“He applied and was chosen for an unpaid post at the library. He found the place too dusty for his lungs and asked for an ever longer series of sick leaves (…) After he repeatedly failed to report for work, showing up one day a year or less, even his unusually tolerant employers dismissed him, five years after he had first been taken on.” – Alain de Botton, “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

Francine was merrily whistling “Frere Jacques” and dusting off the backs of the many weighty manuscripts contained within the Bibliotheque Mazarine, (23 Quai de Conti, Paris, France.) She had gone up a very long ladder to pay particular attention to a high shelf containing Madame de Salacieux’s “Les Liasons Excitantes, Tomes I-LXIX,” so naturally she became alarmed when the ladder began to shake.

“Mon Dieu!” She yelped. A quick downwards glance exposed the source of the disturbance. “What the fudge, Antoine?! Quit it with that crap! Are you trying to look up my skirt?!”

“Frannie! Frannie!” Antoine, the library’s doorman, was hopping around excitedly at the foot of the ladder. “Quick, come down! You gotta see this!”

“What is it?”

“The Prouster is back!”

“No way! Shut up!” Francine slid down the ladder right quick. “I thought that dude got fired last year!”

“Oh, he WAS! I just don’t think anyone had the heart to tell him!”

Buoyed by gossipy curiosity, Antoine and Francine ran to the circulation desk, where Marcel Proust, spacey-gazed and dandily mustached,  was clocking in to work for the first time in many, many months. Behind the desk, Monsieur Bonfeuille, head librarian, stared diplomatically at his former employee:

“Ah. Marcel. Bonjour.”

“Let me be the first to say that I am absolutely devastated, M. Bonfeuille, and that no amount of apologies can ever convey the true sense of despair one feels knowing that an appointment was not kept; as if something that was meant to have occurred, perhaps a conversation towards which one is compelled with all the power of destiny, had been truncated by the fateful falling ax of an unexpected vicissitude. In short, I know that I’m running a few minutes late this morning. See, I was distracted by this sweetly plaintive bird that-”

“Marcel. You’re not ‘running a few minutes late this morning.’ It’s 3:15 in the afternoon.”

“Ah, time. It is a slippery notion, isn’t it? Like the goldfish that fled through my fingers in the fountain at Illiers, glistening in their schools of disorder, and me, there, basking gratefully in the vibrant recollection of an afternoon spent splashing hands idly, in a playful imitation of fishing.”

“Right. Well.” M. Bonfeuille sighed. “How to put this. Marcel, we weren’t expecting you at all. You haven’t been in here since last summer.”

“Last summer? Is that so? I must have been down with seasonal allergies. That’s it. I could barely get out of bed, just tossing and turning and tracing my way back through memories of bedrooms and bedrooms and bedrooms. An infinity of bedrooms. Dreadful. And if by any chance someone said they saw me at the beach in Cabourg… Have I ever mentioned that I have a twin brother? Etienne loves to suntan. But let us not pay undue remembrance to things past, and let us move on to matters of the moment. All these books aren’t going to get catalogued by themselves. We wouldn’t want Madame de Rosée to get on my ass about how I’m slacking off and reading between the stacks. Where IS that officious old biddy?”

“Madame de Rosée passed away last September.”

“An angel, she was. Or rather is, currently. Oh, well. ‘Ou sont les neiges.’ So what’s on today’s schedule?”

M. Bonfeuille sighed once more and swiveled in his chair to notice that Francine and Antoine were giggling from behind a nearby book pyramid. He raised his voice: “Antoine! Get back to the door! And you, Francine! Perhaps Proust can help you with the reference section? Or something? Let’s see if we can make him useful somehow.”

Francine snorted. “Make HIM useful? We’re librarians, not magicians! Alright, fine, Marcel, follow me.”

Marcel complied and followed Francine, who looked back over her shoulder as they walked:

“Hadn’t seen you come around in a while. Don’t need the money? Trust fund kid, huh? Obviously life has been very kind to you. You single?”

“Oh,” Marcel tugged his mustache. “We’re all single. The ties that put people in whatever arbitrary concatenation of location and affection are ultimately  susceptible to ever altering memory. The ties grow thinner, weaker, softer in the mind, and finally unloosen, leaving us all stranded, and therefore aloneness is the inevitable conclusion of the dissipation of consciousness.”

“Don’t wanna be tied down, you’re playing the field. Gotcha,” Francine rolled her eyes. “Doing good with ze ladies?”

“Oh, oui, oohlala. So many ladies! Left and right, all I see is ladies!”

“They got names?”

“Tons of names! Let’s see, there’s Albertine, Orianne, Andree, Odette, Gilberte… All of them positively real.”

“Mon Dieu! No wonder you’re sick all the time, you probably have syphilis. Alright, here we are.” She pointed  to a book cart that was in somewhat of an alphabetical disarray: “Just put them in order.”

