The saguaro in the distance are stiff as salt shakers, the rabbits hunch over the spring weeds in the evenings with their mouths down and the whole head shaped in silhouette upwards into the listening ears; the mesquite trees sing with unseen bees. A pair of young ground squirrels came over the wire fence into the back garden and the dogs proudly worried them to death. After two hundred pages of Jean-Yves Tadié's Marcel Proust: a Life as translated by Euan Cameron, I looked at my notebook and realised that the only excerpt I had written down was this:
In the army the proportion of Jewish doctors was average. One notable doctor was Michael Lévey, a GP and author of a well-considered Traité d'hygiène. This dealt with personal hygiene (the pathological causes of the physical and moral personality) -- he even covers the subject of "nostalgia" (among the French expeditionary force in Greece, in 1831), which, "once diagnosed, can only be cured by repatriation"
I was melancholy, thinking of home, and then I read Guy Davenport's essay on Montaigne's travel diaries, the man from Bordeaux journeying through Europe and having inquisitive discussions with strangers, for he was curious and intelligent and would "talk with people in every level of society, from children to cardinals," proving that he was "a wide-awake traveller," which made me anxious, oh no, I thought, "I don't question people, look at me, I have been in Arizona all this time and I do not question the Americans enough, I am not Montaigne," which made me yet more melancholy, and then I wondered what I could do to be more questioning and curious and similar to the dead Frenchman in his arctic ruff, the obvious answer right now being, "Go to a part of America where there are more people to talk to," as the desert south of Phoenix is not exactly the Greffulhe salon or Flinders Street Station or even our old local St Vinnies, where a man once turned to me in the corner and said, "Have you read this? It's fantastic," and the book he was holding was the Da Vinci Code.
Conversation here often seems to revolve around other people's damaged knees, or the medicine they're taking, and when they last saw the doctor, all subjects that might have interested Montaigne, who was suffering from kidney stones. "Montaigne's constant scrutiny of his urine in a chamber pot, his colics and dizzy spells, his ability to drink heroic amounts of hot sulfurous water, locate his journal in a time when the body was still part of personality." The body is part of the personality out here in Arizona Desert Location X where we are staying, or at least part of the public persona, for nobody here is anybody without a wrecked joint or a headache. Even one of the dogs suffers from a crippled leg and goes around with one front foot dapperly turned sideways. Montaigne would have had endless things to talk about. All I ever seem to manage is an occasional splinter which is not even in the same league as these failing knees and kidneys, and besides, the number of tetanus shots I had before coming here will keep me protected from the consequences of splinters more or less forever. I am a massive gurgling tank of anti-tetanus medicine. No splinter can do me harm unless it enters my bloodstream, whirls through the waterslide of my innards and penetrates the wall of my heart. I have a vague memory that when I was very little someone told me about a man who had died like that, but then they also used to tell me not to go barefoot or else I would get bilharzia, which, in suburban Melbourne, was actually impossible.* My Nanna's sister died of a mosquito bite.
Proust, who was sick for most of his life, liked to ask questions. Tadié writes: "As we have seen, Proust never stopped asking questions and investigating, either because he lacked experience of the world (though he would behave similarly where inversion was concerned) or because he wished to substantiate certain things: hence the importance of his relationships, entirely literary ones, with these glittering society ladies; he blended their stories or or character sketches with those he obtained through his reading: everything was put to use." Then again he also quotes Proust's friend Anna de Noailles: "Let there be no mistake: Marcel Proust was not asking questions, he did not obtain information through contact with his friends. It was he himself who, in his meditative silence, was posing questions to himself, which he later answered in his conversation, in his actions, in his books." But Tadié sees him on a yacht and presents evidence for his side: "Proust used to like chattering to the crew, whom he persuaded to talk about their lives."
Proust was anxious for other reasons, afraid that he would end up like Eliot's Casaubon, labouring for years on projects that would turn out to be useless just when it was too late for him to correct them. Do we ever really find out how stupid we are? Casaubon was ignorant of the German thinkers who had surpassed him, and when Will came along with news of the surpassing Germans he refused to listen, avoiding a relevance paradox but perishing in misery of a heart attack or was it a stroke? See where jealousy gets us. Proust was jealous in love but not intellectually close-minded in the Casaubon way. He wrote against Symbolism (in an article, Contre l'obscurité) but he knew what it was (although the Symbolist Mallarmé disagreed, responding, "I prefer, in the face of attack, to retort that some of our contemporaries do not know how to read").
Dickens was a primitive thinker, suggests Wuthering Expectations, comparing Hard Times to Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, but he was creative -- a different kind of intelligence -- and (this is my addition) he had recreational activities of terrifying vigour. "Most of the major Victorians are exhausting to contemplate, Dickens even more so," wrote Bill Tipper as he reviewed Michael Slater's Charles Dickens. "In his later career, after finishing a major work, he would unwind by hauling Wilkie Collins or another friend along as he hurled himself up a mountain." He went for miles of walks by day and by night, something which at this moment I would willingly do as well, but we tried that the other week and behold, another rattlesnake, shaking its maracas and winding itself up into an S like a grey tie dropped on the floor, ready to fling out and fix itself into our legs.
Our dry countryside is full of rattlesnakes and no walkers but the English countryside is full of walkers and no rattlesnakes. Jane Austen's people put on their boots and set off, "a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening," the Famous Five were always going on rambles, and Dorothy Wordsworth went out with her brother Wm, striding across the hills and and talking to "an old man, almost double, he had on a coat thrown over his shoulders above his waistcoat and coat."
His trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches are scarce and he had not the strength for it. He lived by begging and was making his way to Carlisle where he should buy a few godly books to sell. He said leeches were very scarce partly owing to this dry season, but many years they have been scarce -- he supposed it owing to their being much sought after, that they did not breed fast, and were of slow growth. Leeches were formerly 2/6 [per] 100; they are now 30/.
-- which makes me think, all of a sudden, of Mark Tredennick in his Blue Plateau, learning about the Blue Mountains west of Sydney from some local farmers, and recording their conversation in a dialect so strange and antique that I had the feeling he'd transcribed it all out of Barbara Baynton, or that the characters from Baynton's stories had come forward into the real world to guide him around the countryside there, taking him out on their horses and drinking billy tea, and that perhaps they would conduct him down a cavern in the earth and there they would go through the different circles, until, finally emerging, they would travel up a slope he had never seen before, and encounter Beatrice accompanied by green dancing wallabies in a chariot drawn by a six-foot echidna. A mysterious figure with two heads taps him on the shoulder and says, Hello, I'm Ern Malley. Dialogue from life must be transformed by the author, not merely transcribed, says Tadié somewhere in this biography. I remember reading the page, but can I find it again? I can't.
Is anyone writing your biography?
I have no life.
-- from an interview in the Paris Review.
* Or anywhere in Australia. The person who was giving me this warning had once been shown a terrifying educational film, but the film was filmed in Africa.