By Stuart Mitchner
The performers in Friday morning’s backyard circus are identified in the Audubon guide as Common Grackles, “a very familiar species on suburban lawns, striding about with deliberate steps,” searching for insects, nesting “in small colonies,” and perching “in adjacent treetops to sing their creaking, grating songs.” What held me and had me smiling, however, was the visual music they were making as they gathered, one by one, on the long limb of a hemlock tree until six of them were sitting in a row, the limb rocking under them, as if they were sharing the fun. It may be a common sight for this common species, but I never saw it before and I doubt that I ever will again.
To go from watching birds riding a limb to reading Proust, who was born on July 10, 1871, is easier said than done, considering that each of the three volumes of the 1981 Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past tops a thousand pages. With five days to deadline, all I can do is pack my knapsack with possibilities (birds, summertime, the seaside, the moon landing, the primal joy of victorious athletes) and prepare for the voyage by reading around in the edition of Proust’s Letters edited and translated by Minna Curtis. My guide is the 20-year-old English girl I encountered there. Proust’s biographer George D. Painter says it was “the beautiful Marie Nordlinger” who led Proust “near to the heart of the labyrinth.” Short and slender, “with delicate Pre-Raphaelite hands, dark eyes, full lips, and a look of warm sincerity and intelligence,” the talented young painter/sculptor from Manchester was “a godsend” in Proust’s struggle to translate John Ruskin into French. A note in my 1949 edition of the Letters says that she “not only initiated him into the English texts but supplied him with endless information and assistance” and was “the only woman younger than himself, highly intellectual and of his own social background with whom he ever seems to have carried on a friendship.” more