Bonsoir, mon ami

Today, November 18th, is the anniversary of Marcel Proust’s death in 1922.  If you will look in the column to the right of this post, you will see a badge that says “Nanowrimo participant”.  Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and I have committed myself to the writing of a book.  Part of what I am writing includes a visit from Marcel Proust, who, as you can read below if you so choose, has just esconced himself in our guest bed and is preparing to tell me a story.  In honor of the anniversary of Marcel Proust’s death, I offer this excerpt from my 50,ooo word not-so-magnum opus:

“Francoise now had Marcel propped up in the bed, with pillows and sweaters piled up behind him, and on either side of him, so that he could prop his elbows on them as he ate his croissant and drank his coffee, with the tray on a pillow on his lap.  Francoise stood at the foot of the bed, watching as Marcel finished his croissant and then going to fetch another as he requested.  While she was gone, he lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes.  He looked so much, at the moment, like the photograph taken by Man Ray after Proust had died, of him lying on his death bed with his sunken eyes closed and his nose sharp with skin stretched tight over it, that I was frozen in time, staring at the face I’d never seen in reality and yet- here it was.  He opened his eyes and caught me staring at him.  He smiled.  “Do not worry, Madame,  I will be restored soon.  And then I will begin the story”. 

Man Ray's death photo of Marcel Proust


The Death of Marcel

Today, November 18th, is the anniversary of Proust’s death in 1922.  He was born on July 10, 1871 and so was 51 years old when he died.  Not a very long life, but it lasted as long as he wanted it to- until he finished his work.  He’s buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France and when Proustians make their pilgrimage there, they leave madeleines, lilies and stones.  Why stones? Because Proust’s mother was Jewish.  His father was Catholic, though, and Proust himself never really embraced any religion.  Writing was his life and his religion.

In the summer of 1922, the Paris newspaper “L’Intransigeant” published a questionnaire that included this question:

An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people.  If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm?  Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in this last hour?”

Marcel answered.  He had answered a couple of these questionnaires when he was younger as well, at parties where this was done as part of the festivities, and Marcel apparently enjoyed answering them.  Anyhow, Marcel answered and the paper printed his answer:

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say.  Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it- our life- hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible  for ever, how beautiful it would become again!  Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire.  And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today.  It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Marcel did not die that evening.  But not long after, he “took a chill” and it became pnuemonia, followed by secondary infections, then an abcess in his lung which became septicaemia.  This took place over several weeks, during which time Marcel exhausted himself editing and correcting his manuscripts.  Earlier, in the spring of 1922, he’d announced to Celeste Albaret, his housekeeper and confidant for ten years, that he’d finished his work, that during the night he’d written “The End”.  To which he then added, “Now I can die”.

Four months after answering the L’Intransigeant questionnaire, Marcel died.  His brother, Robert, had to finish editing the final manuscripts for In Search of Lost Time.  But Proust was already gaining fame and a reputation after the publications of Swann’s Way (1913), In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919), and The Guermantes Way (1920-21) and so he died knowing that he’d accomplished what he set out to do.  Two days after his death, the photographer Man Ray came to take his death portrait. 

A poignant confession from Celeste stays with me in relation to Proust’s death.  Sometime before he dies, Marcel said to Celeste, “…it is awful to think doctors can torture a sick person by injecting serums.  And for what?  To give his patient ten more minutes, twelve more hours perhaps, of a wretched life?  Celeste, promise me you won’t ever let them give me an injection.”  She promised.

Fast forward to the day it is obvious that Marcel is going to die.  Against Proust’s wishes, she calls his doctor and begs him to give Marcel an injection, something to give him strength, to save him.  When the doctor does so, Proust reaches out and grabs Celeste’s wrist, pinches it and says, “Oh, Celeste…oh, Celeste!”

Celeste writes that this is impressed on her forever, and that even if she wanted to, she could never drive that final cry of his out of her ears. 

Marcel Proust and The New Yorker

The September 24th, 2007 issue of The New Yorker magazine was the “style” issue but should have been called, judging by the number of Proust sightings within (five, by my count), the Proust issue.  Not that Proust wasn’t stylish, with those lavender gloves and dashing scarves, but oddly enough, for this being the style issue, none of the Proust sightings have to do with fashion.  Or maybe that’s not so odd, since when we think of Marcel, perhaps the first thing we think is not “he’s such a fashion plate….and he can write too!”  But maybe we should, after all, he lived at the height of the Belle Epoch and mingled with the beautiful people at the beautiful places, although from reading biographies of him I gather that he was considered somewhat odd in his choices of style and fashion.  But I digress.

