It was in the corridor of Columbus House, my city's homeless shelter. I had been told, upon being put up there, to "bring a long book". Since one of my ambitions had always been to read "Remembrance of Things Past", I took Volume 2 of the Montcrieff-Kilmartin edition. I had two hours to kill, between a crowded "lounging" area, a hellish "smoking room", and a hallway. I was shuffling around to find a place to find out how Marcel fared in his debut in Parisian society...
"Please, what is this book about?"
She is old, missing many teeth. Books, I have found in this environment, are the Bible, or else a personal fetish, not an elective activity. Despite the fact that she's just asked one of the most difficult questions in 20th century literary criticism, she is owed an explanation.
"Well, there's this man called Marcel, and he comes home after a long hard day, and doesn't have much to look forward to the next day, and his mother says, You're coming down with something, let me get you some herbal tea.
Well, at first he says tea, bleah, but then, he says, for no real reason, OK. So she gives him some tea, and says, here's a cookie to go with it. And almost without thinking, he dips the cookie into the tea, and then, he thinks, like he always does, I wish I'd had a better life, I wish I was a writer instead of all this. Then he eats the cookie, and says to himself, That's funny, at my aunt's, when I was little, I used to like tea and cookies, and then.."
"So, it's kind of uh...autobiographical..."
"Right you are. And there's a rich family, and a poor family...and a hooker, and a famous actress, and all kinds of people, and the rich family loses its money, and the poor family gets rich, and the hooker becomes a famous actress, and World War One breaks out...and Marcel sees it all."
"Wow. I can see why you're reading it."
"And in between he grows up and falls in love, and spends a whole lot of time worrying about whether he should marry the girl, but she dies. And at the end, he's sitting at the same table, having tea and cookies, and thinking, Hey, I haven't had such a bad life after all. I ought to write all this down. And that's the book".
"Great! May I borrow it?"
"When I'm done." I said.
Life has taken me away from her, but the thought remains.