ONE MORNING IN 1947 Dr Harold Stockwell, the senior French teacher at my Grammar school, was taking us through some complicated verbs. He noticed that the boy behind me was reading something under the desk. “What are you reading?” he asked. “It is a French letter, sir.” Without hesitation Dr Stockwell said, “It is always better to say, a letter from France.”
Dr Stockwell, a dapper little man, had a very sharp wit. He could use it to control any class, but it was never spiteful and we rather enjoyed it. I am in his debt because he inspired my love of French and took me on my first trip to France. He has a special distinction: he was one of the first English academics to write a doctoral thesis on the work of the great novelist, Marcel Proust. I remembered this last month when the BBC broadcast a series of readings from that novel, ‘In Search of Lost Time’. By coincidence my resolution at the beginning of the year was to read this very long novel to the very end. It would be my tribute to Harold Stockwell.
I am making steady progress and finding it very enjoyable. Above all, it is written in the most beautiful French, with long sentences that flow with calm assurance. My resolution was inspired by a book by the philosopher, Alain de Botton: ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life.’ He discusses many ways in which Proust might influence us. For example, we might learn to come to terms with changes in our surroundings if we realise that our expectations are based on false images of a past which never existed. De Botton has a long chapter about Proust’s problems with sincerity and friendship; whether friendship can survive too strong an injection of truthfulness.
Like many other readers, my time spent with Proust has led me to reflect on the nature of memory. As our lives unfold the memories which we store are edited and reshaped in ways that we cannot control and often do not acknowledge. Those which are most subject to this process are those which we hold dear and love to revisit. Then there are memories which surprise us, which emerge suddenly from a past that we had completely forgotten. These are often distressing because they remind us of the hurt we have caused, dishonesty, disloyalty, but they can also bring a sudden recall of a very happy moment. The strangest memories mystify us. They come quite suddenly. Nothing that is happening, or has just happened, seems to justify their arrival. Why? Proust by his example throughout ‘In Search of Lost Time’ inspires us to try to trace their triggers and to explain their meaning.
Sometimes we trigger memories in others. When I was a student and playing in the University jazz band we volunteered to play one evening at the Cambridge Central Youth Club. We used it as an opportunity to practise tunes we were preparing to add to our repertoire. So, with our pianist, Tony, I played a solo version of the popular tune, ‘Sweet Lorraine’. As I finished, a lady in her 60s who ran the club came over and said, “Thank you for playing that. It was my late husband’s favourite tune”. I remember that she remembered. That would have delighted Marcel Proust.