On February 21, 2015, my brother and I had a rare musical experience: we watched a band that we love perform a song in an otherwise empty room, which is as close as you can get, in life, to how a song seems inside your head.
Bennett, my brother, had booked the indie rock band Cymbals Eat Guitars to perform at our college in central Connecticut. The band had just returned from a winter tour of Europe. They had been touring widely since 2009, when they released their first album to great acclaim.
Bennett was a college senior at the time. I had graduated two years earlier, but had stuck around town with my girlfriend. I spent my mornings trying to write, which meant sitting at a desk in our freezing rental house, wearing a winter coat indoors, reading novels, and drafting short stories in spiral notebooks. In the afternoon I pieced together a scant living from freelance radio production work. Most nights I had band practice. I played drums in two bands. Bennett played bass guitar for one of these. I saw him almost every day. We’d practice at his place, a yellow house on a hill. He shared it with four friends, all boys. Their bathroom was so filthy that one day, as I stood in line at CVS, thinking for some reason of their awful toilet, I was seized with brotherly conviction, and forfeited my place in line to go find a toilet scrubber and a bottle of cleaner. I bought these and walked straight to Bennett’s house, where he watched me clean his toilet.
That year, we listened to Cymbals Eat Guitars’s third and latest album, LOSE, on near-constant repeat. The album, we agreed, was perfect. The songs were almost pop songs, but their sensibility remained so resolutely experimental that they felt surprising at every listen. They always felt new; there was always more for us to notice, more for us to discuss. On LOSE, the band’s lyrics had taken a turn, from impressionistic streams of imagery toward a kind of poetic autobiography. They had gained a powerful new directness.
The band arrived around sundown in a large white van: four men in blue jeans, bearing guitars, keyboards, battered amplifiers, and a disassembled drum kit. We shook their hands. Since my brother had arranged the concert, we helped them carry gear through the snow, up a fire escape, and into the building. Their setup routine was smooth with habit; they said little about the equipment, sauntering around the room to connect cables and flip switches, joking among themselves as they worked. The singer, Joe, talked about his enthusiasm for a six-part documentary called The Jinx, which had just come out. He was telling his bandmates, but now he was also telling me and Bennett. We kept ourselves busy and helped the sound guy, another student, untangle some XLR cables. This done, the sound guy disappeared. His name was Jackson, a coincidence that amused the band, who by now had assumed their places onstage at their instruments: They conferred and then, as Bennett and I stood and watched, launched into the first track on LOSE, an elegiac and bombastic song called “Jackson.”
The first verse of “Jackson” is about silence as much as sound. The song begins with a brief squall of keyboard arpeggios and feedback wail and cymbal crashes before dropping down into an easy three-four beat with lots of space between the notes. It’s almost a waltz. The drummer, Andy, plays with the snare off, so that the backbeat is a bonk rather than the typical smack of a rock song. You can hear every word that Joe sings. Without the melody, the words lack a lot; imagine them sung slower than you’d speak them.
“You’re taking two Klonopin,” Joe begins, “so you can quit flipping and face our friends.” The song’s narrator and this “you” are traveling to the Six Flags amusement park in Jackson, New Jersey, but the day is heavy with the memory of a friend who has died. At this slow pace, the narrator contemplates the roller-coaster rides ahead.
During the little lull that leads into the chorus, I heard Andy, the drummer, flip his snare strainer from off to on, a small snap, a detail that made the chorus, when it arrived, even more real: a drum fill leads the song into the chorus, which soars before toppling down, with its lyrics about space-sickness and the delirious weightlessness of plummeting down a roller coaster track.
Joe closed his eyes and sang with such conviction and animation that the near-emptiness of the room seemed irrelevant. I had a sensation that’s difficult to describe, except that it was familiar to me and may be familiar to you, too. It’s the sweet strangeness of hearing a song you love performed in the world.