Not so oddly, the first two sightings are within an article about memory, or rather loss of it, called “The Abyss” and written by Oliver Sacks.  It is about a man named Clive who, after a brain infection, is “left with a memory span of only seconds- the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded”.  The title of the article refers to a quotation from Proust that the man’s wife, Deborah, uses to describe a form of rescue from obliviousness that her husband will never experience.  The quote is from the Overture to Swann’s Way, in which the Narrator (either Deborah or the author of this article ascribes this quote to Swann, but this is a mistake) describes waking up from a deep sleep:

“…and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller; but then the memory- not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be- would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself…”

This rope from heaven gives the Narrator back his “personal consciousness and identity.  No rope from heaven, no autobiographical memory will ever come down in this way to Clive” (quote from the article).   “The rope that is let down from Heaven for Clive comes not with recalling the past, as for Proust, but with performance…”  Somehow, Clive has retained his ability to play Bach, Handel, Mozart and other classical composers on the piano, and this remarkable ability in the face of such profound amnesia is the focus of Dr. Sacks article.

Marcel Proust, through the course of his novel, will find the key to recalling lost time in everyday objects, sounds, smells.  This man, Clive, not only cannot find his lost time in this way, he doesn’t even know that he has lost time-except for his ability to recognize his wife (although he can’t remember that he just saw her five minutes ago) and his astounding retention of music he learns to play on the piano- he is a man without a past, reborn every few seconds to a world that contains no memories for him.   

Perhaps some things are better left “un-remembered”.  The next sighting is from Francine du Plessix Gray, in her article entitled “The Surrealist’s Muse”, about art patron and artist’s muse Marie-Laure de Noailles.  In the 1950’s, du Plessix Gray was assigned by her editor at Elle magazine to interview de Noailles, a task which “daunted” the author and one that she apparently approached with trepidation.  She was right to be fearful, when she arrived at de Noailles residence, she was stared at by de Noailles and the beautiful young man with her, their looks “distinctly tainted with malice” and full of “haughty insolence”.  Her proffered handshake was ignored. 

“As I proceeded to interview her, any trace of tolerance she might have had for me was diminished by my lack of an adequate retort to the one query she put to me: ‘Men who love Proust have short penises, don’t you think?”

The less said about that remembrance, the better.

The last two sightings are brief.  In an article about Donatella Versace by Lauren Collins, we learn that Donatella’s brother Gianni (the one that was murdered) called their family retreat at Lake Como his “Proust” place.  Because it was a quiet, peaceful place to go to think and to rest?  Or because the bedrooms are lined with cork?  We are not told, we can only imagine.  And finally, from a brief book review of The Worst Intentions (by Alessandro Piperno): “…this wickedly scathing debut novel, a coruscating mixture of satire, family epic, Proustian meditation, and erotomaniacal farce…”  Sounds like something Marcel would have enjoyed, n’est-ce pas?

Twice as Nice, Marcel Sightings #4 and #5

Two sightings of Marcel to report today.  I tell you, for someone who’s dead, the man gets around.  I read somewhere once (sorry I can’t remember where) that Proust was probably the author most referred to by other writers whose work they’ve never actually read.  Let me assure you-  I have read the man’s work.

The first sighting was in a book I checked out from the library by that famous American author and chef, a woman who has made French cooking and Paris accessible to many of us provincials- no, not Julia Child.  The book is called The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris and is by Patricia Wells, and so, bien sur, the sighting of Marcel is along with the recipe she gives for madeleines:

“To be truly appreciated- to ‘invade the senses with exquisite pleasure’ as they did for Marcel Proust- madeleines must be dipped in tea…”  (Fourth Edition, page 225)

Here is the Proust quote that Patricia Wells is referring to:

”I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran though me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that had happened to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.  I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.  Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?  I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.  Whence did it come?  What did it mean?  How could I seize and apprehend it?”

This experience invokes the involuntary memory in Marcel (the Narrator and/or Proust himself) that I call his madeleine moment, which leads to his becoming an author in search of time and places and people that seem to be lost, but that sometimes seem to be embodied in material objects (like a madeleine), or a certain sound (tinkling silverware on china) or an experience (stumbling on an uneven paving stone).  The above quote is from the Overture to Swann’s Way, Volume I of In Search of Lost Time, to read about the full experience click here.

