Gilberte Swann

Portrait of the Hon. Emily Mary Lamb
1803, Sir Thomas Lawrence

In November – December time last year I would spend hours reading in the National Gallery. I’d sit in the Whistlejacket room. Take a right up the stairs through the main entrance, through the impressionists – Gaugin, Renoir… Rousseau’s tiger and the big Manet, guns pointing towards an execution. A turn left past Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey and you’ll find yourself in a long room. It’s room thirty four, to be precise.

There are two comfortable big deep red leather chairs in that room. I call it the Whistlejacket room because Stubbs’ Whistlejacket is huge and is the center piece; amongst Turners, Hogarths, Constables and Gainsboroughs. My seat of preference is facing the Whistlejacket side of the room on the sofas closest to the Lady Jane Grey room, although I was never adverse to sitting at the other end of the room, facing the other way from Whistlejacket and looking at Turner’s seas.

If you sit in my favourite seat, you sit opposite this girl. The honorable Emily Mary Lamb by Sir Thomas Lawrence. I would sit in this room on Fridays in the late afternoon and evenings, with the gallery closing late on Fridays. It was interesting to see the passing crowds thin out and the gallery become quiet past six, or even five pm. The stillness of the emptying gallery is extremely beautiful. Especially when you venture deeper into the heart of the building, into rooms with Rubens – Samson slumped over Delilah as she cuts his hair, and deeper still into rooms with the Dutch masters – Claude’s Narcissus bowing over the water with Echo looking on, or Rembrandt’s ominous, creepy cloud piercing Belshazzar’s Feast. You can be entirely alone (plus room guard) amongst these masterpieces. The National Gallery is a treasure we are blessed with in London.

Sitting across from Ms. Lamb, I was reading. At that time, I was reading volume two of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Volume two is titled Within A Budding Grove, and it’s divided into two parts. I was reading part one. Reading Proust in the gallery was a wonderful experience. Descriptions of the alleys, avenues, buildings, people, places and things are so vibrant in the novel and you’re so plunged amongst beauty in the gallery that it’s effortless and easy to assign meanings and memories of your own to the paintings – and for me, I couldn’t help but link them to Proust. For me, Ms. Lamb became Gilberte Swann. The daughter of the titular Charles Swann of the first volume (Swann’s Way) and Odette Swann. Young Marcel is transfixed by her, since his first glimpse amongst the hawthorns on a beautiful sunny day. The narrator’s love (or rather, infatuation) of her commands the first part of Within A Budding Grove, just as Proust commands your life as you read him. Everything becomes Proustian, everything reminds you of the book. You look at things more closely, appreciate things more deeply and reflect on things differently. He permeates everything and if you go a day without reading him, you miss his voice.

I’ve finished volume two now (I took a little break and read Pale Fire, some Rilke, a Woolf and through it all I missed him) and I cherish the time I spent reading Within A Budding Grove in the gallery. Now, whenever I am there I recall the time I spent in those rooms last winter, the way I was feeling and the thoughts I was thinking at that time – and the places I went with Proust. Swann’s house, Balbec, the alleys, avenues, the Jardin d’acclimatation. It’s impossible to read Proust and not reflect upon your own life and relationships and, even though it was just a few months ago, having now since finished the volume and the seasons changing (and lots of things happening between November and now) it seems quite distant, but my memories and feelings are tied in amongst the paintings and those rooms, trapped there, forever.

“… the better part of our memory exists outside itself, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate.”
- Proust, from Within A Budding Grove

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