I looked over at Bennett, who was filming this on his phone. I decided to take a picture, but I wanted to get Bennett in the photo, too, exactly the way I was seeing it then, with the wide stretch of floorboards that gave a clear impression of the place’s emptiness, with the sense of pride I felt in how he’d made this real. I had to step back a few paces to get it all into the frame:
Our band was opening for Cymbals Eat Guitarsthat night. During our soundcheck, as our two guitarists tuned up, as Cymbals Eat Guitars stood around eating deli sandwiches, Bennett noodled on his bass. Without thinking, he began to play the bass line to the Cymbals Eat Guitars song “Place Names.” It had become a standby noodle of his, a snaky melody in an odd time signature that jumped octaves and climbed the neck of the bass. He had amused me all year by playing it during moments of idleness at practice in his living room.
But today, of course, we were not in his living room. The moment Bennett began to play the riff, Matthew, the bass player of Cymbals Eat Guitars, turned around to look at Bennett, bewildered. Bennett, too, assumed a look of shock. It took them both a moment to piece together what had happened—the backstory of Bennett’s learning the bass line, internalizing it on the level of muscle memory, making it so habitual that he had stepped in perfect innocence into the strange situation of standing onstage and playing a song for the musician who had written it—all of which was seemingly established and forgiven without either Bennett or Matthew speaking a word. They began to laugh.
When we climbed down from the stage, I asked Joe, the singer, whether “Place Names” was a Marcel Proust reference. I had wondered this for months; the last section of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (and the only volume I had read at the time), is called “Place-Names.”
Joe shook his head. “I started to read Swann’s Way but never finished it,” he said.
“That’s funny,” I said. “The song seemed so much like that chapter. The chapter is about the narrator having all these expectations about a place, building it up in his imagination, but when he gets there it’s totally different than he thought.”
“That’s what the song’s about, sort of,” Joe said.
The room began to fill with people, other students, and was packed by the time the show began. I saw little of the crowd from my place onstage behind the drum kit, only an indistinct mass of bodies. I broke a drum stick near the end of our set and stood up in a panic. Without hesitation, Andy rushed backstage and handed me a replacement drum stick, which I used for the duration. Everybody sang along when we played our local hit, which must have seemed strange to Cymbals Eat Guitars, strange to see how our tiny celebrity irradiated the room.
Our set ended and Cymbals Eat Guitars took the stage. They played both “Place Names” and “Jackson.” I loved every minute of the show, though it wasn’t quite the same, seeing “Jackson” amid a crowd of swaying fans after seeing it alone with my brother.
Marcel Proust began writing In Search of Lost Time as something much shorter: a book of essays called Against Sainte-Beuve, in which he first articulated his theory that “the only acquaintance one should have with writers is through their books.”
Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve was perhaps the best-known literary critic of the nineteenth century. He believed in a biographical style of criticism, whereby a reader could never truly know a text without answering certain questions about the author’s life—“even though,” Sainte-Beuve wrote, “these questions might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings. What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor?”
Proust, on the contrary, felt that Sainte-Beuve focused too closely on the lives of artists, and that the glamor of this proximity had blinded Sainte-Beuve to true genius. Proust believed that in-person meetings never tell us anything about artists, since in social encounters one only expresses blurry and compromised facsimiles of one’s true thoughts. For what it’s worth, posterity has found in Proust’s favor. Sainte-Beuve praised writers whose names mean little to most of us—Bernard, Vinet, Molé, Verdelin, Meilhan, Azyr—but didn’t care for Baudelaire, Balzac, or Victor Hugo.
By this standard, was Proust right? In our age of perpetual connection, artists’ selves, or versions of them, seem continuous with their work. In a way, we’re all invited to the private salons at which Sainte-Beuve might have accosted a favorite writer and asked about his life: we have the internet, with its wealth of interviews and biographical writing, its detailed itinerary of performances or speaking engagements, and of course the slightly menacing proximity of Twitter, where you can bother anybody at any hour, day or night. Does this tell us more about the artist’s self, or do we know less the closer we get?
A month after the campus show, our little band drove thirty hours from Connecticut to Austin, Texas, for a show at the music festival South By Southwest. Cymbals Eat Guitars were playing a show, too, but the parallels ended there: they were part of a showcase that featured several famous artists, including Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen and a DJ set by Elijah Wood. We, by contrast, had a two pm show at the bar where our cousin worked.