Ms. Wells was on a search of her own, as she writes in this book, as she became “fixated, almost fanatical, about madeleines” and tasted dozens in her search, but only a few were “just right”.  Her ideal madeleine, hot and fresh out of the oven, has a “dry, almost dusty” taste, and while I may not use those terms to describe a fresh madeleine, I do like to let the madeleines rest awhile and develop their sweet, moist and lemony savour.  I also like them in coffee, particularly the chocolate version.  You can find both recipes here

Does this man look “bi-gendered” to you?  Like someone who would appeal to both woman and men- and was attracted to both women and men (albeit for different reasons)?  In a New Yorker magazine (July 30, 2007) book review by Peter Schjeldahl of a new biography of Gustave Courbet, Schjeldal says the author’s…

“…most original analysis of Courbet’s reputation in his day concerns its mixed effects on a newly ‘bi-gendered’ public.  Women were a growing constituency of readers and consumers, increasingly targeted by newspaper advertising.  Androgynous appeal became a feature of fiction from Sand to Flaubert, and onward to Proust.”

(The author is Petra ten-Doesschate Chu,  and the biography is entitled “The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture“.)

Proust certainly explored the androgynous appeal, or bi-gendered-ness, of himself as the Narrator and other persons within his novel, most intently that of his great love, Albertine.  Proust devotes pages (and pages) to his anguish over whether Albertine is faithful to him or not, and even worse, is she unfaithful with women as well as men.  Is Albertine bi-gendered?  Does she appeal to women as well as men?  Is she (gasp!) a Lesbian?  Go grab your copy of In Search of Lost Time (you know, the one you have been meaning to read but have never actually gotten around to), brew yourself a cup of tea, settle back with a plate of madeleines and prepare to have your senses exquisitely invaded.

Le Cadeau

When we decided to go to Paris two years ago, I “prepared” myself by reading as many French authors as I could (that’s how I found Proust), listening to French singers and trying to learn to speak French.  I had taken one semester of French way back in my first year of college (27 years ago, and I think I got a D) and since then had sporadically tried to “self-teach” myself with language tapes, but would give it up quickly.  This time I got serious.  My husband helped me supplement my language tapes with CD’s and DVD’s to use on the computer, and I gave myself lessons every day.  By the time we left for Paris, I felt fairly confident that I would be able to at least understand what was said to us in French, and maybe be able to carry on a conversation myself, as long as it was a simple conversation.   

When we arrived in Paris, a strange thing happened.  I found myself shy about using my newly acquired French.  I’m still not sure why, but I was able to understand things that were said to us, which helped.  It also helped that many French people, at least in Paris, speak some English and are not shy about using it.  We were in Paris for 6 days, then left for Italy and Andorra, then back to Paris for our remaining 5 days.  I was determined to use my French and felt more comfortable about speaking to the Parisians, so…I got my chance at the Clignancourt flea market.  We had found a fascinating shop that sold all kinds of old hardware and other miscellaneous items like chandelier parts, doorkeys as big as your hand, cut-glass doorknobs- things just piled around in bins and on the floor and hanging from the ceiling.  In one bin I found the bracelet pictured above, liked the old brass look of it and the scenes of Paris on each panel.  There was no price on it so I went to ask someone- in French.

Nearby was a man who seemed to be the owner of the shop.  I approached him and said, “Pardon, Monsieur, c’est combien?”  He took the bracelet from me, looked at it a minute, then handed it back to me and said something in French that included the words “ma coeur” (my heart) and “une cadeau” (a gift).  Not sure that I understood, I said “Pardon, Monsieur?”  He repeated what he had said, and held his hand over his heart and then extended it towards me.  I realized that he was telling me he was giving it to  me as a gift, with gratitude.  I said, “Merci, Monsieur!  Merci beaucoup”.  It was my first complete conversation in French, in Paris, and although I wasn’t sure why he’d given me the bracelet, I was happy with it and with getting over my shyness.

When we got back to our hotel, my husband pointed out to me something about the bracelet that I hadn’t noticed back at the shop.  The center panel of the bracelet says “Paris Liberation 1944”.  Apparently it was made to commemorate the liberation of Paris by the US military from the German occupation of WWII.  That explained why the man in the shop had given it to me, an American, with gratitude from his heart.  Not only was this conversation special because it was my first entirely in French, it was meaningful in being given a gift from a Frenchman to an American in Paris, with gratitude from 63 years past.

My thanks to my husband, Rod, who took the picture above (and took me to Paris).

