It is, all told, a strange summer. Down the street from my apartment, children play inside of plastic bags. Glaciers shed ice the size of Manhattan. Scientists find that sharks smell in stereo. Horoscopes are cited as primary sources at social gatherings. Restlessness flows. For three consecutive nights I dream exclusively of vacuuming a garden snake.
On a Sunday afternoon I detour from fondling impractical kitchenware at Pearl River Mart and go where I go when I need to stop time: to visit my grandfather at his loft on West Broadway. He is eighty-four, a sculptor, a Southerner, tall and round bellied, deaf in one ear from an adult case of mumps. His face bears an impressive mustache and bifocals as large and wide as safety goggles. Alzheimer’s is smoothing the lines of his memory, a stone turning in water.
He has lived in this apartment since 1970, and from what I can tell it has hardly changed; it could easily be a soundstage from an early Woody Allen film, with its leather seats shaped into dripstones by decades of party guests, its ceramics and abstract art, the copy of Joe Brainard’s I Remember that had taken up permanent residence in the bathroom long before it carried any personal symbolism. The front half of the loft is still a studio, with a meticulously labeled array of tools and materials, despite the fact that these days my grandfather is physically, psychically unable to work. For the last few years I’ve kept keys under a conditionality: just in case. In this case it only means that I let myself in.
“What are you up to today?” I ask my grandfather, to which he replies, “Just trying to have a brilliant idea.”
“Me too,” I say. We give it a minute but we both come up short. We agree to have a drink.
Propped up at the kitchen counter, we treat ourselves to bourbon, crackers, pickles, more bourbon. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, conversation can be ouroboric. At a certain point there is a chocolate cake. “One slice of this, it’ll send you up to heaven,” he says. He takes a bite. A few minutes later he follows up cheerfully: “Try that chocolate cake. One slice will send you up to heaven.” Shortly thereafter he wants to lie down, so he asks if I’ll help out with a project. This usually means a chore, and I say yes.
The task this afternoon is sifting through and organizing two large cartons of cassette tapes. I sit on the floor and extract symphonies by Bach and Schoenberg, albums by the Beatles, multiple recordings of Carmen. There is inexplicable miscellany like Putumayo’s Turkish Groove, something called Romance in Spain, and transcendental meditation curricula, the latter still sealed. I also find thirteen of the fourteen tapes of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, twenty hours and thirty minutes of slippery, tangled prose read cover to cover by a British actor, as its author surely never intended.
“Pop,” I say. “Have you listened to this whole thing?” I walk one of the tapes over to the couch.
“Oh,” he says. “That’s a wonderful book. Fantastic. Have you ever read Proust?” I tell him no, marking the first time I’ve ever offered an honest answer to that question. I have tried on several occasions, but I can never leap the madeleine.
“Put one of those tapes in,” he says. We sit for a little while, listening diligently at first, then talking over the melody, our own language loud and coarse in comparison. I remember, appropriately, helping my grandfather prepare for a trip to Tokyo several years prior. He was still in good shape then. I watched him pack a suitcase with khaki shorts, four green T-shirts, and a purple tie, followed by socks and toothpaste, fiber supplements. Chasing these necessities: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lolita, and what appeared to be the complete works of Virginia Woolf, all on audiocassette.
The flight from New York to Toyko is thirteen hours. Lolita alone spans eleven. And so I had to ask.
I learned that my grandfather had purchased a portable cassette player on Canal Street, which he wore while biking around the city. He found this to be a serviceable method of ambient-noise avoidance, one that he wished to export to Japan. When only one ear is translating the world, street noise can make a man crazy. Sam’s plan was to explore the neighborhoods of Tokyo with a tape going at full volume. Walking through Ueno Park or past the Yasukuni Jinja shrine, he would be willfully deaf to the background of foreign language. For whatever it’s worth, I consider this one of the greatest pleasures of traveling; it can bring such solitude. Instead, my grandfather would reach into his jacket pocket and, with the squeal of the play button, be transported to England to buy flowers with Clarissa Dalloway.
The strange summer rolls over into a stranger fall. The neat compartmentalization of my life begins to feel like a game of Tetris in unskilled hands. One night I stay up late, reshelving the books in my apartment. Into my hands slips Swann’s Way, spine unbroken, a single dogear to be seen around the five-page mark. As often happens at three A.M. on a work night, one thing leads to another. I find myself downloading the entirety of the Swann’s Way audiobook, and I sit up in bed listening until it pulls me into sleep.
Audiobooks have never appealed to me. I need to be visually grounded in a text if I plan to stay there for a while; listening to information at length, even prose, makes me feel like I am perpetually running to catch up. Yet in the weeks that follow, I listen to Swann’s Way everywhere. I have to play the first few chapters over and over because the words don’t stick; John Rowe’s voice folds into itself, a harmonious sludge. It soon becomes clear that I will listen to every chapter in this fashion, a realization that arrives with the knowledge that my purpose for listening is not narrative driven.
I listen to Swann’s Way on my commute, in subway cars so crowded I emerge smelling like someone else’s cologne. I listen to it on an airplane to Germany, seated next to a young boy in a yarmulke who spends hours coloring, his drawings executed with a precision that borders on the technical. I listen in a borrowed car to Swann’s Way, in the kitchen, and in Bed, Bath & Beyond at the height of allergy season as I overstay my welcome in the humidifier aisle. Though I’ll never claim to have a complete grasp on the plot, I will admit to finding a deep comfort and peacefulness in the tumbling and stacking of clauses, the gentle and constant narration.
I’ve never turned to literature to block out the world. I know that some readers do, and I understand the value of this practice. But even in instances of escapism, reading has always opened the world to me. What the audiobook does is something different: it puts the world not on hold, but simply on mute.
But have I read Proust? I can’t say that I know.
I return to the loft on West Broadway to help with another small project: clearing the bookcase. What I find are mostly art books, oversized hardcovers that might be collector’s items if my grandfather hadn’t treated them like regular paperbacks, dog-earing the pages, tearing and scratching the covers:if he hadn’t treated them lovingly.
I know I will find it before I do. And eventually, from between the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and a volume of Alexander Calder lithographs, emerges a copy of Swann’s Way to match my own: pristine cover, crisp pages, and the newly unfamiliar text, entirely unread.
Anna Wiener lives in Brooklyn and works at Barer Literary.