We attended their show, and Bennett spotted Joe in the crowd before Hamilton Leithauser’s set. Bennett waved, and Joe waved back, so Bennett walked over to say hello.
“I really want to meet him,” Joe said, indicating Leithauser, “but I don’t know how. Should I just go up and talk to him?”
“Well,” Bennett said, “I just came up and talked to you.”
Joe considered this parallel. He and Bennett watched Leithauser’s set for a while, until Joe disappeared backstage. The crowd had diminished by the time Cymbals Eat Guitars performed; their slot overlapped with that of DJ Elijah Wood, which would prove to be the showcase’s biggest draw by far.
Nevertheless, we had fun. We sang along. We danced in the unfluent way of people who don’t know how to dance, but must.
As we stood there in the crowd, losing our shit, it did not occur to me to wonder, as I do now, how it felt to look down at us from that stage. We were right up front. They must have recognized us, seen the tops of our heads bobbing violently. We must have looked like fools, like we were having so much fun.
I wonder, now, whether it’s possible to relate with dignity to an artist whose work you love. They have such power over you. And as much as you relate to the work, there’s always a certain distance, because it’s the art that makes you dance, not the artist.
Proust would suggest that the truest way to know an artist is through the work. Only on the page, or in the song, can we truly understand a writer, because only there do we encounter their pure style. Style, Proust writes,
is an accent marked by no sign on the page, indicated by nothing in the text; and yet it clings to the sentences, which cannot be spoken in any other way; it was the most ephemeral but the most profound thing in the writer, the thing which will bear definitive witness to his nature, which will enable one to tell whether, despite all the harsh things he uttered, he was a gentle man, whether despite all the sensuality, he was a man of sentiment.
In other words, truth lives in art. In person, you’ll never get the answers you want. You’re meeting the artist in the wrong medium. You’ll get mere conversation, and there’s no reason to expect more.
And yet we do. It’s hard to blame Sainte-Beuve. Meetings with artists seem to have such weight, perhaps because, in the instance of musicians, these meetings suggest an opportunity to step inside the music and meet the person whom, because of the music, we already feel we know. Perhaps, we think, the artist might answer the question that’s been gnawing at us. This question can’t be articulated in words, but it is something like, How have you done this to me? It’s part of how we try to tie down the works of art that threaten to destroy us by the magnitude of our own enthusiasm, to make us lunatics as we try to understand where to put our love.
According to Proust, the only true meeting is to write, to respond in kind, to meet these artists in art, not in life. Rather than biographical criticism, he believed in autobiographical criticism, which undertakes to represent the critic’s whole way of seeing the world, all the memories and experiences that make up one’s readerly mind. This monumental undertaking became his seven-volume autobiographical novel. “True books,” he writes in the final volume, “must be the product not of daylight and chitchat but of darkness and silence.”
With Proust, it’s difficult to separate this stance from his own biography. He wrote In Search of Lost Time mostly while confined to his bedroom by severe asthma, which was in those days more or less a death sentence. He slept all day, woke at five pm, ate two croissants, and wrote until sunrise. With his mental life bounded by physical decline, with little to distract him from the vast psychological landscape he was writing into being, Proust produced a text so dense that it’s difficult to read except in material circumstances similar to Proust’s own. Healthy people are lucky not to have the time. I once met a woman who told me that her mother read all of Proust during a six-month period of incapacitation due to a badly broken leg. Upon hearing this, I wondered aloud whether the only people who have time to read Proust are invalids and graduate students.
Life intervenes. We set down books for weeks or months and pick them up elsewhere, maybe even as different people, depending upon how much time has passed. But when I find the time to read at Proust’s pace, the Proust I meet in his books—the Proust I’ll only ever meet—feels fantastically alive. His thoroughness of vision is such that language seems suddenly capable of doing anything, traveling anywhere, if only it’s agile enough.
