This article is very Proustian. As in, I’m writing it while sick and lying in bed. There aren’t really any other similarities. It won’t feature unending sentences that will overwhelm your short-term memory or make you hungry for madeleines or your childhood. If you have to re-read sentences to grasp the meaning, that’ll be my poor command of syntax. It’s also not written in French. But it does concern the search for lost time. And a train. Mostly though, it is about one of the powers of music. In this case, consolation.
I’m actually not all that certain about the prominence of trains in In Search of Lost Time. I’ve only read Swann’s Way and a bit of Within a Budding Grove, but there’s a vague memory flickering in my mind about a train journey. Which will have to suffice, considering we’ve come too far with this very tenuous Proust reference already. Let me scramble to safer ground, and quickly.
Music. Yes, better. I recently met a charming woman who told me that she only listened to uplifting, upbeat music. For her, music is a source of joy, an accompaniment to adventure or an amplifier of euphoria. I certainly identify with that, but being at times self-indulgent, self-defeating and self-flagellating (that’s too many selves, we know), I’ve also used music to confirm or reflect my feelings of sadness or loneliness or whichever ness was greying up my mind at the time. As a young teen, I found Radiohead’s OK Computer reflected all my feelings of schoolyard isolation and I felt comforted. A couple of years later and I was an acolyte of Jeff Buckley, the pied piper of the lovelorn horde. Oh, the cringe.
I can’t listen to Buckley nowadays; his music finds nothing within me to resonate with. Perhaps you lose sentiment receptors with every hair that falls out. I also no longer listen to music to mirror my current emotional state. So when a recent moment of consolation came entirely out of the blue and lifted me up for a few glorious minutes, I felt wonder at this thing called music all over again.
It was on a Friday morning, sitting on a train as it chugged through the darkness and the rain, on my way to teach a string trio. At 7:30am. Those poor girls. No schoolkid wants to be at school at that time, and certainly not to be talked to by someone whose face is doing its best panda impression. If panda-chic ever becomes a thing, I’ll be very desirable. After a couple of rough days, I was especially black-eyed on this particular morning.
The students were about to have their first lesson on a string trio by Alexander Borodin, and guessing (correctly) that they’d never heard of him, I was listening to Polovtsian Dances with the intent of playing it to them as a quick route into his sound world. But I wasn’t paying much attention through the introduction, as I was somewhat lost in thought about a relationship that had ended just a couple of days earlier. Let’s jump from this actual train and onto a symbolic one.
You’re sitting by the window in a carriage, facing forward. Around you sit your family, perhaps a partner, close friends. There are people standing at various distances and as the train makes its stops, they come and go, in and out of your life. Now a stranger gets on, and they quickly make their way to an empty seat next to you that seems to have materialised when they did. You talk and talk, facing each other, for a great deal of the journey. The time flies. Eventually, you turn away and gaze out the window as your life streams past, comforted as you feel the presence of all those around you.
One day, you see that person out the window, and do a double take. Apprehensively and with a rising ill feeling, you turn your head and see that the seat next to you is empty. Disoriented, you realise you have no idea when they got off. If you’re lucky, that will be that. Your train will trundle on, their seat will go cold and disappear or be filled by another. If you’re unlucky, there’ll be a final confrontation and their last words will make you search for lost time.
Ah, there’s Proust again. It’s a beautiful phrase of his that I am appropriating, and it does seem to capture the process that is engendered after things fall apart, even if it’s not what he meant. In my case, it was two final words sent in anger that did it. In the subsequent days they burrowed their way deeper and deeper, and as they went, they stole my memories. I chased them, rewinding further and further, searching for a time that they couldn’t tarnish, but they were always just ahead of me and pretty soon I came to doubt whether the seat next to me had ever been occupied. All that time spent gazing out a window with just a misapprehension beside me, now lost. And I’d known all along. When I aimed my accusatory finger out the window, all I could see was my reflection pointing back at me.
Back to the real world and there I was, sitting in an actual train absent-mindedly listening to Borodin. The first entry of the sopranos began to tease at my thoughts, an apparition gently trying to coax me to turn around. The melody, with its upward leap and zigzagging descent, befuddled my sorrow and jolted me into the present. As an oboe writhed along with the choir, I sat open and accommodating, very willing to go as far away as this magic carpet could take me. When the orchestral and choral forces blossomed, an insistent bass pizzicato bounced against a triangle’s blinking of light and I had forgotten all. Lost time, regret, the inescapable unknowable-ness of people; the thought maze I’d been searching for the past few days was washed away in that rise and fall of Russian syllables like failed sandcastles on the shore.
As the wave of this music receded, those castles did remain. But the details were eroded, the edges all softened, structures minimised. Its reparation now impossible, I looked forward to it washing further out to sea, to its vanishing as surely as the time spent constructing it. Some relationships just need to end this way, even if you’d spent much energy watching wet sand fall between your fingers trying to fix it.
When I got to school, I played my students this same section of Polovtsian Dances and asked for some words to describe what they heard or how it had made them feel. Happy and joyful were suggested, and they were right. In the midst of some darkness, Borodin had given me a couple of minutes of joy and some days in awe of music’s peerless magic. Listening to it again now, still black of eye but less blue of mood, he has given me that same feeling and nudged me towards a realisation. Don’t search for lost time. Listen to music, and you may stop it altogether.