In Search of Marcel

Notre Dame Cathedral

It’s one of those inescapable facts of life, that when you become interested in something, all of a sudden it seems to be everywhere. You buy a new car, and suddenly the road is filled with the same model. You hear a piece of music you like, and everyone is talking about it. You become fascinated with an author, and they pop up in the most unexpected places. So it has become with me and Marcel, and so I am going to start recording these sightings here. If you have a Marcel sighting, or spot him in a piece of writing (I see the word “Proustian” used a lot), feel free to add it here.The latest “sighting” I had was in the magazine that the Chrysler Museum, in Norfolk, Virginia, sends to its members. The director of the Museum, William Hennessey, writes a “Director’s Note” in each issue. In this one, he tells of his recent visit to Paris during which he decided to attend a Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral. “Trapped” by an unexpectedly long service in a foreign language, he had the time to really look at, admire and absorb the architecture and ponder the meaning of what the builders were attempting to achieve. He says: “What had been an obligatory tourist stop- an image on a postcard- had suddenly become something rich and resonant, deeply and movingly human”.After he returned home, he related this experience to a friend and she replied that she knew exactly what he meant, “because of her devotion to the writings of Marcel Proust. In her view, Proust, through his endlessly complex sentences, his subtle evocations of mood and tone, and his embrace of ambiguity and multi-layered overlapping meanings, wrote with the deliberate goal of forcing his readers to slow down…Proust compels us to engage with the delicate nuances of situation and personality that provide the raison d’être for any action.”

Mr. Hennessey goes on to say that, “armed with this insight”, he took up reading Swann’s Way again, and allowed himself the time to savor and reflect as he read, and in doing so discovers an “incomparably richer and more satisfying” experience. His conclusion: “The pleasures of reading and seeing conceal a truth we all know, but seldom embrace: great works of art only reveal themselves slowly through thoughtful engagement.”

As a final thought on Proust, Mr. Hennessey notes that “The last time Proust left his house, just before his death in 1922, was a visit to the Jeu de Paume where his favorite painting, Vermeer’s View of Delft was on view. He clearly understood that art is the only means we have of regaining lost time”. That, Mr. Hennessey, and a bite of madeleine dipped in tea.

For more about the Chrysler Museum:

Sharing Madeleine Moments

MadeleinesMy deepening interest led me to creating (with the help of my husband, Rod) a website devoted to Marcel Proust, his novel, In Search of Lost Time, and his city, Paris.   I called this website “Madeleine Moments” because of the most well-known scene from the novel, in which the narrator tells of eating a piece of madeleine (a small, scallop-shaped cake/cookie) dipped in tea and subsequently experiencing what he calls an “involuntary memory”; what I call a madeleine moment.   We’ve probably all had them, now here’s your place to share them.  Marcel first, then me, then you?

Here’s what Proust wrote:  

“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings, when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea…And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in the decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and with the house the town….the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine…the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

 (Adapted from Swann’s Way, In Search of Lost Time) 

And from my website, here’s my “madeleine moment”:

“First, a little history. When I began painting in my early teens, I began with oils, on my own and learning from the book that came with the set. But at some point I switched to acrylics and watercolor, probably because they are easier to work with and clean up after and so therefore, are the mediums of choice in public school systems, where I began taking painting classes. I continued taking painting classes and painting on my own right up to the present, but only in acrylic and watercolor, not oils. This past Christmas I requested and was given a set of oil paints (Yes, Virginia…) but discovered that I was actually intimidated by the prospect of painting with them. Scared, really, that I wasn’t good enough to use them and they were difficult to use and I had no experience and had never been officially “taught” how to use them. I finally got a book that had exercises for a novice oil painter and told myself to just do the exercises and gradually I’d feel confident enough to paint a picture with them. So I sat down at my painting table, opened the jars of linseed oil and turpentine and squeezed some paint out onto my palette and… Madeleine Moment: I was a young teenager again, sitting at the kitchen table, painting a still life of some apples. The combined smells of the linseed oil, turpentine and paints had caused the scene to rise up around me, as Marcel says, like a stage set; I could see the plastic tablecloth design and the apples arranged on the table, I could feel the brush in my hand and the texture of the canvas through the brush, and perhaps most significantly, felt the way I did when painting with these oils. It was like being in two places, and two times, at once. An immediate effect of this experience was that my fear of painting with oils was gone, I felt as I did then- eager to learn and excited to create and not in the least intimidated. Of broader consequence was an understanding of Marcel’s madeleine moments and how they revealed to him a way of existing outside of time itself. “That explained why my apprehensiveness of death vanished at the moment I instinctively recognized the savor of the little madeleine, because at that moment the person within me was a timeless person, consequently unconcerned with the vicissitudes of the future.” Death becomes meaningless. Not bad for a little piece of madeleine.”

If you would like to share a madeleine moment of your own, or read moments others have shared, click on “comments” and leave a moment of your own.