Music, though, has a third zone of meeting: the stage, which exists in physical space but hovers above it, just beyond conversational speech. Perhaps it’s this zone of movement, of bodies, of physicalized voice, that imbues live music with a tantalizing possibility that writing doesn’t have. It seems so easy to step out of oneself and into the song.
In September of 2016, Cymbals Eat Guitars released their fourth album, Pretty Years. I bought a ticket to see them in Washington, DC before I had even listened to it. I had moved to Charlottesville, Virginia for grad school, and DC was a mere two-hour drive away.
Bennett had moved to Brooklyn. The night of the Pretty Years album release, he saw Cymbals Eat Guitarsin concert. He texted me the next day. The show had been fantastic, he said, and he had a strange story to go with it. On a whim, he had texted Joe beforehand (Bennett had Joe’s number from booking that college show years ago) and asked if Joe would like to “smoke a doobie.” Bennett and his friend Dillon had labored over the phrasing and decided on this, in which the ridiculousness of “doobie” broadcast a lightness and nonchalance to which, Bennett felt, it would be easy to say yes.
Sure enough, Joe agreed. He said he’d meet them after the show. When the show ended, the boys waited outside, and after a little while, Joe appeared.
They were passing around a joint, idly chatting, when a woman stepped out of the shadows and joined the circle. They gladly included her in the rotation, though Bennett observed that she didn’t seem to have attended the concert, since she had approached from the opposite direction. The four of them continued to smoke and talk, until the woman indicated the venue and asked, “What was going on in there? Some sort of DJ?”
At this, Bennett told me—by now I had called him to hear the story as totally and clearly as possible—Joe seemed to panic. He quickly said goodnight and disappeared back into the venue.
I listened to their album on my couch in Charlottesville and found myself inside “Shrine,” a slow, waltz-time beat that reminded me of “Jackson.” This, the new album’s final track, was a catalogue of New Jersey place names—Ocean Grove, Asbury—unified by another address to a you. “Head to Red Bank on your birthday,” Joe recalls. “Your brother sounds just like you. Your mom got my wrist tattoo. We laugh and drink and eat, but we’re all just wishing you were here.” The song describes a state of recollection, of dense association, that has come up against hard reality: “Walk through this world of memories,” he sings, “Cause I’ve got nothing left to do, except shiver in the sunshine and long for missing time.”
Proust! I thought, and sat up straight from where I lay on the couch.
“Missing time” was only a step away from “lost time.” I began to wonder whether Joe had read Swann’s Way after all.
And because Joe and I are alive during the same window of time, because we live in an age of perpetual connection, I tweeted at him. This was the day before the DC show. I asked whether he had intended to make reference to Proust this time around, even to quote Proust near-literally. And to my terror and astonishment, Joe tweeted back.
The similarity was unintentional, he explained. “When memory is the subject matter,” he wrote, “the language u can use is somewhat limited. Care to show me these ‘direct quotes’?”
I had plenty of quotes. There was “Place Names,” of course, and “long for missing time.” Proust’s novel could be described as a catalogue of “the ghosts of all the parties still happening,” as Joe sings on “Plainclothes.” And there was a line in “Laramie,” on LOSE, that went “Your street’s just a place / It has no memory at all,” which was, or almost was, the last paragraph of the “Place-Names” chapter, the ending of Swann’s Way:
The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme. Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the last moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
I tweeted all of this at Joe, who mercifully ignored my ravings and replied with the following image, captioned “look familiar.”
No, the boy in the photo was a young Marcel Proust.
“this is uncanny and wonderful,” I wrote back. “truly you are proust.”
“yeah,” Joe replied. “It’s fucking weird.”
“omfg stealing this for insta please and thank you,” Joe wrote, and published the image on his Instagram account with the caption “Proust Springsteen.”
Whatever all of this meant, I felt sure that Joe and I would have something to talk about at the show the next day. I resolved to invite Joe for another joint. I simply had to replicate Bennett’s experience. He had crossed that invisible border into the world of the music, and I wanted to follow him to that joint-passing circle. Though I basically never smoked pot, and didn’t enjoy it at all, I drove to DC listening to Pretty Years and drafting “doobie brothers” jokes in my mind for my text to Joe.
