Books beneath the Tree

  • By Rafael Alvarez
  • January 10, 2018

...and the lessons they'll lead to in the coming year


“That perfect beam of light, that piercing whistle, old mournfulness approaching, going past me and around again…”

– Madeleine Mysko






And so, it comes ’round again, resolutions — piercing at first, too often mourned — of what to read in the New Year, decisions frequently made by what books were received during the holidays.

I’ve got a sponge-cake mountain to scale in 2018: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the first volume of which — Swann’s Way — was left under the tree this past December 25th. It is not a matter of finishing (I am stubborn, reading slow but steady), but how the experience will influence the months ahead.

Clues can be found by remembering books past. In 2015, I only read fiction by women, learning from Middlemarch to be careful what I wished for.

The following year, the bedside was piled with African-American classics, from Their Eyes Were Watching God to Invisible Man to the 2016 Christmas gift of Isabel Wilkerson’s document of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns.

With each page of every book, it became clear that I — a reasonably educated white man who has never voted for a Republican — had no idea what 70 percent of my fellow Baltimoreans have dealt with for centuries. I thought I knew, and now doubt I ever will.

And that was what I learned.

Last year, I read a long shelf of Patrick Modiano’s slim literary noirs, opaque stories set on the dimly lit streets, dark alleys, and obscure cafés of Paris, a post-war France where lost time equates to people lost long before they are dead.

Modiano, often compared to Proust, celebrated in his 2014 Nobel for his fluency in the “art of memory,” led me to Lost Time/Things Past the way a baffling map of Père Lachaise Cemetery led me last February to Proust’s grave — circuitous yet direct.

And so, deep in middle age, I am finally climbing the mound of madeleines I’ve known about since losing myself in “Volume P” of the World Book Encyclopedia in grade school, trudging one almond-dusted page at a time to see for myself what the hubbub is all about.

I am using the most recent translation of Swann’s Way — the 2003 edition by Lydia Davis — gifted to me this past Christmas by my wife, a Ph.D. in English who prefers less arduous reading and a cup of tea after a long day. Like the book’s opening line, we are happiest when we can retire early, reading side-by-side until the books fall from our hands and the lights go out.

How will Monsieur Proust — his obsessions and deceptions and separations — shape the 50 or so weeks to come?

If the Fates allow those weeks to be granted, I promise to share which way the almonds lead.

Rafael Alvarez is the author of Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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