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This item is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

INSIDE COVER: Stella Halkyard Pictures from a Library 4: Proust
An Island in Time: An Image of Proust
In his meditation on writing in Days of Reading, Marcel Proust observes how John Ruskin's thoughts and ideas, 'in some sense lent to him for his lifetime', are 'embodied in living books' and safely preserved in the medium of written language. Proofed against the future, these writings, the analogue of living memory, thereby harbour 'an immortal posterity' that neither the 'slow destruction of a perishable brain' nor the writer's death can destroy. Instead, intact they 'return to Mankind and instruct it'.

The lexical monument bequeathed to us on Proust's own death is careful to tell us that language alone cannot capture the range and depth of human existence. For sentient beings are 'islands in time' whose bodies carry their own secret archives of sensation and ways of knowing. In a place where 'the body is an agent of sense impression [and] an object of sense impression' (Susan Stewart), Proust felt that the past can be 'hidden beyond the reach of the intellect in some material object [and] in the sensation which the material object gives us...' (Proust as quoted by Marius Kwint).

Given Proust's intense interest in the body's ability to carry memories somatically, and what commentators have described as his obsession with 'the magical power of objects' and their ability to elicit involuntary memories, what are we to make of this lock of his hair, culled from the dead margins of his own actual body and preserved long after the destruction of his perishable brain?

In the Western tradition 'things' are usually considered to be inanimate. Objects differ from subjects, artefacts are made and organisms grow. Disrupting these distinctions, this lock of hair, 'a fragment of physical existence', resonates with the 'properties invested in it by social and religious patterns of belief' (Marcia Pointon). It carries its own cultural history within the context of death and mourning rituals that played such a significant and therapeutic role in the past. As itself a 'vehicle of memory' this little lock of Proust's hair defies death and, as Nigel Llewellyn observes, stands in as a substitute for 'the decaying natural body ... to create a permanent history of the deceased'. This lock forms part of the monumental body of a Great Writer and acts, as Proust might have said, like 'a slender bridge thrown between the present and the already distant past, which joins life to history, making history more alive and life almost historical'.


Lock of Marcel Proust's hair, John Rylands Library. Reproduced by courtesy of the Director and Librarian, the John Rylands Library, the University of Manchester

Portrait of Proust

This item is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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