When one book is always enough

    AGEING: What can a group of retirees engaged in leisurely hours reading Proust have to tell us about the world we live in today?

    In a quiet cafe tucked away from the bustle of downtown Buenos Aires, a reading group has been meeting for seventeen years to share Marcel Proust’s seven-volume In Search Of Lost Time aloud together. You could certainly call them literature buffs, as their enthrallment with the monumental work is palpable, though it’s the only book they are interested in reading together. Some, now in their eighties, are on their fifth read from the first page to last.

    Le temps perdu, a film by Maria Alvarez
    Le temps perdu, a film by Maria Alvarez


    Director Maria Alvarez filmed sessions between 2015 and 2019, an unhurried shooting schedule that suits the group’s patient, expansive rhythm, and lack of consumerist drive to rush to a conclusion. Her fly-on-the-wall approach gradually reveals a surprisingly profound depth to what initially seems a quaintly old-fashioned, even absurd, exercise. The film is the second in a trilogy by Alvarez on elderly engagement with the arts. The trilogy started with Las Cinephilas (2017), about retired women who spend every day at the cinema. It will end with a documentary about identical twins in their nineties who live in a small Buenos Aires apartment and perform as pianists together. Le temps perdu had its world premiere at IDFA and screens at MajorDocs in Majorca, which fittingly bills itself as a slow film festival, aimed at encouraging audiences to stop and reflect amid a world drowning in an excess of content.

    What can a group of retirees engaged in leisurely hours reading Proust have to tell us about the world we live in today and how we engage with it? A great deal and any assumption to the contrary is revealed over the course of the documentary to have more to do with our own prejudices about age and the well-worn classics. The film keeps its attention trained on the sessions and very little outside them. Spending time with the readers who frequent the group is an experience that starts to feel almost the polar opposite of scrolling social media sites, built around over-valuing speed and freshness, in an endlessly updating barrage of information and attention-grabbing hooks.

    it’s the only book they are interested in reading together

    Less and better

    «Timeless» is a word, by contrast, often attached to classics. Proust’s opus, published in the early twentieth century, in which a man reminisces about his youth, is often referred to as one of the greatest novels of all time, with relevance that never fades. Paradoxically, it makes passing time its main subject of contemplation and the workings of perception and memory in our relationship with the past. One long-time group member muses on the problems of re-reading and the fact that every reading he undertakes is different from the one before. «That’s why I keep insisting that reading is a creative act», he says, adding that the widely varying conversations at the table that each session engenders proves his point. It’s a very astute point. Beyond considerations of how we derive meanings from texts, which alter according to the life experiences we bring to them, it also questions how we consume information in a digital age. Scarcely able to keep up with the sheer volume of input online, we may have lost sight of the myriad possibilities contained in a lone work of rare insight. Might it somehow liberate us from being lost and disoriented in a sea of facts and disinformation if we endeavoured to read less and better – to do so with contemplative depth and a renewed appreciation that one single, brilliant piece of writing can be endlessly generative?

    Le temps perdu, a film by Maria Alvarez
    Le temps perdu, a film by Maria Alvarez

    Life and art

    Snippets of conversations at the gatherings are woven together seamlessly in the film. As it goes on, Proust’s novel comes to life before us, both as the lynchpin of a community that remains a steady routine in the unfolding lives of the group’s members and as a representation of a world so vivid that the readers feel they personally know its characters, taking on their emotions as if they were their own. «Trying to reach an agreement with the body is like talking to an octopus» is one of numerous phrases that prompt profound and genuinely surprising comments and exchanges. One woman notes that she felt she was in Paris waiting to cross at the traffic lights before the cafe. The power of imagined worlds to transport us somewhere else, and charm our days, becomes palpable. The suggestion is raised but quickly dismissed, of branching out into something else and starting the Divine Comedy. Dedication to Proust is already enough, it’s agreed. «Let’s wish for the simplest thing, just being here next year», the octogenarians toast one New Year. Time turns, and as they begin the seven volumes yet again, the circle of life and art continues in all its infinite potential for discovery.

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    Carmen Gray
    Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
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