Family archives

As a child I spent many summers at my grandparent’s farm, high up in the Bosnian mountains. There were always cows and other farm animals around but I never paid much attention to them. Then my grandfather died. It was the first time I saw a dead man lying peacefully on his deathbed. Terrified, I followed my mother into his room and kissed his cold forehead, mainly because everyone was doing it.

Many years have passed since and I’m vacationing at another farm, converted into a retreat, somewhere in Ontario. I’ve dived into Marcel Proust’s The Way by Swann’s translated by Lydia Davis. Sometimes, I just open a random page and observe it, as if it were a picture album. Images jump at me after they pass through a transformation – my mind’s doing – from written words. This process is not much different from reading any other (good) book, but it gets more intricate due to the complexity of Proust’s sentences and my mind’s limitations.

 “And – oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze, tied to the face by a cord so lax, so long, so extensible that it can travel out alone far away from it – while Mme Guermantes sat in the chapel above the tombs of her dead, her gaze strolled here and there, climbed up the pillars, paused even on me like a ray of sunlight wandering through the nave, but a ray of sunlight which, at the moment I received its caress, seemed to me conscious.“ – Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s.

Most of the definitions of gaze suggest looking intensely, fixated at something. Lydia Davis, who is renowned for her translations of Proust and Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, also wrote some wonderful prose. One of her books I pick up here and there from my bookshelves, just to read a paragraph or two, is The Cows. Barely 30 pages long and including 26 images, it can be read in an hour, but it has preoccupied this reader for a long time.

Spread from The Cows

Davis observes and photographs three cows as they spend their days in the field across the road from her house. Nothing much happens – our busy human lives tell us – yet Davis convinces me that it actually does. It also makes me remember the grandparents’ farm and regret not watching more closely not just the cows but anything.

“One thinks there is a reason to walk briskly to the far corner of the field, but the other thinks there is no reason, and stands where she is.

At first she stands still where she is, while the other walks away briskly, but then changes her mind, and follows.

She follows, but stops halfway there.  Is it that she has forgotten why she was going there, or that she has lost interest?  She and the other are standing in parallel positions.  She is looking straight ahead.”

The Cows reads like a poem, a research paper, a comedy, a philosophical works, and even as a photo book. The curiosity of the observer is unmatched. While it presents itself as a book about three cows it is actually a book about the gaze and everything that happens within that gaze tied to the face by a cord so lax, so long, so extensible while it travels out to the field. Until it dies.

Marcel Proust on his Deathbed © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

While writing this I stumbled upon an image of Marcel Proust on his deathbed. It was taken by Man Ray who had never met Proust but who, thanks to his claim as a great artist, was invited by Proust’s friends, says the Internet, to take one last photograph of the writer after his final gaze had expired. When I first saw this image I was instantaneously transported to the moment I last gazed at my grandfather, a farmer and a blacksmith, who now rests in one of the fields on his farm, cows graciously grazing around.