Back then, I had only read Swann’s Way,but two months later, I reread Swann’s Way, and over the next year, I read the rest of the seven volumes. The story is similar, if not the same: I pored over Proust’s pages. I have copied brief lines and pages-long paragraphs into a red notebook that I reserve for Proust.
I continued to find parallels with Joe’s lyrics. His song “Place Names,” for instance, represents an awful epiphany with the image of lighting striking sand and turning it to glass. This echoes another jagged space carved out within Proust’s narrator by sudden knowledge—a cavity “hollowed out in me, like a thunderbolt, in accordance with some inhuman, supernatural diagram, like a double and mysterious furrow.” When I find parallels like this, I write them down, even if I don’t know what they mean, or whether they mean anything at all.
I’ve been thinking about Joe’s tweet, about how when memory is your subject matter, the language you can use is limited. I think he’s right, but there’s more to it. Rather than originating from a limited vocabulary, perhaps these rhyming observations are a consensus, a reproducibility of the experiment.
In the second half of Swann’s Way, in a long chapter called “Swann in Love,” the narrator traces Charles Swann’s love of a woman and of a little musical phrase. In fact, they’re one and the same; as Swann’s feelings change, so does his perception of the music, so that his periodic encounters with the song are an index of his emotional state.
Toward the end of this chapter, he attends a last concert and has an epiphany, brought about by the song, written by a fictive composer named Vinteuil. Proust tells us that, after years of Swann’s hearing the song, thinking always of himself and the pains of his own love, “Swann’s thoughts were borne for the first time on a wave of pity and tenderness towards Vinteuil, towards that unknown, exalted brother who must also have suffered so greatly. What could his life have been? From the depths of what well of sorrow could he have drawn that god-like strength, that unlimited power of creation?”
This piece of music leads Swann from his own individual sorrow to Vinteuil’s sorrow, and from there to Sorrow itself, Sorrow as an article of the human condition, dug out of experience by Vinteuil’s artistry. This is a vantage, Proust writes, “discovered by a few great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that vast, unfathomed and forbidding night of our soul which we take to be an impenetrable void.”
The way Proust sees it, Vinteuil has found the general in the particular, has illuminated the world as scientists do, “on the same footing as certain other notions without material equivalent, such as our notions of light, of sound, of perspective.”
This is Proust’s ambition: to meet one other in these laws, these illuminations of the murky workings of the human mind. I’m moved every time I read Proust, every time I hear beautiful music, by this hope—against oblivion, against silence, against the poor fact that we will someday disappear. Proust writes,
Perhaps it is non-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.
Proust puts it well, and so does Joe. On “Shrine,” at the very end of Pretty Years, Joe sings, “Where will it all go when I die? I’ll never know while I’m alive, never know while I’m alive, never know while I’m alive,” and with this lament, with this lyric articulation of the ultimate question, “Shrine” descends into a rumble that falls into silence, and the album ends.
They opened with “Place Names” but I was too stoned to appreciate it. I had invited my friend Benjamin to the concert and he had rolled two joints beforehand, one of which we smoked on the walk to DC9, the venue; by the time we entered the club, I had entered the state of dissociation I remembered from certain college episodes in which time crumbled into a succession of unconnected vignettes, each of which convulsed with horror.
Matthew, the bass player, couldn’t get his bass to make any sound. Something was wrong with the power supply. And the drum-and-bass solo passage was speeding toward him like a runaway train. His terror was visible. Somehow he got through it, but after the song ended he was furious.
“Let it be known,” he said into the microphone, “that this powerstrip says DC9. My shit is immaculate.”
I had messaged Joe and he had agreed to meet for a joint after the show, and suddenly the prospect of this meeting paralyzed me with fear. I had imagined that after the show he’d thump open a stage door behind the club, admitting us to the inner sanctum I’d created in my mind. But as the band played through their set, I saw the truth. We had no connection. Joe was besieged by people just like me, total strangers who want to speak with him because of what he has created, who want to make him a saint. But he’s just a kid. He’s not much older than me. He has fallen forward into a kind of celebrity, but he’s just trying his best.
