Today’s blog gets passionate about Proust.
The father of the modern novel died one hundred years ago this month, November 18th 1922. I’ve already got passionate about his hawthorn; today it’s time for that iconic madeleine.
‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.’
‘For a long time I used to go to bed early…’ so begins the first volume of A la recherche du Temps Perdu, the stupendous 7-volume work relating the author’s journey of self-discovery through his reflexions on time, memory, art and love.
These early pages describe the young Marcel’s holidays at his grandparents’ country house in Combray as he remembers them. They are dominated by the psychodrama that played out each evening, the narrator’s ‘bedtime torture’. Dinner was served indoors or, when the weather was fine, in the garden behind the house. But whatever the setting, the young Marcel would be filled with dreadful anticipation of the inevitable moment he would be sent off to bed. While bedtime can be a source of anxiety for many children – ghosts in the dark , monsters under the bed – Marcel’s ‘hours of anguish’ arose from the hours of separation from his mother, and in particular, the thought that she might be prevented from coming up to give him his bedtime kiss. (What would his contemporary, Sigmund Freud have made of this?) One of the regular guests who unwittingly thwarted Marcel’s felicity by retaining his mother à table, was their neighbour, Monsieur Swann, later to exert a profound influence on Marcel’s life.
The real significance of these childhood holidays, and how they set him on the ‘two paths’ of self-discovery, would only be revealed later, in the famous episode of the madeleine. ‘For many years, Combray had only existed for me insofar as it concerned the theatre and drama of my bedtime,’ the author tells us, before launching into what is surely the most well-known passage in the entire 3000 pages. A tired, depressed Marcel arrives home one dreary winter evening. His mother suggests a nice cup of hot tea accompanied by ‘one of those short, plump cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they have been moulded in a ridged scallop shell’.
He breaks off a piece of the cake, dips it in the ‘tea’ (an infusion of lime blossoms, ‘tisane de tilleul‘) and raises the spoon to his lips. Immediately, an extraordinary thing happens: it’s as if he’s received an electric shock. A shudder runs throughout his body, followed by an intense, exquisite sensation of expanding pleasure. His existential doubts and anxieties vanish, replaced with a joyful optimism.
Mystified, Marcel struggles to identify the source of such powerful emotions; the answer eludes him, until, at last, he feels something shift and break loose inside him, becoming ‘unanchored.’
It is a memory. In ‘a Proustian rush’ he is once more in Combray, but this time the neurasthenic, sickly child waiting for his mother’s kiss is replaced by the Marcel of Sunday mornings, going to say hello to Great Aunt Léonie. This famous widowed aunt is a malade imaginaire – a hypochondriac confined to bed with a mystery illness and whose ‘inadvertent’ death serves to comfort in their opinion not only those who had always believed her strict confinement would finish her off, but also those who believed she really did have a fatal illness. During the holidays, Tante Léonie has an unvarying Sunday breakfast ritual: summoning her great-nephew to her bedside, she dips a madeleine in her tisane and gives it to him to taste.
Unlike memories triggered by visual and auditory stimuli, those associated with our sense of taste and smell linger on when everything else has died. Proust calls them ‘fragile souls’ buried deep within us, waiting to be discovered. In a beautiful image he describes them as ‘remembering…hoping, on the ruin of everything else, bearing unflinchingly on their scarcely perceptible droplet the immense edifice of memory.’
The chapter finishes on a breath-taking wave of poetic intensity as Marcel experiences the full force of this ‘involuntary’ memory. His perspective on the ‘old days in Combray’ is transformed; the narrow ‘panel’ of the house and his bedroom expand into a vast panorama. First the entire house appears, ‘ the old grey house on the street’, then ‘the small extension at the back built for my parents, opening on to the garden, then the town, from morning till night, in all weathers, the square where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I ran errands, the paths we set out to walk when the weather was fine. And, as in the Japanese game where shapeless bits of paper are dropped into a china bowl full of water, then begin to unfurl, spin, infuse with colour and finally become distinct shapes – flowers, houses, solid and recognisable people – so now appeared all the flowers in our garden and the park of Monsieur Swann, the waterlilies on the Vivonne, the good people of the village, their cottages and the church, and all Combray and its surroundings, the whole, town and gardens, emerged into solid shapes, out of my cup of tea.’ *
What Proust is describing is something that is familiar to us all, but the way he describes it is unforgettable. Those fragile ‘souls’ of taste and smell have the power to resuscitate ‘an old dead memory’, to cause an entire world to unfold and bloom in the mind’s eye with the same magic as those paper flowers in their bowl of water.**
For one brief, glorious moment the ‘lost’ past detaches from ‘the immense edifice of memory’ to join the present: time stands still.
Marcel Proust, 10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922
* Caveat: my own loose translations of the original text.
** I’ve come across different queries about these Japanese flowers on Internet. In the last half of the 19th C there was a craze for ‘japonisme‘ in France (la folie japonaise). Such flowers seem to be impossible to find nowadays, but as one British poster said, they used to be a Christmas stocking staple in the 1970s. You can still buy Chinese flowering tea, a similar concept.
©Laurette Long 2022