There is a discernible whiff of Frenchiness to the blog this month. Doubtless you can smell it too, it’s that heady scent of garlic, Gauloises and ennui. Like any true-blooded Englishman it has certainly got my nostrils flaring and my back up too, but don’t worry, I’ll contest it as best I can with pig-headed jingoism and outrageous displays of xenophobia.
However, we did have a specific request to bring back this rather irregular series on Classic Displaced Writing with a post on Proust, and specifically (as French food is a topic this month) one featuring “the incident with the madeleine.”
Some of you may, however, may recall that this series has touched upon France, or more specifically Paris, previously. We looked at an esssay by Saul Bellow and a New York Times article on James Joyce’s Paris. Now there’s no prizes for noticing that both of those posts are concerned with France as seen and lived by a foreigner. Indeed, considering the nature of this series of Classic Displaced Writing and its semi-regular appearance on an expat-centric blog this is pretty much what you would expect.
The question is, is Proust displaced enough to merit an appearance? While not displaced by geography, as most of our featured writers have been, Proust is displaced by time, by the present. A sickly child who grew into a man who always suffered with his health (the last years of his life were spent mostly confined to cork-lined bedroom), a closeted homosexual, at heart a nineteenth century aristocrat struggling with the France of the twentieth century, there’s plenty to Proust’s life that sets him at odds with his present time and announces him as a stranger to his homeland, and so it isn’t surprising that he retreats into the past.
The famous “incident with the madeleine” is one of many moments In Search of Lost Time where the Narrator of the novel has an incident of “involuntary memory.” It is based on an experience Proust had in his own life, though more prosacially it involved the dipping of a piece of dry toast rather than a madeleine. Up until the dipping of the cake into his tea, the only memory that the Narrator has of his family’s country home in Combray is of his parent’s friend, Charles Swann, visiting. Due to the visit of Charles, the Narrator is denied of his usual goodnight kiss from his mother. It is only years later when he dips his madeleine cake into his tea that he remembers doing the same as a child at Combray with his Aunt Leonie — and from this, other memories return:
… It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.
For many years already, everything about Combray that was not the theatre and drama of my bedtime had ceased to exist for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. I refused at first and then I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been moulded in the grooved valve of a scallop-shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a piece of madeleine. But at that very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion to its cause. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel I was mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from — this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third that gives me a little less than the second. It is time for me to stop, the virtue of the drink seems to be diminishing. It is clear that the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me. The drink has awoken in me, but it does not know that truth, and cannot do more than repeat indefinitely, with less and less force, this same testimony which I do not know how to interpret and which I want at least to be able to ask of it again and find intact, available to me, soon, for a decisive clarification. I put down the cup and turn to my mind. It is up to my mind to find the truth…
And suddenly the memory appeared. The taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in the bathroom, my Aunt Leonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom. The sight of the little madeleine had not recalled anything to me before I tasted it; perhaps because I had often seen them since, without eating them, on the pastry-cooks’ shelves, and their image had therefore left those days of Combray and attached itself to others more recent; perhaps because of these recollections abandoned so long outside my memory, nothing survived, everything had come apart; the forms — and the form, too, of the little shell made of cake, so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating — had been destroyed, or, still half asleep, had lost the force of expansion that would have allowed them to rejoin my consciousness. But when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more endearing, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.
And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me … the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is assuming form and substance, emerged, towns and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
Extract from Lydia Davis’ translation of The Way By Swann’s from Penguin’s In Search of Lost Time, edited by Christopher Prendergast. This is a fairly new translation of A la recherche du temps perdu, and it’s one I’ve had more success with than Scott Moncrieff’s more famous translation. You can buy it here. And you should, you know.
STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s RANDOM NOMAD interview with an expat in France.
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