Robert Irwin

Reading Proust in the Empty Quarter

We had left Tehran, heading down to the Gulf port of Bandar Abbas. I, who did none of the driving, sat in the back of our decommissioned army lorry and started to read the English translation of Marcel Proust’s failed masterpiece Jean Santeuil. Apart from Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune and The Preservation of Personal Health in Warm Climates (published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Jean Santeuil was the only book that I had brought with me. Though it was 784 pages long, the paperback was compact. As an undergraduate I had recently read and become obsessed by Remembrance of Things Past in Scott Moncrieff’s translation. Now I wanted to repeat that immersive experience. I also wanted to learn how to write, and in particular how to write long sentences. And, since I had little lived experience to draw upon, I wanted to become, like Proust, a master of introspection.

Jean Santeuil is a collection of fragmentary texts produced by a young man who was teaching himself how to write. Those fragments were only posthumously collated and published as something that resembles a novel in 1952. Although the average length of the sentences in Jean Santeuil is less than those in A la recherche du temps perdu, they are still pretty long. Most of the incidents and themes of Proust’s masterpiece are there in the abandoned apprentice work: the mother’s goodnight kiss, the childhood sweetheart, the social climbing, the sexual jealousy and the inexorable march of time. But the overarching story of a narrator who uses memory and writing to rescue time that has been lost is not there, for when he worked on Jean Santeuil, in the years 1895 to 1900, Proust was only in his twenties and he had not yet wasted enough time for it to be worthy of an epic work of literary recuperation. There are wonderful things in Jean Santeuil but, taken as a whole, the book is a mess.

South of Shiraz the lorry took a wrong turning and, instead of continuing along a road, we drove down a dried-up, stony riverbed. Jerry cans of Swarfega and tins of food were smashed and it was far too bumpy to read. But we made it to Bandar Abbas and there the lorry was loaded onto a dhow. Goats followed. Closely packed, they wriggled around the lorry like maggots in a tin. The dhow took us across to the creek of Dubai, which was lined with little whitewashed houses with wind towers. We first had to present ourselves to the British political agent to explain our mission, set out our route and be briefed by him on the current situation. This was the summer of 1969 and there were still some thirty thousand British military personnel and advisers in the Trucial States (they would only leave in 1971, when the Trucial States reconstituted themselves as the United Arab Emirates). The political agent told us that there was fighting in the hinterland and that summer was the ‘silly season’ for tribal disputes over water rights, but that we should not be in any danger. The four young geographers from the University of Aberystwyth were proposing to travel deep into the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al-Khali) of southeast Arabia in order to investigate a phenomenon known as the ‘singing sand dunes’. I had been taken on at the last moment as their interpreter. But, although I had spent two years at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies learning how to read medieval Arabic chronicles, this proved to be a lousy basis for speaking Gulf Arabic. It was another failure to be added to my recent disappointments in examinations and in love.

Once we had entered the Empty Quarter, while my companions scrambled up and down the dunes and prodded the sands, I sat in the shade of the lorry and resumed my reading of Jean Santeuil. Back in London I had deliberately chosen this book as my travelling companion with the aim of reading it against the landscape that I would find myself in. Few people venture into the Empty Quarter and its sands extend over 250,000 square miles. It was a place without history, host only to the legends of the lost cities of Ubar and Iram of the Pillars. I needed to retreat into something that had nothing of the desert about it and, as I read, my imagination peopled the wilderness with aristocrats, artists, politicians, professors and cocottes. In my mind the desert vanished under apple trees and lilac bushes in blossom.

The average temperature in the Empty Quarter is around 50°C. The sand was reddish orange and the sky was a blue that shaded into purple. My sodden jeans clung tightly to my legs and salt sweat streamed down into my eyes and made reading difficult. But I persevered. Jean Santeuil’s tediously happy childhood was a sun-drenched one: ‘he felt happy almost before he felt awake, his eye having caught sight of the sunlight’s golden splashes on the table so that it was almost as though happiness was there to be snatched and held.’ The Arabian sun was my angry tormentor and it was hard for me then to imagine Santeuil’s ‘hot days’, which had ‘a poetry which holds a particular sweetness, less rich than that of the woods at the same hour, but more human, bringing perhaps a deeper sense of rest and, for that reason, deserving a music of its own’.

The singing of the sand dunes was thought by the Bedouin to be caused by the jinn, but the dunes do not really sing. Instead the friction of the moving sands creates sounds that range from a deep bellowing to a much squeakier noise. But they never ‘sang’ for my companions. It was a season of failure. The geographers were not interested in my Proust. They found The Preservation of Personal Health in Warm Climates more interesting and there was much discussion of the embarrassing Dhobi’s itch. Kala-azar, dengue and Loa loa filariasis, parasitic infections, could have been the names of lost cities in Tarzan romances. We had all had enough of the desert and longed to be back home. I found myself yearning for an English summer, green lawns, the smell of bracken, girls in summer dresses and, especially, the girlfriends who had dumped me.

I had dreamed of becoming another Proust – something which seems crazy to me now, for why would I have wanted to become a snobbish neurasthenic who led quite a dull life? The price for becoming such a great writer was just too high. I was young and, like the youthful Proust, I think that there was nothing much about me, but it was all so long ago and far away and I remember so very little of the time and the book. Returning to it now, I find that towards the end of Jean Santeuil, Proust includes a description of Jean’s aged father as he approaches death: ‘For him old age was what youth is for others – a time of illusions. What for them is a period filled with sweetness had come to him only when his physical powers were waning. His new idealism was tinged with melancholy.’ The father, fearing for his children, contemplates the future he will never see.

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