So Unctuous and So Tender

“Filthy creature! Filthy creature!” she screams at the chicken. The chicken resists attack, she grapples with it, trying to split its neck. After it is dead and she has collected its blood her resentment persists. She looks down at the carcass and addresses it one last time: “Filthy creature!”

The narrator witnesses this scene, bloody and brutish, as a child when he goes to the kitchen anticipating the golden succulent roast chicken that always appears on the table for Sunday lunch, prepared by the family cook Françoise. The smell of the chicken turning on the spit – this is a Sunday smell, associated with Françoise, summoning her virtues, and of all her virtues this “aroma of that flesh which she knew how to render so unctuous and so tender” summons most specifically her quality of gentleness. However, on this particular Sunday when she serves the chicken, “its skin embroidered with gold like a chasuble and its precious juice drained from a ciborium” the witnessed scene of carnage, puts her saintly unction a little less in evidence.

Leading up to the chicken scene is an anticipatory description of the asparagus that will be served with the Sunday chicken. It is a description primarily of colors—seductive, voluptuous—but it ends with the sense of smell, how after dinner the asparagus changes the chamber pot into a “jar of perfume.”

The narrator, describing this incident from his childhood, tells of how he fantasizes about getting his family to dismiss Françoise immediately. But a cowardliness creeps in to mar his resolution. “[W]ho would have prepared me such cozy hot-water bottles, such fragrant coffee, and even … those chickens?” As it turns out, and later he will come to realize, he is not alone in his compact with cowardliness. His great aunt and other adults in the family are wise to the fact that Françoise’s kindness is shadowed by cruelty and sentimentality. Though she likes to weep she also likes to hate. She is particularly cruel to the frail pregnant kitchen maid. While she loves inordinately her own family and the family she serves she has little empathy for others. When the kitchen maid is shrieking in pain Françoise is sent to fetch the medical book that the doctor has marked up with instructions for what to do in such an emergency. Françoise doesn’t return and is eventually discovered reading the book and weeping over the description of the symptoms from which the maid is suffering. Meanwhile the pregnant sick girl waits. Just as she weeps torrents for unknown persons when reading the newspaper Françoise weeps for the idea not the person. For those she dislikes malice is her mode. The chicken incident alerts the narrator to the reason that they have been having so much delicious asparagus this season – because it causes allergies for the detested maid.

I am reading this Lydia Davis translation of Proust’s first volume of In Search of Lost Time in Mexico, in a village called Xilitla where we are visiting Las Pozas, a surrealist garden of fantastical concrete structures built in the jungle. I don’t know why I am reading this particular book, here of all places, perhaps it was there on my kindle, lying in wait. What I do know is that irritation and impatience have been slowly smoldering as the wretched hawthorns, even more insistent than the soggy madeleine, provoke endlessly attenuated passages of tremulous sensitivity.

Why are you reading about hawthorns in the jungle? I ask myself. Surely this voluntary immersion in excruciating European sensitivity is a kind of perversity. Then I reach the chicken incident. And suddenly I’m reconciled to Proust, the hawthorns fade out of the frame and everything else falls into place. Or rather, I feel more attuned to resting in this place we might call Proust. This is the Proust I prefer, the clarity about cruelty for instance, the way in which detail can be made to count, a single detail, or an accumulation of details, delineating over many pages qualities or characteristics. The way he has of unfolding a person, of teasing out how people accommodate to living with things, even the things they despise, often because they have no idea of their own worst aspects (vanity, snobbishness, greed, hypocrisy, jealousy, envy, to name just the familiar vices). These characteristics, or maybe even “essences” migrate between characters, across the pages. For Deleuze this is the complex literary machination through which signs are generated. Samuel Beckett is more terse: “We cannot know and we cannot be known,” he writes in his essay on Proust. It is tempting to pose the economy of Beckett and the prolixity of Proust as two sides of the same literary coin. Yet what hooks me back into the Proustian fabric is something other than an existential dimension, it is a more primal engagement with story telling, with the spinning of a fictional web in which characters are unfolded ever so slowly, so slowly that they change over time. And so, slowly, almost imperceptively you feel yourself changed.

Slow immersion, infinitesimal change, the possibility of not being incarcerated forever in a decidedly fixed character description—this is perhaps the lure of the long and sprawling novel and television saga in an age of the sound bite, of flickering attention, of the instantaneity and ephemerality of social media. Think of the Simon Melrose novels. Edward St Aubyn manages to sustain interest in a small cluster of characters over five novels; he both affirms and contests the old Lacanian adage: “the Oedipus complex cannot run indefinitely in an age that is fast losing a sense of tragedy.” Or think of television sagas such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and The Wire and True Detectives. And think especially of Wentworth, a remake of the incandescently trashy Australian soap, which ran from 1979 to 86.

From the first episode I was hooked into Prisoner—the unerring sense of drama, the virtuoso enactment of cliffhangers, the tension between gritty realism and flamboyant melodrama, the flimsiness of the cardboard sets, the grandiosity of plot ambition. And yet and yet, despite the display of artificiality, Prisoner lured us fans into a complicit but also delicious compact: an engagement with the characters of this fictional world. No matter that the only consistent thing about these characters was that they consistently acted out of character. In fact this was the lure. Prisoner was a machine for generating signs, it distributed qualities or essences across a network of characters, and simultaneously generated an affective charge that caused us to fall in love (and into addiction) and to imagine these characters, affects, essences as part of our world. If Prisoner played on the paradox of a closed world, of incarceration, in which anything was possible, change was axiomatic, then by entering into the charged ambience of this world, we enlivened our own immersion in mundanity.

A machine for generating signs, but a speed machine, histrionic rather than subtle. The flesh of Prisoner, and Wentworth too, is neither unctuous nor tender. The only chickens in Prisoner are the kind that come home to roost. And they roost uncommonly fast.

Today, I’m wishing I had on my kindle something like the Patrick Melrose series. Proust is there and I can dip in and out, but if I have to go to the E.R. today or tomorrow I need something faster on my kindle. Today is Saturday and Dr Millen has advised me to get to ER as soon as possible. The antibiotics have run their course and things in my gut are not entirely better. She is concerned that it could turn nasty in a flash, like it did when I almost croaked and landed up in hospital just before Christmas two years ago. But I foresee the scenario: they run all the tests and scans which takes the better part of a day or night and it all concludes with another prescription of the sickening antibiotic, that reacts badly with my cancer drug. To endure this cycle, so much of which consists in waiting, in noise, in lacunae, in dread, I need another kind of cycle, a fictional world that distracts and engrosses utterly. The medical cycle is aimed at keeping your body going, but the novelistic cycle can animate your soul and keep you alive.

I tell Leslie D I need a novel for the E.R. and she suggests the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, but she checks and it is not available on kindle. I ask Page D what she can suggest, she disappears and reappears with five thick paperback novels—serendipitously, the whole Cazalet saga. Saved. Saved by friendships this time, rather than by antibiotics.

I stay home, lie low and read. Keep out of the E.R. Slowly, through slow immersion and infinitesimal change, things get better.

Now when I return to Proust I am back in the jungle. Now Proust summons the smell of tropical rain and the burning of copal. In the mornings and the evenings a man would walk through and around the house where we were staying gently swinging a crucible in which copal, a kind of frankincense, was burning. Smoke wafted up and around, through doors and windows. After a day in the jungle garden, climbing and slithering on wet slippery stone paths, after heat and sweat and revelations one after another, what bliss to lie at last under a ceiling fan. Outside a thunderstorm dying down, the scent of rain and lushness and copal smoke. Sweet, dense, spicy.