Proust fans filled the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library on Wednesday for an evening titled "The Proust Project: A Discussion With Latter-Day Disciples, Admirers, and Shameless Imitators." The event celebrated the publication of a book called "The Proust Project" in which Andre Aciman, a professor at CUNY Graduate Center, asked a group of writers to reflect on "In Search of Lost Time." The book was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in association with Turtle Point Press, Books & Co., and Helen Marx Books.
Paul Holdengraber, the evening's coordinator, emerged to joke that they were waiting another few minutes "so that everybody can fill their ballots."
More laughter followed when Mr. Holdengraber read from a letter Proust once wrote wherein he inquired about a cane he left behind. The letter ended, "P.S. Kindly pardon me for disturbing you. I just found my cane."
Throughout the evening, various actors and actresses read from the writer's work: Jacqueline Chambord read in French, and Molly Carden read an English translation. Michael Tolan read a passage about a telephone conversation Proust once had with his grandmother and Barbara Feldon read a passage about his grandmother's ailments. Jason Kravis read about an emergency visit to the doctor following Proust's stroke. Maria Tucci read from "The Intermittences of the Heart."
Other participants included the author of "Almost Schmidt" and a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Louis Begley; an English professor at CUNY Graduate Center, Wayne Koestenbaum, author of "The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire"; Andrew Solomon, who wrote the National Book Award winning "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression"; a biographer of Colette and Isak Dinesen, Judith Thurman; and Colm Toibin, whose book "The Blackwater Lightship" was short listed for the 1999 Booker Prize. Mr. Aciman, a past fellow at the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, was the moderator.
The participants told the gathered crowd why they love Proust. Mr. Begley recalled his freshman year at Harvard, when he took a course on Proust, Joyce, and Mann taught by Harry Levin. Mr. Begley said that at the time he was afraid of homosexuals, who were largely hidden from view. "Proust's writing of them opened my eyes." Mr. Begley said he came to see the position of homosexuals and Jews as two persecuted groups that were mirror images of each other.
Mr. Aciman recalled reading Proust for the first time and finding the subject matter - tea biscuits and other "childhood stuff" - simplistic. But now, he said, "I like Proust because he keeps excavating huge slabs" the way construction workers dig below streets. Proust, he said, is "excavating all of us."
Mr. Aciman said that as a young man, he didn't particularly favor the spare prose of Hemingway and others, but turning to Proust, he said to himself, "Long sentences, that sounds interesting."
Mr. Koestenbaum said the thrill of those meandering sentences afforded "a birds-eye view of consciousness." Each paragraph is a perfect composition, he said, that is separable from the whole. Reading Proust, Mr. Koestenbaum continued, was like entering a series of sonnet-like chambers.
He read all of Proust's books in the summer of 1986. The novels gave him the sense of life's brevity and showed how loss could be turned into form and art - adding that Proust shows that life is subordinate to the work. The notion that "One lives in order to write," as Mr. Koestenbaum put it, comes across in Proust's treatment of text as mausoleum or museum of the self. He praised the French author as one of the great self-ethnographers along with the Surrealist Michel Leiris.
Lastly, Mr. Koestenbaum said that as a gay man, he saw Proust was a kind of "initiation into my culture." As he was told, "If you want to enter the gay elite, you've got to know your Proust."
Ms. Thurman called "A la recherche du temps perdu" a "great book for all outsiders." She also said that the work is a bible of human nature throughout which one may find unsentimental truths about betrayal, greed, lust, longing, and other imperfections. She called it "a sublime catalog" brimming with all its unwholesomeness.
It allows outsiders to enter society, navigate, and master its codes - all the while remaining an outsider.
Mr. Solomon recalled how his father, who read Proust in law school, told him "some day you will read Proust. "When his family ate madeleines from a small bakery near their house, his father again said, "Someday you will read Proust" and "know why you are eating" the cookies.
Describing the layering of memory in Proust, Mr. Solomon said in Proust that loss is also the gaining of something. That evening, the audience gained greater appreciation for a literary giant.
Seen in the audience were biographer Jean Strouse, who was seated in front of a founding editor of the Three penny Review, Wendy Lesser. Joel Conarroe talked with Anka Muhlstein, who won the Goncourt Prize in 1996 for her biography of the Marquis de Custine. Also present were Harvard professor Louis Menand; the director of the Maison Francaise at New York University, Francine Goldenhar, and a biographer of Keats, Aileen Ward.
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At Sutton Place Synagogue, which has been an Upper East Side polling site for many years, long lines of people waited to vote during the lunchtime rush Tuesday. Standing patiently among his fellow citizens was the well-known Henry Kissinger.
Mr. Kissinger approached Election District 18 expecting to find his name in the register, as he had done many times in the past. He stood before the desk to check in and calmly pronounced his name - there was immediate recognition of the famous secretary of state among the poll workers.
Alas, upon turning to the Ks, they found no Kissinger. To no avail, they searched the back of the book in an effort to find his name among the late entries.
Another thorough perusal of the records was fruitless, and Mr. Kissinger was faced with two choices: he could travel to the Board of Elections on Varick Street to obtain a court order that would allow him to vote on the machine. Alternatively, he could file an affidavit paper ballot.
With no hesitation and with characteristic diplomatic aplomb, Mr. Kissinger opted for the latter. Those supervising the voting gently let him know that the ballot had to be validated by a poll inspector's signature in addition to his own on the outside of the envelope.
Three Chinese Americans, including a poll worker/interpreter, Ting Mei Chan, who is a graduate student in economics at Baruch College, came over to shake Mr. Kissinger's hand. They also wished to express how much they appreciated his breakthrough visit to China with President Nixon that ushered in a new era of relations between China and the West.