“Order? But what comes first? The past? The present? Maybe the future is already implicit in the past, a past which in any case can never be revisited but only re-imagined-”

Francine groaned: “Stop. What comes first is A, then B, then C. You know the alphabet, Marcel, you’re not as stupid as you pretend to be, so don’t give me a hard time.”

Cowed and dejected, Marcel lowered his head and a tear rolled down his cheek into his mustache.

“Oh geez,” Francine said. “I didn’t mean to be a dick. Don’t cry.”

“I’m crying because I just got a papercut,” Marcel said. “This could very well develop into a traumatic medical emergency. May I please be excused and go to the break room? I need to recuperate after all this blood loss.”

Francine pinched the bridge of her nose. “Fine. Go. Take a break. Take a two hour break, see if I care.”


 

M. Bonfeuille found Marcel happily reclined in a sofa in the break room, munching on a cookie and browsing the pages of Le Figaro while chuckling to himself: “Oh, Marmaduke. You naughty chien.”

“Marcel! Aren’t you supposed to be helping Francine?”

“I was indeed, but Madame de Rosée asked me to help with research on current events. I thought it was highly irregular! But you know her, so pushy and meticulous.”

“Marcel, I just told you that Madame de Rosée has been dead for a while.”

“Which is precisely why I found the whole thing so irregular! I, for one, do not intend to concern myself with current events after my death. I suppose I should give up on this task, then.” He folded the newspaper and jumped off the sofa. “What’s my next assignment?”

“Maybe you can stand next to the door and help Antoine greet visitors? Do you think you can manage that?”

“Understood, keep the young fellow on task. He’s one for woolgathering!”

M. Bonfeuille pushed Marcel toward the library’s entrance and planted him besides Antoine, who snickered: “‘Sup! The Prouster! Now the party begins.”

“A party! Indeed, life is like a party that has very little substance as it unfolds in all its superficial magnificence, and is at its most meaningful when, discussed and dissected in the morning after, it acquires the relevance of news mulled over and transformed into history.”

“Never change, my dude, never change. Forget the haters, you just keep on writing your little stories. What did you say the new one was called? ‘Remembering the Crap I Lost’? ‘A Hell of a Waste of Time’?”

Marcel winced: “Something like that.”

“See, that’s your first mistake right there. Bad title. You gotta make it catchy, my dude. OOOOH, I got it! ‘Swords of Blood.’ And it should be, like, musketeers mixed up with vampires. Oh man, that’s genius. Back off that one, I’m going to write that one myself.”

Marcel snorted: “It sounds absolutely banal.”

“Exactly, my dude, it’s gonna be absolutely bananas, and Puccini will probably turn it into an opera, and then I can quit this library gig and tell M. Bonfeuille to shove the Encyclopédie right up his narrow- Watch out, here they come!”

Indeed, the head librarian and Francine were rapidly approaching the door;  the girl was in a state of positive agitation, pointing an accusatory index finger at Marcel.

“There he is! It was him, M. Bonfeuille! He stole the madeleine I had in the break room! That was mine! It had my name on it! You ate it, Marcel, didn’t you? Don’t even lie about it!”

Marcel mused on it: “I… I don’t recall.”

“I can still see the crumbs on your mustache!”

Antoine interceded: “Oh, come on, Frannie, lay off the Prouster. He’s harmless, he’s just absent minded on account of all the absinthe. He’s one of them weirdo writers, know what I mean?”

“Writer my derriere! Has he even published anything? Balzac, Dumas, Victor Hugo, now THOSE were writers! Marcel is an idiotic man-child who couldn’t finish a sentence without taking a nap! The only thing he needs to be writing is his resignation letter!”

Marcel hastily brushed his mustache: “These are all outrageous, entirely unfounded claims! May I speak to you in private, M. Bonfeuille?” He grabbed the head librarian by the elbow.”The poor girl seems to be given to wild imaginings. That’s what comes from idleness. No work ethic, that one. In any case, M. Bonfeuille, I have been reflecting on the death of our dear Madame de Rosée, and what a truly exhausting tragedy that was. I don’t think I can bear to carry the weight of a book while I carry the burden of this mourning in my heart. I was wondering if perhaps I can be excused a little earlier today?”

“Sure you can, Marcel. Go home. And you really don’t have to come back.”

“Oh, how could I ever pry myself away from this place? I’ll be right here, ready for work, nine in the morning tomorrow! We will all see each other, and in the act of seeing, something will be captured that can be endlessly altered in recollection, an image which will be  either enslaved to prejudice, or freed from external corruption.Wait. Did I say nine? Let’s make it eleven-ish. My stomach is so upset in the mornings. See you all soon!”

They never saw him again.

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