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Laying down tracks and reading the signs

Laying down tracks and reading the signs

Laying down tracks and reading the signs

The philosopher Peter Natter reads a book against the backdrop of the Bregenzerwald. This time: "Days of Reading" by Marcel Proust.

When you think about it, every day is the beginning of a new year. Every day can be a fresh start, the beginning of new projects and resolutions. Each day can also be an occasion worthy of less drastic undertakings, such as rereading “In Search of Lost Time,” a colossal masterpiece by once-in-a-century author Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

This literary undertaking at the figurative beginning of the year starts at physical location, my refuge in Großdorf, a favourite place of my childhood and, as it seems, my current stage of life as well. The idea is to begin an intensive phase of reading and I plan to get started with one of Proust’s pre-texts: “Days of Reading.” Though this is not the author’s greatest work, it is certainly a part of the ‘search for lost time.’ It is a preface in both the literal and figurative sense.

First published in 1905, the thoughts contained within “Journées de lecture” are an appeal in their own right. The content revolves about the question of what can emerge from dealing with literature, in other words reading. Ideally, more literature emerges from reading, which means no more and no less than reading leads to writing. In fact, practically speaking, there are no sources of writing that do not stem from reading or reading out loud. I want writing to be understood generously, as the composition of a message, a communique, a work. In other words: a life’s work.

In his book, Proust recalls the joy of books and reading in his quasi-fictional childhood paradise of Combray: “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favourite book.” As we spent those days reading, it’s important to disregard the fact that it was mostly other people who thought we were missing out on real life. Oh how they are wrong! After all, it is not a question of burdening reading with false functions: “Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it.” The spiritual life is the life of fantasy, of imagination, of infinite possibilities in the face of the one reality.

I notice how I am always drawn to this corner of the world, this little piece of reality in the Bregenzerwald, because it has the power to reconcile me with all the possibilities of the wider world. I don’t have to remind myself that this is the most beautiful place and that nothing is its equal. I need not fool myself, I am simply me and I am present (Amen!). Reading: A nowadays frequently lamented phenomenon, that of loneliness or isolation in the globalised, networked, disenchanted, secularized, banalised world of modern communication channels and media, cannot be discussed without recourse to reading and without taking into account the impressions that emanate from childhood, unless they are fatally absent, dissolved in purely virtualised behaviour, a game, for example, that leaves no memories and no traces behind (at most data stored by someone in some cloud) and thus creates emptiness.

I took the first volume of Marcel Proust’s major work “Swann’s Way” (Du côté de chez Swann) with me to Großdorf. The world of the distinguished, art-loving Monsieur Swann is also the childhood world of the narrator. Combray is a small provincial town 100 kilometres south or southwest of Paris. For Marcel in the novel, Combray is what Großdorf, the small Siebaner Hüsle, is to me: a lost, and therefore true paradise. I have just returned from a long walk in the Subersachtal valley via Alois Negrelli’s Gschwendtobel bridge to Lingenau and back in a wide arc. If only it were possible, I asked myself along the way, to somehow whisk the great Proust here. To transport that city dweller from the world metropolis of Paris to where I stand. Proust was seldom lured out of his hermitage by even the promise of exclusive Norman seaside resorts with their grand hotels and casinos or the luxury and art treasures of Venice. How would he, at first glance a glamorous salon man, have felt about this place? “Marcel”, I would have said to him (because after thirty years of exchange we would have been on a first name basis, “viens, ici tu seras toi, Marcel”), “Come here, Marcel, and be yourself. Would that have convinced him? Of course! After all, this was his great project, which finally led to the 5,000 pages of his novel: to become whole, to let the fleeting flee and to grasp the essential. After all, he also travelled to St. Moritz to scribble cryptic messages in the guest book in remote mountain huts.

It is not mandatory to go to the Bregenzerwald with such a book, with such a plan (to become whole), but it is logical: la logique du coeur, the logic of the heart, as this tool of self-realisation is called by Blaise Pascal. Following this logic, I have walked today along a path that, although obvious and inviting, I have never taken before. Now I have the feeling that I myself am this path, it has offered itself so logically. In my childhood world of Bregenzerwald, this sign appears to me again and again: To be what at first seems to be just any thing, any possibility, an external fact. How does Proust describe his hero after he fell asleep while reading: “I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.” The Bregenzerwald, c’est moi.

Issue: Winter 2020-21 Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine
Author: Peter Natter