those who have known us? And so much of it is partial, and, more often than not, false.
Prado was a member of the Portuguese resistance against the dictator Salazar, and that brought it home as well. Though that struggle ended twenty years before ours, for a long time they went together, and they were just over the border, in Mocambique and Angola. I did not have to have explained to me what PIDE meant, Salazar’s secret police.
The book is a work of fiction, so it is not dealing with real people, but with fictional characters. Someone asked on Twitter the other day what our favourite metabook was, a book that appeared in a work of fiction. I mentioned The Historian, but if I had finished reading this book at the time I might have mentioned it too. There are more famous examples. In a lot of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, there is mention of a book called The Necronomicon, and some people seemed to believe that it really existed. Ten years ago my son Simon was working in a bookshop (Exclus1ve Books in Menlyn). He told me of a customer who came in and asked for a book on symbology by Professor Robert Langdon. Simon told him that there was no such book, and the customer pointed to a page in The da Vinci code that mentioned it. Simon said that The da Vinci
code was fiction and was referring to a fictional book, but the guy was most insistent. Now I’d still mention The Historian as one of my favourite books mentioning a fictional book, but I’d probably mention Night train to Lisbon too. The characters are fictional, but then so are the people we have known in real life, because they are all products of our memories, and as we try to recall them, we are in search of lost time.
An old friend died a couple of weeks ago, Graham Pechey. I had known him at university, 50 years ago, when he was a junior lecturer in English. He was a Marxist atheist, and he introduced me to Bob Dylan. One of the last times I saw him was on 11 November 1965. I had gone to the magistrate’s office in the morning to receive an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act. Then Ian Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent, and all the (white) Rhodesian students went to town to celebrate, and when we encountered any of them we sang “God save the Queen” and “Land of hope and glory” just to rile them. On the evening news we heard that Bram Fischer, who had been on the run from the police for months, had been captured.
We sat in Graham Pechey’s flat, listening to a speech by British prime minister Harold Wilson, saying that Rhodesian passports would not be recognised, and that Rhodesia would be placed under direct rule of the crown, and that Britain would not abdicate her responsibility for Rhodesia. At the end Graham broke out the booze, and we drank toasts, to Bram Fischer, the Queen, and Harold Wilson.
I reestablished contact with Graham Pechey a couple of years ago through Facebook, and he had gone from being a Marxist atheist to a royalist Anglican (though still a socialist, supporting Jeremy Corbyn and demanding the renationalisation of British Rail). I’d love to have been able to sit with him over a few ales and hear the story of his transformation. I wrote to another friend of those days, Saul Bastomsky, who had been my Latin lecturer, like the narrator in Night train to Lisbon. And he recalled Graham Pechey’s admiration for W.B. Yeats, and he had teased Graham by referring to Yeats as a “fascist magician”. What we know of friends is fragments of memory, our own and other people’s
So the book sent me on a memory tour, thinking of friends and friendship, and how we know people, or think we do. And even what we think we know changes as it passes into memory.