Beaucoup Proust Sightings

It seems that in this, the 100th year anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, you can hardly turn over a page without finding Marcel Proust hiding within it. And that’s not even counting the sightings found in the New Yorker magazine, every week, any year. I keep little sticky notes nearby when I am reading, so that whenever Marcel jumps out from a page, yelling “boo!” and laughing maniacally, I can write his name on the sticky note and slap it on the page, thereby quieting Marcel and my own fears that I will lose the sighting if I don’t mark it’s place. Or that maybe, the whole thing was a hallucination…

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

Non, I was not hallucinating the not one but two sightings of Marcel in Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations, unless they are unusually persistent hallucinations. On page 9, writing about a patient of his experiencing hallucinations, Dr. Sacks says: “Her hallucinations had become ‘shyer’, she said, and now occurred only in the evening, if she sat quietly. I thought of the passage in Remembrance of Things Past where Proust speaks of the church bells at Combray, how their sound seemed muted in the daytime, only to be heard when the hubbub and blare of the day had died down.”

And on page 154, while writing about how the brain stores and retrieves memories, he tells us: “We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and re-categorized with every act of recollection.”

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I actually thought, as I was reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, that it was In Search of Lost Time as told by a 12 year-old girl and a middle-aged Parisian concierge. The literary allusions and themes were all there, including Vermeer’s View of Delft. This sighting is “spoken” by Paloma, the 12 year-old: “But then another idea surfaced thanks to these mirror neurons. A disturbing idea, moreover, and vaguely Proustian, no doubt (which annoys me.) What if literature were a television we gaze into in order to activate our mirror neurons and give ourselves some action-packed cheap thrills? And even worse, what if literature were a television showing us all the things we have missed?”

Speaking of action-packed cheap thrills…

Custer by Larry McMurtry

Custer by Larry McMurtry

One wonders what Marcel would have thought about being found in a book about the long-haired Golden Boy of the West. After all, Proust was in the military too, albeit just for the one year of his mandatory service.

Larry McMurtry’s Custer is a coffee-table type book, more a series of essays on Custer, his life and the Battle of Little Bighorn, with many photographs and pictures to augment the text. McMurtry says, on page 8: “I was attracted to the notion of a short life of Custer in part because the short life is itself a lovely form, a form that once was common in English letters: there’s Henry James on Hawthorne, Rebecca West on Augustine, Nabokov on Gogol, Edmund White on Proust, and myself on Crazy Horse.”

Somehow I don’t see Proust riding hell-bent for leather across the Southwestern plains after a band of Sioux and Cheyennes. But wait, no, there I see him, in his uniform, on a dashing black stallion, trailing madeleines and a white silk scarf behind him as he rides…..mais non. Je suis halluciné

Proust in his military uniform

Proust in his military uniform


Two for the Price of One

You may already know that Marcel Proust is my favorite author.  Hence, this blog and my website, Madeleine Moments.  But do you know who my second favorite is?  I’ll give you a hint: his pen name was Boz.  Need another hint? 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Yes, Charles Dickens.  The picture below is an 1873 set of Dickens’ works (all but 2 or 3 volumes which we have since acquired) which I read, in order of Boz having written them, one after the other.  It took me just over one year.

Works of Charles Dickens

Works of Charles Dickens

 So yesterday was my lucky day, because I had a Proust sighting and a Dickens sighting in the same sentence!  How’s that for excitement??  You’re overwhelmed, I can tell, as I was.  And it was in my favorite magazine- can you guess?  I won’t make you guess- it’s the New Yorker, the September 21st issue, to be exact, in Caleb Crain’s article entitled “It Happened One Decade: What the Great Depression did to culture”.

Here’s the sentence:

“(Dickstein) praises Henry Roth’s ‘Call it Sleep’ (1934) for its Dickensian polyphony of voices and Proustian sensibility.”

Dickensian and Proustian.  Doesn’t get any better than that. 

