“My greatest adventure was undoubtedly Proust.
What is there left to write after that?” ~ Virginia Woolf
Bonjour, Mon Amis!
Today I feel a certain je ne sais quoi.
It began right after I dipped my madeleine into a cup of linden tea.
This is dangerous, I know.
A certain Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust once did this, and he ended up writing 3200 pages.
That’s right. A few crumbs soaked in tea provoked a flood of memories, which became seven volumes* entitled, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or, more recently translated as, In Search of Lost Time). Published between 1913-1927, this semi-autobiographical novel is the longest ever written. Ever.
Have you read any of it?
I’m feeling guilty that I haven’t. Especially since Graham Greene called Proust, “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century,” and most scholars seem to agree. But am I ready for four million words, and 2,000 literary characters?
Still, I like the tea and madeleine part. I also think that involuntary memory is a pretty cool thing. If you just happen to encounter the right inanimate object, it may provoke a complete memory, pure and untainted, just ripe for your creative powers to turn into art:
She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell . . . I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause . . .
And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray . . . when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime blossom . . . as in that game in which the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping it in little pieces of paper until then undifferentiated which, the moment they are immersed in it, stretch and bend, take color and distinctive shape, turn into flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. ~ from SWANN’S WAY, by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis (Viking, 2002).
A great disparity exists between Proust’s real life and his art. He was a sickly, asthmatic child with an unnatural attachment to his mother — a spoiled sycophant, a poseur, a snob and a hypocrite who squandered his youth trying to gain favor with the idle rich. He wasted his father’s money, suffered a series of unhappy affairs (he was a closet homosexual), and berated himself for not being born into the aristocracy.
His mother had a huge influence on his imagination and use of memory in writing, but he was not able to effectively bring this retrospective aspect into his work until after she died. While the presence of a person, object, or location provides sensory stimulation, it is the absence of the same that actually catalyzes the imagination — enabling it to sift, enlarge, and shape experience into a form resembling art.
Because of his severe asthma, Proust lived in forced confinement for over a decade, sometimes never leaving his cork-lined bedroom for weeks at a time. There, he transformed a wasted life into a masterwork that explored the many dimensions, layers, and textures possible of his chosen genre. His international reputation as the most influential novelist of the 20th century remains undiminished.
With today’s renewed interest in the memoir, Proust is as popular as ever. Hardcore devotees, such as the members of the Proust Society, meet regularly to discuss the novel in manageable pieces, often devoting years to reach completion. Ultimately, Proust has something for everyone. A 25-year-old reader once called his Remembrance “the ultimate blog.”
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
1/3 cup white sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 T lemon zest
1/4 cup butter
powdered sugar for decoration
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour 12 madeleine molds; set aside.
2. Melt butter and let cool to room temperature.
3. In a small mixing bowl, beat eggs, vanilla and salt at high speed until light.
4. Beating constantly, gradually add sugar, and continue beating at high speed until mixture is thick and pale and ribbons form in bowl when beaters are lifted, 5 to 10 minutes.
5. Sift flour into egg mixture 1/3 at a time, gently folding after each addition.
6. Add lemon zest and pour melted butter around edge of batter. Quickly but gently fold butter into batter. Spoon batter into molds; it will mound slightly above tops.
7. Bake 14 to 17 minutes, or until cakes are golden and the tops spring back when gently pressed with your fingertip.
8. Use the tip of the knife to loosen madeleines from pan; invert onto rack. Immediately sprinkle warm cookies with powdered sugar. Madeleines are best eaten the day they’re baked.
9. Variation: Chocolate Madeleines: Omit lemon zest. Increase sugar to 1/2 cup. Substitute 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder for 2 T of the flour; sift into batter with flour.
TIPS: Lemon-butter flavor is enhanced when madeleine is dipped into lime-flower (linden) tea, aka tilleul. Savor the experience, and record your memories!
***SSHHHH! Don’t tell! There is evidence to suggest that Proust did not eat a madeleine, but a soggy piece of toast instead. Tant pis!
* In Search of Lost Time – Volume Titles:
Within a Budding Grove
The Guermantes Way
Sodom and Gomorrah