Last night we had two unwelcome visitors: the flu and a mouse. Sitting blearily typing on my laptop on the couch in the living room, I was wondering why my bones were aching so much. It was just dawning on me that I might have the flu when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye — I could have sworn I’d seen a small brown shape flowing like liquid across the wooden floor.
As I turned my head, the shape froze mid-step. As such I enjoyed an excellent view of the tail, soft plump body, fine whiskers and pink ears of a large mouse or small rat.
I shrieked lustily. The mouse had previously been heading for the space under the kitchen cupboard. In light of new developments, it decided to return to the skirting board under the table, behind our suitcase.
‘What is it?’ John called, alarmed.
‘A mouse!’ I wailed.
The soles of my feet tingling with horror, I snatched all the bags up off the floor and set them on hooks. Then I made sure all food was stowed high up in cupboards or safe in the fridge. It sickened me to see some unswept flax seeds on the floor. No doubt they were sending tempting scent signals to that moist little snout.
I didn’t want to think about the mouse. It soon became clear I couldn’t not think about it. Is that what that musty smell is? What were its bathroom arrangements? What if it made itself a nest in the suitcase? How did it get inside? What if it gets up on the bed and dances on our sleeping faces? I don’t want to kill it exactly but it’s a question of health…
I looked at the door that leads down to the basement, where we are not supposed to go. Maybe there were hundreds of them down there. One of those Rat Kings —tiny bodies merging into one enormous, writhing rat monster!
My only option was to retreat to the bedroom and shut the door. Even then, with the constant coughing and intense mouse-fear, it took me a long time to sleep.
Now John’s away for the whole day recording a show and I’m sick at home constantly aware that a small creature is cowering somewhere in the background. It’s bad enough having big creatures upstairs who clomp around in boots, but this furtive intruder is getting on my nerves.
So, partly to get my mind off it, partly because my eyes and fingers hurt too much to write, I decided to listen to an audio book. Almost at random I found an English-language recording of Proust’s Un Amour de Swann.
Swann in Love is sometimes considered a novella, other times the second part of Swann’s Way, the first in Proust’s series of novels known as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time. Swann’s Way is also the book in which Proust introduces the concept of involuntary memory, roused by that soft cookie known as a madeleine (a fact most of us absorb through cultural osmosis rather than by actually reading Proust). By the way, maybe madeleines used to taste better, but the ones I’ve tried at Starbucks are like small pieces of cushion foam. In Swann in Love there is a similar memory prompt, this time a snatch of music called the Vinteuil Sonata:
“The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. . . . But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound.”
When Proust wrote this there was no piece of music called Vinteuil Sonata. It really appealed to readers’ imaginations, though, because since its publication there have been endless discussions about what piece of music it was (maybe Brahms or Franck?), and some composers have even tried to recreate what it might have sounded like, like Jorge Arriagada and Joseph Fennimore.
Swann in Love describes the life-cycle of a love affair between a Parisian aristocrat Charles Swann and the courtesan Odette de Crécy. Swann at first is repulsed by her appearance but eventually convinces himself that she resembles Jethro’s daughter Zipporah from Boticelli’s fresco “The Trials of Moses” in the Sistine chapel:
“He stood gazing at her, traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and body… And when he was tempted to regret that…he had done nothing but see Odette, he would assure himself that he was not unreasonable in giving up much of his time to an inestimably precious work of art… When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine he was holding Odette against his heart.”
Sir Ralph Richardson, a contemporary of Laurence Olivier, reads this version, which was recorded in 1961. I must say it’s pretty entertaining. I don’t know what makes an actor good, but I could listen to him all day. He manages the complicated, flowery syntax and periodic sentences with ease, and you find yourself leaning in to the intimate, gossipy tone. He does Odette’s voice beautifully, really bringing out the comic touches.
In short, the perfect thing to forget an infestation of mice!