In Search of Lost Time – Review


Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1: The Way by Swann’s is a densely descriptive, prose-heavy analysis of social mores, veiled human frailty, familial and romantic love, anxiety, jealousy and the relationship between memory, place and time. It is told through the eyes of a tortuously sensitive boy and, later, through the amorous encounters of a socially mobile man within the fickle, pretentious and stifling world of the Parisian bourgeoisie during La Belle Epoque, a period in French society that lasted from 1871 to 1914.

I must be honest and reveal myself a heathen. It took me two months to plough through this novel with pen poised in hand and an intense furrowing of the brow. After the first fifty pages, I shelved Proust for a month, in favour of Hilary Mantel. À la recherche du temps perdu was not a natural pleasure for me by any stretch. I have little interest in the tribulations of well-to-do people deeply aware of and concerned with social class. The turgidity of Proust’s lengthy descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of characters at a dinner party, are somewhat exhausting after ten pages of facial tics and acted laughter, the hidden meanings of which, in the end, do not seem of any particular consequence.

Yet, I persisted. The exquisite, descriptive vocabulary retains a nowness; a timeless quality.  And Proust’s meticulous, academic social observations reveal profound insights into the relationship between outward human behaviour and inner thought.  He reveals a tender cynicism about the contrivances of his characters and a witty self-awareness about the inherent sense of superiority and associated cruelties that are a by-product of his social standing.

The central theme of lost time encapsulated in the spongy joys of a tea-soaked madeleine is touched so lightly that it lingers delicately in the back of the mind soothing numerous angst-ridden tussles between social constraint and individual complexity. And Proust maintains a deeply personal and confiding tone that leaves you feeling you know a part of him, you have seen a glimmer of his inner world and most intimate worries. It is odd but true that I even think the author’s vulnerability triggered my well-buried maternal instincts.

Within the novel, Proust considers his relationship to the inner sanctum of books and exterior reality that presents a concreteness which ‘dissipates’ when he tries to make contact with it. He writes: ‘…as an incandescent body brought near a damp object never touches its wetness because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.’ The pages are bubbling over with this type of sumptuously visceral analogy that enables you to see and feel the intended sentiment.

Proust describes an assimilation of a book into a reader’s consciousness as he or she constructs characters from pieces of the writer’s creation; a meeting of minds, an exchange across time and space. His rigorous examination of the nature of literature reminds me that the written word is a living thing to be altered and interpreted differently by each and every reader within their own location and from their own construction of reality so that you might see through thine eyes what I have seen through mine.

I read In Search of Lost Time, despite my initial hurdles with the density of the text and disinterest in the staging of the novel, because I thought I could learn something from one of the most revered authors of the 20th century and I hoped it might make me a better writer. I leave the book on the shelf in the study/laundry/guest room, feeling enlightened, inspired and grateful that I didn’t give in.

So after all, as you read Proust and absorb a character, such as Swann’s lover, Odette de Crecy, and your mind shifts between the nuances of her elusive personality, remember you are sitting beneath a virtual blossoming chestnut tree with a French novelist, one of the greatest literary figures of our time, creating lives and building worlds.

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Avenue with Flowering Chestnut Trees at Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

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The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba

Claude Lorrain, The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648


A distant sea bird calls in the gallery.  Yet, I cannot see one.  The visitors mull around in corduroy, folded-arm consternation, with audio guides and little plaques to lead them through a maze of Turner and the Masters.

Something shifts in the corner of my eye.  I turn back to the painting.  The men carrying the trunk are wobbling and sweating feverishly as they lower precious cargo onto the boat.

The idle bystanders are laughing.  The rowers are rowing.  The Queen’s blue cloak ripples in a Red Sea breeze.

I step into the painting.  I swallow hard and blink and stamp my feet in the dirt.  Nobody sees.

I do not believe I was in the painting.  I have an unsettling imagination that leaves me thirsting for reality.  Yet I can taste Arabian salt on my lips.

I go home.  I kick off my shoes.  I roll damp socks into a ball and throw them down the hall.  I watch the cat flick the sock toy in the air and pounce.  Liberated feet breathe in airy relief and siliceous grains glisten between my toes.



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Boy with Balloons

Boy with Balloons, Mrs Mook’s Mantlepiece

When I was a girl, about four or five years old, my parents would leave me with a lady called Mrs Mook. She was a big lady; strong as an ox. She had great, wide hips and salt and pepper hair that had been set in pink, heated rollers. She wore slippers for wide feet and paisley, patterned polyester dresses. I liked it when Mum and Dad couldn’t pick me up before tea time. I liked sitting at her Formica table and eating beef in little squares with sweet, tinned peas and grey-vy.

Mrs Mook had the most extensive collection of porcelain I have ever seen. As we had a cuppa in the living room, Mother would raise her cup to her lips, believing it to be a greater shield than it truly was, and utter in harsh, hushed tones ‘Don’t touch,’ before measuredly sipping her tea and eliciting a demure smile as she lowered her cup.