Then the band slammed into the opening notes of “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY),” perhaps my favorite song on Pretty Years. The fuzzy force of the rhythm hit me like a body. For a moment I had trouble breathing.
The song sounds not just as though it were being played through blown speakers, but as though the entire song is one long blowout, exceeding the capabilities of the sound system again and again in a state of constant climax that doubles the lyrical content.
The song is about one night in Philadelphia. Joe begins, “Step down from the SEPTA to the empty street; Fourth of July, 2015.” At the Pep Boys auto shop on Aramingo Avenue, Joe gets into the car of a friend of a friend. The driver proves to be extremely intoxicated, and nearly hits a family who are setting off fireworks in the street. The driver pulls over to light a cigarette, upon which the father of the family approaches, furious, along with an uncle who is brandishing a gun. Joe, faced with the possibility of death, has a revelation. There’s a lull in the song and he sings,
My depression suddenly lifted
All the adrenaline shot my nervous system
So I’d be present and grateful for every second
Later the feeling faded
I couldn’t help it
And then the song explodes again; and that night, this night at DC9, the band leaned into it with the urgency of my own panicked heart, the futility and exhaustion of my own life. The song described all of it, and it gave me hope that everything, this loose first draft of a life, might someday be redeemed, might find its final form in a fluent gesture that would make it meaningful, mastered, even beautiful.
As the band continued to play, I discovered that the venue was full of bodies. I turned away from the stage and looked at the crowd. We stood close together in the dark, moving softly to the beat, nodding, tapping our toes, bouncing on the balls of our feet. We sang along. We knew the words. Everybody in the room, I thought, had a life as various as my own, but tonight, we were here because of how we were similar. Maybe it was the crowd that terrified me, I thought. Sameness makes us feel afraid. It’s like meeting your doppelgänger: faced with the fact that you’re not unique in a certain characteristic, you feel a sense of loss and displacement, no longer able to claim that feature as yours. But maybe it was better not to be alone. Maybe it was good to be the same; maybe this was what it meant to meet inside a work of art, just as Swann met Vinteuil through the sonata.
After the show, I botched what should have been a good moment. Ben and I stood outside the club with Joe and a friend of his, passing Ben’s joint in a circle.
“Are you a Proust scholar?” Joe asked me.
“He might as well be,” Ben said.
“No,” I said.
“You really know your shit,” Joe said; and I almost played it cool, but instead I decided to tell him that when he had asked me to point out the “direct quotes” in his lyrics, I had panicked.
“Oh no!” he said, with an expression of concern. He reassured me, said he just liked to know about that stuff. It was nice of him. He seemed to understand that I had offered this by way of apology, apology for pestering him, apology for appearing out of nowhere with this flaming and directionless need to talk.
But that was how I took a moment of candor and flung us back into our celebrity and civilian relation, missing my chance to ask him about his work, or about himself. Does any of this sound familiar, I would have asked, or am I insane?
All of this, I thought, could be a Cymbals Eat Guitars song, if I ever find the chorus, the end refrain, the transcendence of these embarrassing details that will make these moments of weakness larger than they are.
When we said goodnight, I threw Joe a salute, which is not a gesture I habitually use. That was a weird thing to do, I thought. Ben and I walked away from the club with Joe’s friend, who told us that he used to be the band’s manager. He managed them for the first two albums, but quit right before they made LOSE, at which point—the way he saw it—they had soared to success without him. It was clear that he loved the band, and was full of regret. We said goodbye when the time came, and he walked away into the night, Pretty Years on vinyl tucked under his arm.
