It was by train that I had always imagined arriving in Illiers-Combray -- not just any train but one of those drafty, pre-World War, rattling wagons which I like to think still leaves Paris early every morning and, after hours of swaying through the countryside, squeek their way into a station that is as old and weather-beaten as all of yesteryear's provincial stops in France. The picture in my mind was always the same: the train would come to a wheezing halt and release a sudden cloud of steam; a door would slam open; someone would call out "Illiers-Combray"; and finally, like the young Marcel Proust arriving for his Easter vacation just over a century ago, I would step down nervously into the small, turn-of-the-century town in Eure et Loir which he described so lovingly in "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu."
Instead, when I finally made my way to Illiers-Combray, late last year, I arrived by car with Anne Borrel, the curator of the Proust Museum there, who had offered to pick me up at my Paris hotel that morning. In my pocket was a cheap and tattered Livre de Poche edition of "Swans Way," which I had brought in the hope that I'd find a moment to read some of my favorite passages on holy ground. That was to be my way of closing the loop, of coming home to a book I had first opened more than thirty years before.
I had bought it with my father, when I was fifteen, one summer evening in Paris. We were taking a long walk, and as we passed a small restaurant I told him that the overpowering smell of refried food reminded me of the tanneries along the coast road outside Alexandria, in Egypt, where we had once lived. He said he hadn't thought of it that way, but, yes, I was right, the restaurant did smell like tanneries. And as we began working our way back through strands of shared memories -- the tanneries, the beaches, the ruined Roman temple west of Alexandria, our summer beach house -- all this suddenly made him think of Proust. Had I read Proust? He asked. No, I hadn't. Well, perhaps I should. My father said this with a sense of urgency, so unlike a him that he immediately tempered it, for fear I'd resist the suggestion simply because it was a parent's.
The next day, sitting in the sun on a small metal chair in Lamartine Square, I read Proust for the first time. That evening, when my father asked how I had liked what I'd read, I feigned indifference, not really knowing whether I intended to spite a father who wanted me to love the author he loved most or to spite an author who had come uncomfortably close. For in the eighty-odd pages I had read that day I had rediscovered my entire childhood in Alexandria: the impassive cook, my bad-tempered aunts and skittish friends, the buzz of flies on Sunday afternoons spent reading indoors when it was too hot outside, dinners in the garden with scant lights to keep mosquitoes away, the "ferruginous, interminable" peal of the garden bell announcing the occasional night guest who, like Charles Swan, came uninvited but whom everyone had nonetheless been expecting.
Andre Aciman. (1998) Letter From Illiers-Combray: In Search of Proust. The New Yorker, December 21.