The boy with balloons was my favourite ornament. He stood nearest to me on the left of the dark wood mantelpiece. The balloons were so appealingly edible and fruit-like with their shiny, glazed spheres. I just wanted to pick one and eat it and feel it crunch in my molars like a pear drop. But I did not. I was keenly observed.

I was excruciatingly restrained, sitting on my hands lest they lose control and propel my child’s body up from my chair. They might fling me into the glass cabinet sending plates and coveted tea sets crashing to the floor, before dragging me across to the fireplace. My wayward left hand might lift my arm and force it in one neat line all the way down the mantelpiece decapitating the blue and white bonneted shepherdess with the upturned fingers, massacring the promenading Victorian couple, slaughtering the proud Dalmatian dog and finally murdering the boy with the balloons in one foul swoop with a crash and a smash into smithereens.

The shepherdess’s head would roll casually along the floor till it reached Mrs Mook’s slippered toe where it would rock gently and come to rest with a delicate nose, pressed between a rubber sole and worn carpet. The pink balloon would break free from the others and rather than float away to the boundless sky, it would land with a sure thud and nestle by my chair leg. My unruly hand might take the charlatan strawberry sherbet and conspire with my guileless mouth which, overcome by temptation and fateful opportunity, will weaken and allow wicked, tiny fingers to prise its lips apart just enough to gleefully pop the pink balloon onto my insatiable tongue.

I must sit on my hands.

I wonder where the porcelain boy is now and whether his knuckles are still white because he has been clutching china balloons for his entire life.

Tom the Dog

A dog called Tom

A dog called Tom



One day there was dog and his name was Tom.

Tom was walking.  He was a street dog.

He wanted an owner.  He got an owner and he was so happy.

The End.

Zara, age 7


I love the way that even in this short and sweet tale, my lovely niece has structured it in traditional storytelling form, with the introduction of our hero; Tom the dog, his plight and a happy ending.  I wonder whether we learn the structure of storytelling or if it is innate.  Zara has read plenty of books so she is influenced by her environment naturally, but perhaps there is a universal formula of narrative that reflects the way the mind processes information.

Zara delivers the tale brilliantly and she was delighted when I asked if I could share her story with you. I hope you like it. 🙂


The Psychopath Test – review

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jon Ronson’s the Psychopath Test is a compelling and entertaining documentary novel about clinical categorisation of mental illness. This is a fascinating foray into the prevalence of psychopathy within the criminal justice system, most obviously, but more intriguingly into identifying psychopaths within the power-wielding echelons of society, where it is asserted that psychopathic traits enable an individual to thrive.

Ronson introduces us to some charismatic, confident and mercenary characters from convicted murderers to billionaire businessmen in a variety of environments from high-security prisons to opulent estates as he investigates the nature of psychopathy, if they really do meet Bob Hare’s criteria and what that means. Throughout his encounters which he approaches with a remarkably cavalier attitude, the author endearingly reveals his naivety, arrogance, insensitivity, fear and doubts as we get to know the surface of his, simultaneously, charming and menacing interviewees.

There is discontinuity throughout the book which can, at times, seem like a number of disparate journalistic articles shoved together between the covers and the structure is so loosely circular it’s hardly worth referring back to Being or Nothingness at the end. However, the reporter’s journey is the glue that holds it together as Ronson’s personal foibles and anxieties add an appealing quality of self-awareness to the novel that finds him ultimately examining his own mental health in relation to the moral impetus and nature of his enquiry into psychopathy.

The Psychopath Test raises important questions and warnings about the necessity, the fallibility and the dangers of clinical labelling but as he turns the spotlight inward to his own profession, Ronson critically observes media treatment of those who are just the right kind of mad for the public to swallow with their eggs on toast in the morning.

Jon Ronson’s fast-paced, journalistic style and neurotic wit make the Psychopath Test a hugely entertaining and greatly informative read easily digestible within 3 or 4 evenings. I highly recommend this book and yes, I did take the psychopath test and I’m quite confident that I could do a much better job than Robert Hare and my list will attain global renown, once I have lied and connived my way into the Royal College of Psychiatrists, about which I will feel absolutely no remorse. 😉


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Homeless elation



A muffled voice over a low wave. A violin whispers in the ear. Synapses spark and flash till spinal chills overwhelm. A great organ horripilates. A cello’s bass reverberates through connective tissues that feel. An oboe soars in the lungs till emotions dizzily follow a physiological repertoire and retort with florid eyes. A piano’s cyclical melody soothes a throat-aching yearn, a chest-tightening pine, a homeless elation.


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A humble winter tree

Winter Tree

On a winter’s night, under an indigo-black sky a tree stands alone next to a yellow light on the corner of a city pavement. It is bold, youthful and strong yet quite ordinary.  An intricate spiral pattern emerges from light-reflecting, icy moisture on smooth, bare branches. Nature shows a face, an invisible web connecting each twig and sleeping bud with light and molecules and atoms, energy, cold and magnetism. Cars rush by.  A man walks his dog.  A couple argue on their way home from the pub.  Yet no one sees the trees incandescent display.  The secret remains within the humble roadside, ice-lit winter tree which, on occasion, reveals the hidden code of everything.