The first European in my mother’s family to set foot in North America was a short, olive-skinned Frenchman from one of the outermost communes of greater Paris. He fled France amidst the turmoil following the revolution of 1848 for the gold fields of California and chased an elusive mother lode all the way up the coast into Alaska before giving up. He was an exact contemporary of the early Impressionists, and a full generation older than Marcel Proust. He spent the final years of his life a broken man, having outlived two of his three children, and subsisting on a homesteaded vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains long before California wine was a profitable industry.
The only relic of him my family still possesses is a stack of letters spanning thirty years from his sister, Geneviève, imploring him to come home. A Parisian relation visiting his cabin in the 1890s noted that he wept at the thought of his homeland. As far as I know, he shares no direct connection with Proust, but the world he came from is Proust’s world, and seemed to me, as a child, enchanted when contrasted with the drab California suburb I grew up in. Sadness is a condition that can ripple across many generations, and if his was earned through the loss of a time and place, mine was inherited from the ruined family that struggled to make sense of his mournful legacy.
But his still-hopeful departure from Le Havre for the new World in 1852 would have been immediately preceded by a train ride from Paris through Normandy – a train ride through the same countryside that left Proust enraptured on his childhood sojourns to Illiers-Combray. What follows is an illustration of that train ride, as recounted in Proust’s sprawling lifework, À la recherche du temps perdu. This passage occurs in Part Three of the First Volume and constitutes but a few rich, supple pages.
Jason Novak works at a grocery store in Berkeley, California, and changes diapers in his spare time.