Swann’s Way begins with a sixty-page episode set in the small town of Combray, where the narrator and his parents visited his aunt Léonie during several boyhood summers. The narrator recalls one particular evening on which, unexpectedly, his mother refused to come upstairs to his bedroom and kiss him goodnight. This turn sends an already anxious boy into profound terror. He can’t sleep without his kiss. He schemes and pleads, hoping to coax her upstairs, but she’s at dinner and won’t be distracted. Well, the narrator won’t sleep without his kiss, and with the desperation of a Spartan at Thermopylae, he plants himself at the top of the staircase, throwing caution to the winds, sure to infuriate his parents with his disobedience, but he simply doesn’t care: he must have his kiss.
Proust based the fictive Combray on the real town of Illiers, where he and his real parents visited his real aunt Léonie in the summers of his boyhood. In 1971, on the centenary of Proust’s birth, the people of Illiers voted to change the town’s name to Illiers-Combray, a marriage of life and art that now holds out the beguiling possibility of stepping off a train and right into Proust’s novel.
In the summer of 2017, as my girlfriend and I made our way back to the United States after two months of research in Madagascar, we spent a week in Paris, during which she generously agreed to accompany me to Illiers-Combray. We boarded the train from Montparnasse, set down our luggage, sat back, and watched Paris dissipate into countryside, glad for this brief reprieve from the backpacks we’d carried all summer, bulging bags half our height. Trees whipped past in perfect silence. The landscape turned to miles and miles of trackless wheat fields that undulated gently with our fantastic speed. I recognized the landscape, which surprised me: we might have been traveling through the American Midwest, through Wisconsin, where my brothers and I grew up. We changed trains in Chartres. As I sat and looked out the window of the two-car local train that would carry us twenty minutes west to Illiers-Combray, I found this impression of familiarity even more acute: flatness all the way to the horizon, tiny shapes of birds holding still in the vast white sky. The train slowed. We shouldered our bags again. The train stopped. We descended.
Did I find what I was looking for? If it added up to anything—our hot, hour-long search for our Airbnb, which was my fault, and on which, in penance, I shouldered my girlfriend’s colossal backpack as well as my own; our lunch in a café where the owner insisted we photograph every item of his considerable collection of homemade Proust memorabilia, including a vinyl Proust clock, which seemed to me a little too on-the-nose; our meandering search for Proust’s aunt’s house itself—if all of it yielded anything, it was the staircase.
In Swann’s Way, the staircase on which the narrator waits for his mother has such a huge presence, is the site of so much anguish, that to see it in life as a mere cramped two flights was astonishing. The staircase on the page, the staircase in my mind, had seemed tremendous, palatial, standing at vertiginous height. We climbed it in three seconds; the narrow steps of dark wood creaked as in any old house.
I found it very moving that a place so ordinary could be the start of something so great. Perhaps this is what Proust tells us: We don’t get to choose the imagery of our lives, the symbols and scenarios that we’ll carry with us forever; sure enough, several volumes later, the narrator will return to the image of the staircase to understand the emotional structure undergirding later moments of desperate longing. This may seem like an artificially literary way of reading the world, but perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps these so-called literary devices emerge from psychological truth: in life, as in a novel, objects gain meaning as we reencounter them, and the tools with which we begin are those we’ll continue to wield.
Standing at the top of Proust’s aunt’s staircase, I suddenly understood that the mind works like a novel. It tells itself these shadow stories, it makes much of coincidences, it’s both desperate for and fearful of finding a plot to succumb to.
Of the symmetries and refrains present in his own life, Proust’s narrator writes, “I was not free to choose them; they were given to me just as they were.” It is precisely this given-ness, this non-authorship, that imbues these moments with what he calls “the joy of the real.” We haven’t made these connections so much as unearthed them; or that’s how it feels, at least. Joy has never needed facts in order to be true.
Back in Paris, we visited the Père Lachaise cemetery, home to Proust’s grave. The grave was a man-sized block of black marble, about shin-height, with a dull luster that cast back dim reflections of our faces and the gray sky. Three potted flowers sat at the head of the slab, and at the foot, a small circle of stones and a snail’s shell.
