I have a memory from an early morning at the end of September, a walk from the métro to my friend Jocelyn’s apartment. The wind had cooled. The leaves had begun to dry — I could hear them rustling. The sunlight had begun to steep at a darker angle over the Parisian blue-black building roofs. I had unfolded my long, wool, earth-toned skirt from the bottom of my bureau to wear and I let it spin around my ankles. It was the beginning of autumn. My classes were set to begin in the following weeks. This would the best of the seasons, with its brilliance of leaves and, in time for its centennial, the first volume of Proust, this time in French, this time in its entirety rather than in excerpts.
With Du côté du chez Swann, classes brought a rhythm of mornings curved over books and along the rails of the métro and nights curled over books and into bedcovers, a rhythm of reading interspersed between classes and lectures that I had craved in last weeks of summer. I had spent time on the first part of Combray the previous fall for a literature class at Yale, and so, despite its distance from Connecticut, Proust offered a place for traversing familiar sentences. And because I was reading Proust in Paris, the city offered that feeling of place, too — I could read in cafés and the Jardins du Luxembourg and the courtyard of the Sorbonne and lose myself in what I had already experienced in English. But the reading differed from the previous autumn; Proust in French felt richer than English translations. And so, while I unearthed the same forgotten analyses that I had worked out during previous semesters, I found topographies in the text that had disappeared and blended into the English—the way a landscape loses detail on a map. In French, a Proustian flora emerged.
I hadn’t noticed the importance of the aubépines in English. For me, hawthorns recall the trees in front of my kindergarten, brambly hedges with red berries I never tasted because they looked too much like poison, because the word thorn meant pain and band-aids and the same terror as falling off the monkey bars. It was only after a handful of appearances of the word aubépine that I sought out a dictionary. The French word comes from the Latin for ‘white thorn’ (alba spina), so my childhood idea of pain reappears, but — according to a sort of false etymology — the pine of the word encrypts an imagery of pine trees, of their evergreen colors, of their scent that lasts through the winter. The color of the first half of the word — a reference to the white flowers of hawthorn trees — shares its origin with the French word for ‘dawn’, aube — the whitening of the sky. In Proust’s French, when Marcel says goodbye to the aubépines at Combray, he leaves the trees of his childhood, trees marked with the color of the sky at dawn and with a pain that also evokes a permanence.
Over dinner during the first weeks of October, my French host mother, the Brazilian graduate student she is also hosting, and I were discussing trees, the feel of bark, and the shapes of leaves. I quickly realized the limits of my French vocabulary for plants. I knew so few species of trees. In more than a dozen years of study, I hadn’t really needed to talk about trees. I knew pin, of course, due to its similarities to English and from a folk song, but neither birch nor oak. And I had learned aubépine from Proust, but only recently. Because of French toast — pain perdu — I knew the term for maple syrup, and so I knew that maple was érable. The conversation turned to New England and Canada, and to the tapping of trees in autumn. My host mother told us that whenever she or a friend would visit New England or Quebec, they would always make sure to bring home maple syrup — those were the places where it was best. I was still stuck on the trees; I asked my host mother when the leaves would turn the fiery hues I had anticipated in September. She laughed. “This isn’t North America.”
Over two autumns in New Haven, I learned to check the Fall Foliage Report that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection posts on their website. The tone of the page crosses a thin boundary between that of scientific forestry language and that of a roadside waffle house menu. The Fall Foliage Report provides a “color gradient map [of the state of Connecticut]…based upon historic field observations,” with driving routes and scenic views highlighted. The Report promises colors that are bound to be “flamboyant.” It promises a “variety — or cacophony — of colors.” It promises that a view of trees in Connecticut autumn “rarely disappoints.”
In Paris, trees line the boulevards, but for the most part, the leaves remain green up until the moment when they fall, when, after the briefest yellow, they turn brown and do fall and crinkle into dust into the corners of the sidewalk and the curb. In the Jardins du Luxembourg, a few trees hint at auburn, and near the the Gare du Nord, I once saw a wall covered in ivy with an orange swath down its center, but I have experienced none of the awe promised by Connecticut. A few days after that dinner conversation about trees, I asked my French language tutor about the leaves turning, and whether he knew what New England looked like in autumn. I showed him a photograph, and his response was that, no, Paris did not have those oranges or reds — that that must be why Americans always seem so happy about October. At that moment, I missed the humor. I was disappointed.
