I was ten when I first met Virginia Woolf. I was something like ten and a half when I met Marcel Proust. These two meetings were to be decisive for my future life.
Of course, they were not in-person meetings. I may have already told you about them, but I need to remember them clearly today to help me go on in life.
I met Virginia Woolf when she was going “To the Lighthouse” and while I was in bed with the flu. It was winter. There was a bleary light in my room. I was half asleep and half awake, creating characters from the gathers of the trim cretonne. I could see noses, forefronts, eyes – all from the rays and flowers, small tight rosebuds, of the material and the plaster of the ceiling or the white light over the polished floor. It was a pleasant half-floating state, half between sleep and wakefulness, between consciousness and fever.
I had told Mother I had nothing to read anymore, and she came back from outside – a visit? – carrying a flaming book, all reds and oranges, with the black silhouette of a lighthouse and of a small boat going towards it. “Going to the Lighthouse” – Virginia Woolf.
It was a curious choice for a little girl being ill. However my parents always had curious choices. I dipped into the book as one dips a toe into the sea and I was hooked. I did not understand the story or even the sentences. I understood the words separately. I was rocked by the sentences. I was entranced by the mother, Mrs Ramsay, and I was charmed by the painter, Lily Briscoe. I was pleasantly rocked to sleep, rocked in my sleep, rocked in dull ache and semi-unconsciousness. I was happy, in a daze, losing track of hot water bottles, drinks, and meals. The characters in the flounces of the cretonne were those of the novel. It was an entirely new experience bordering unconsciousness or this drugged state when one is overwhelmed by fever and apprehends the world as something blurred, distorted, but all together far and pleasant.
When I awoke from that state and began to recover, I asked for my usual books and left Virginia Woolf for more congenial companions. Nonetheless, I did not forget her. I looked her up in the dictionary and asked Mother about her.
I gathered that she was dead, that she was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century – and others -, that she came from an intellectual and artistic family, and that she had been ill all her life, suffering from either mental illness or acute depression, and that in the end, she would not bear it anymore and had committed suicide in 1941, in the River Ouse. Mother doubted I would understand her novels but she was allowing me to read them if I wished.
Thus began my story of love/repulsion with Virginia Woolf.
I met Proust in the kitchen, in the dark corner between the purring refrigerator and the pantry cupboard where the most useless articles were kept. There was a hardback wooden chair there, without arms and without cushions. I used to perch myself on the seat with my feet on the middle rung and pretend I was an owl.
There was an intense discussion around me, involving Father and craftsmen from the village, about a new washing machine. They were surveying the room and meeting regularly at the centre, around the big table. I was unnoticed and diving with delight in “Du Côté de chez Swann”. Proust and his family were walking on the road and he was watching Gilberte and hawthorn flowers.
Not very long ago, I told you about Mother’s love for simple flowers and among them hawthorn flowers. Therefore, I perfectly understood that one might be absorbed in their contemplation. What I did not understand was the subtle difference between the child who was absorbed in the flowers, the Narrator, and the real Marcel Proust who was all three and neither.
The description of the hawthorn flowers as a group and that of a unique flower were stunning. I was dizzy before so much beauty, so many nuances of white and pink, so detailed petals, such powdery stamens, such complex little leaves. And the whole mass of them was like a wall, a veil, compact and evanescent, strong in its full blooming life and still promises to come, and fragile as to the duration of this life.
I remember leaving my perch on the chair, brush against the walls not willing to be seen, and going out in the courtyard, blinking from so much light after my dark corner, dazzled by the sun of which I was feeling the warmth on my arms and my naked and grazed legs, lost in the sudden violence of colours, looking for a path where I had seen Mother adjusting a wild branch of hawthorn the evening before. There was the untidy bush in the full splendour of new May, with the wild untidy splendour of the meadow on the other side of the thorny hedge. For the first time I was watching herbs, grass, flowers, branches. I felt intoxicated and happy as I had been with the characters and the landscapes of the Lighthouse. This was my world. This was the world.
I heard Father’s step beside me and I turned to explain and share my exhilaration and exaltation. There was no mocking, no smiling, no laughing. He was glad I had discovered another door to this world that was precious and essential to live and to survive, as he had explained two or three years ago when he had had me visit a concentration camp. He hoped I would live the same while watching paintings and listening to music, or playing music, or singing – as it painting myself was rather a lost cause, wasn’t it, Squirrel? And he smiled.
Did I know about Proust? When he was writing this hymn to nature, he was confined in his cork-lined room, suffering from asthma, neurotic, going out only when it was night, a little queer. Was he like Virginia Woolf, I asked, remembering the tall, angular lady of whom Mother had talked with such reverence. Father said, they had lived at the same time, had never met, and were different. Yet, they had both made a revolution in literature, a revolution with their thoughts, with the words, the grammar, the vocabulary, the style. That was what I was experimenting now, probably as I had experimented it when I had read “To the Lighthouse”.
But was he depressed or mentally ill? He was … different. Some might have thought he was neurasthenic. Or not “normal”. But what was being “normal”? Was it to follow the others and do the things they did, think the thoughts they thought? Father was wishing that I would never be “un mouton de Panurge”, and, at the risk of seeming abnormal and weird, would think my own thoughts, follow my own path and live my own life as best as I could. The norm was defined by the greatest number, which did not mean it was just and right. Were I to be absorbed in literature, the arts and music, I would certainly be deemed bizarre. I would also have times of feeling that I was losing touch with “reality”, times of great sadness and of great joy. But at least, I would live.
Thus began the story of my fear of being different and not different.
I need to say this today, once more perhaps. I need to hear Mother speaking of Woolf and Father of Proust. I need to re-assert my belief that Woolf and Proust were different, that they suffered but created, that they give a sparkle of life to their readers. And that I am one of these readers. I have received this sparkle of life – a tiny one – that makes me weird and bizarre in The Village, towards the Bureaucracy.
All right. They may need to put me in the box “mentally disabled” or “mentally handicapped”. But I have to be persuaded that I am not. That I have been depressed but have come back from this inferno again, and again. That I am well. That I am different and not different.
Boxes are useful: they are pens for the moutons de Panurge, which I am not. This might be disturbing for Dr Quack, the “socialising lady” and the social workers. What do I care? I am free to accept or to refuse the box. If it is dangerous for The Girls – and for me, as I do exist myself -, we shall manage differently. There must be a way to care with intelligence.
For now and forever, give me Woolf and Proust and all the others.
And let me live my life.