I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Real Life is Literature

Catherine Toal
The words below were delivered as the introduction to the St Brigid’s Day Festival of Irish Writers held at the Irish embassy in Berlin on January 31st and February 1st this year. The phrase “real life is literature” appears toward the end of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Returning to Paris from a sanatorium after an illness of many years, the narrator is suddenly crushed by a long-forgotten disappointment: he’s no good as a writer. (This is the final volume of a great novel of which he is the putative author, so we know there’s a happy ending.) A conclusion he once came to, that literature is false and frivolous, yields only a bitter kind of solace. Arriving home, he finds some invitations from old friends. Why not go to a party, since there’s no point trying to work? But gloom absorbs him so much he almost gets run over by a carriage at the entrance to his host’s house and has to jump out of the way. As he recovers his balance, he is gripped by an overwhelming sensation, similar to something that happened before, when, eating a madeleine cake and drinking some tea, he was transported back to the summer holidays of his childhood. What occurs here is a little bit weirder: the flagstones at the entrance are uneven, and they remind him of walking over two uneven stones in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. As a would-be writer wanting to imitate a famous role model on a fashionable subject, he had tried and failed to capture that city. Now, he’s invaded by all the actual sensory impressions he felt when he was there. He goes into the party, and it keeps happening: he’s having madeleine moments all over the place. Random sounds and textures connect him with whole periods of the past by linking up with impressions he had not noticed at the time. “We are not at all free when it comes to the work of art,” he’s convinced, “we don’t make it according to our will, it preexists in us ‑ and because it is both necessary and hidden, we have to discover it, like a law of nature. But this discovery that art can prompt us to make, isn’t it essentially of something that should be most precious to us, and which remains forever unknown to us, our real life, reality as we have…

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