Around that time, I made an arbitrary promise to myself that I would finish Du Côté de chez Swann in time for my birthday in late October. With only a few weeks left and several hundred pages to read, I filled my time with Proust. On weekends, I would lose myself between the drama of Swann’s love for or obsession with Odette. I agonized over his suspicions of her lying, over the dissolution of his trust, over a love that — as I knew from reading Swann in Love a few years before — was going to end. On weekends, I would also put Proust aside and meet with friends.
One Saturday, my friend Morten and I made plans for coffee, but the weather was warm and we wound up walking across arrondissements. We talked about Proust, of course — he was at the beginning of the third volume of À la recherche du temps perdu — and European architecture. We walked past art galleries and across the Seine past the Palais Royal and went inside old churches. Morten told me that if he ever moved to the United States, he would miss the medieval buildings. I responded by saying that there were things I missed about home, too, here in Europe. A few weeks later, we made plans for coffee, again, and wound up walking, again. I had been thinking about the leaves, and told him that I missed North American autumn.
The day before my birthday and the last day I had to meet my whim of a goal to finish the first volume of Proust, I had some hundred pages left. Noms de pays : le nom, the last section of Du Côté de chez Swann, was originally as long as Combray and Un Amour de Swann, but Proust was asked to revise it and winnow it to the essential, and so the text is much shorter than the first two sections of the volume. That Sunday, I read the text quickly, too quickly to savor the prose, to reflect on what Proust meant or might not have meant with each sentence. It was a first reading — this third section was entirely unfamiliar to me. But I found a Swann-like familiarity in Marcel’s relation to Gilberte, and a familiarity of place in the recurrence and centrality of the Champs-Elysées.
At 11:50pm, I had some ten pages remaining. I decided to try to finish the book, to read those pages too diagonally for real comprehension — I would return to them later — if only to keep this ridiculous promise to myself. But in the last ten pages of Du Côté de chez Swann, Proust describes “à Paris,…[le] spectacle de l’automne” (the spectacle of autumn in Paris). I slowed down. Here, finally, I found the “véritable fièvre des feuilles mortes” (veritable fever of dead leaves) for which I had been seeking. Here was the “suprême beauté” of fall, the “pleine lumière” of late October. At some point, I stopped checking the time. I was not going to finish the book by midnight. I was going to read Proust — I needed to read Proust slowly and carefully.
A few days later, I read a Wall Street Journal article written with the centennial in mind: “to read Proust and not to find ourselves in every paragraph is simply to misread Proust.” But I am certain that in those minutes, I misread Proust’s French autumn in order to find my well-loved and dearly-missed Connecticut fall. If nothing else, the yellow of Proust’s leaves were the wrong color. The fever outside Parisian windows simply was not the brilliance of Adirondack landscapes. The supreme beauty of the wood of Boulogne in the first mornings of November was not the most supreme.
Yet there was something of my home in Proust. And a few days after finishing Du Côté de chez Swann, I found a bright orange and red leaf on the sidewalk. I picked it up — it resembled the leaves of New England maples, but was from another, unknown tree. I almost put it between the pages of a notebook to preserve and dry and keep and find out later, but decided to let it rest on the ground.
I have since found other small similarities to the promises of the Connecticut Fall Foliage Report in Paris, but in sweeping and general ways, the season is simply a different one. The word automne parallels ‘autumn’, but is still translation — the similarities between languages conceal their vast differences. During Parisian autumn, the sunlight comes over blue-black roofs later than it does in New Haven. The wind is cool, but remains sweet for much longer. What I have sought and clung onto of oranges and reds has been to forget the gleam of medieval stone in churches in the hours before sunset, to lose sight of the wonderful potpourri of wool patterns dancing around girls’ ankles. I am sure that by now, that fiery leaf I saw has dried into dust in its corner of sidewalk. But I know that for me, in Paris, there is a different type of autumnal dawning — one that remains nostalgic and distant from home, but transfixes, lasts beyond seasons. The colors of the buildings and the rhythms of the métro. The old, nearly medieval churches. Proust.
Mary Mussman is a junior literature student at Yale studying abroad in France.