We had arrived at the end of the day, shortly before the park was to close, and saw few other visitors. We could hear distant horns and the wind in the trees. This was a calm Sunday evening; nevertheless, after traveling all this way to stand here, I felt a dual sense of restlessness and hesitancy. Well, what does one do at a grave? What does one say? We travel to these places in the hope of discovering something, of retrieving some sort of story. But who is the person, who is the ideal listener, that we’re gathering all these experiences for? Is it any one person? Is it some imagined image of ourselves? Who?
I thought back to October 16, 2016, a few weeks after the DC show, when I drove to Philadelphia to see Cymbals Eat Guitars with my friend Peter; driving to the show, Peter and I passed the Pep Boys on Aramingo Avenue—made famous to some by “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)”—and stopped to take a look. There wasn’t much to see. The middle P and B of the illuminated red letters were dark. I sent a picture to Bennett:
Peter and I got back in the car and continued to the concert, no better acquainted with the song; but of course places themselves rarely hold the object of our search. Proust makes clear that the locations of memory don’t exist on any map, can’t be gained by horizontal travel, but reside within us, leaping into sudden presence when involuntary memories, often triggered by the senses, cause us to become umoored in time. In “XR,” the third track on LOSE, Joe describes just such an experience, in which a deceased friend briefly returns to him: “Here I am again at Ben’s MySpace grave,” he sings, “and then out of nowhere the smell of his basement, where we watched Faces of Death, and we regretted it.”
Peter and I arrived at the show, and as we walked through the crowd, I bumped into Joe. He recognized me. We hugged but didn’t speak. They opened, once again, with “Place Names.” I was struck, this time, by the drum fills that Andy executed between Joe’s lyrical phrases, these tight riffs around the toms. They had increased the song’s tempo, I decided. That was why it felt so crisp.
Performance is always rearrangement: the original contains the second version, and the artist walks around inside the song, even becomes a kind of listener, leaning into bits they like, changing others, and we follow them from room to room.
Another way of putting this is that, as we listen to the new song in relation to the old one, we walk through the rooms of our selves, through the versions of the song we carry inside us.
Near the end of the set, they began to play “Jackson”. In my memory of the concert, which Peter has corroborated, they are playing the song slower than usual, and the stage’s disco ball is turning, showering the sizable room with spots of light, reflections from the ball’s many mirrors, a rank and file that swim across the crowd, the walls, swelling suddenly as they slide across Matthew, shrinking and then rising again across Joe, gleaming on the strings of his guitar, growing as they reach Brian, the keyboard player, overcoming every material obstacle as they travel around and around the room.
“You’re taking two Klonopin,” Joe sang, “so you can quit flipping and face our friends.”
Perhaps he had already played this song in this room today, at soundcheck, but it was new again to me. At that moment I began to think of standing with my brother at the show we played with Cymbals Eat Guitars back in February of 2015, in college, a few days before Bennett turned twenty-two. And I began to wonder, finally, whether what I wanted from this music might be as simple as regaining that empty room where I stood beside by brother, ready for the show, enjoying the year, which had showed no sign that it would ever end, back when my girlfriend and I lived in a falling-down house and I walked half an hour in the snow most nights to Bennett’s place, where he would greet me in socks, often dazed from the nap out of which my knocks had woken him; and we’d set up from practice and talk about music, about the album we were writing, the next show, all the unremarkable prose of that fugitive and ordinary era.
But when my girlfriend and I stood there at Proust’s tomb, I was not overcome by memory. Not yet; and this needn’t have been surprising. The life of a young person encompasses far more raw experience than it does reflection. Most of us, while we live, live in the space between the event and the after-the-fact, too close to the moment to see past it. I was only twenty-six years old. We made this cemetery visit on my birthday. Though neither of us knew it yet, this would be our last trip together as a couple, and this visit to Proust’s grave among the final episodes of our six-year relationship.
“Are you going to leave anything?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I reached into my pocket and withdrew a pen. It was all I had in there. She pointed out that the gesture would actually be quite appropriate. I nodded. Perhaps a little too obvious, I thought, and laid the pen on the grave.
Piers Gelly is a Poe/Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia. This is his first publication.
Proust Springsteen first appeared in TLR Babel Fish.