Bonus Proust sighting:

Peter Schjeldahl in the Sept. 21st issue of The New Yorker:

 “…the ailing writer Bergotte weighed the value of his life against that of a ‘little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof’ in Johannes Vermeer’s “View of Delft”…”

 Schjeldahl goes on to say: “It happens to be erroneous.  There is no yellow wall under a sloping roof in Vermeer’s cityscape. (There is a yellow sloping roof.)  Scholars have earnestly debated what Bergotte saw, failing to consider that, like the rest of us, Proust had a lousy memory.”

For shame, Peter Schjeldahl.  Where is your Proustian sensibility?

Post-Proustian Sighting

Every now and then I see Marcel Proust mentioned or referenced somewhere and I post them here as sightings.  Sometimes the connections are uncommon or a little hard to see, as in this naming of  an “antioxidant skin-care product” called Combray.  Maybe someone can get back to me on why a product made of grapeseed oil would be named Combray?

Anyhow, other sightings are much more common or, shall we say, the connections are easy to make.  These sightings usually involve madeleines, as in this post by my favorite ex-pat food blogger David Liebowitz.  Not only does he seem to be a great cook, he’s a great read as well.  And he lives in Paris…sigh.  Here’s the link:

And here’s a challenge: Go read David’s post and find his Proust reference.  Then come back here and tell us about it in a comment.  Your prize will be a (used) copy of Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi.   What’s this book’s connection with Proust? It takes place where and when Marcel lived and worked.  No, not Combray.  That’s an antioxidant skin-care product.

A Proust Sighting and an Anniversary

Today, February 18th, is the 2nd year anniversary of this blog.  In honor, I have a sighting to report (brief flashback: a Proust sighting is what I call it when I see someone mention Proust in a book, a magazine, or etc…)  I recently checked a book out of the library called Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling.  Here’s a quick glimpse of Liebling from the back cover of the book:

“No writer has written more extensively about food than A.J. Liebling.  Between Meals (1962), the great New Yorker writer’s last book, is a wholly appealing account of his “education sentimentale” in French cooking during 1926 and 1927, when American expatriates like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein made cafe life the stuff of legend.  A native New Yorker who had gone abroad to study, Liebling shunned his coursework and applied himself to the fine art of eating- or “feeding”, as he called it.”

Liebling was apparently a man who decided, early on, that he wanted to do two things: write, and eat.  More specifically, to write about eating.  And in order to do that well, one must necessarily eat as much and as well as one possibly can.  What better place to do this than Paris?

So when, as a young man, he was temporarily adrift in life, as young men are wont to do, his father suggested a trip to France, Liebling seized the opportunity, sealing the deal with his father with a little fictional narrative that was a little taste of his later literary abilities.  (To read about this and more about Liebling, click here.)

Like Proust, Liebling spent most of his time in Paris, but also like Marcel, he occasionally made forays into the countryside.  Between Meals is the result.  And the first sentence of this book contains our Proust sighting.  I love it when I pick up a book, whose contents are unknown to me, and discover Marcel in the pages.  It’s like seeing a friend in a place where you hadn’t exected to see them, and only adds to your enjoyment of that place.

So, the sighting:

“The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle.  The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book.  This is capable of expression by the formula TMB, for Taste~Memory~Book.  Some time ago, when I began to read a book called The Food of France, by Waverley Root, I had an inverse experience: BMT, for Book~Memory~Taste.  Happily, the tastes that The Food of France re-created for me- small birds, stewed rabbit, stuffed tripe, Cote Rotie, and Tavel- were more robust than that of the madeleine, which Larousse defines as “a light cake made with sugar, flour, lemon juice, brandy and eggs”.  (The quantity of brandy in a madeleine would not furnish a gnat with an alcohol rub.)  In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite.  On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sauteed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”

Of course, there are many who believe, on just such a mild stimulus, Proust did write a masterpiece.  A meal like the one described by Liebling, and after reading the entire book, that is just one meal A.J. is describing, would probably have hastened Proust’s already early demise.  Or at least caused him intense distress.  One imagines him thoroughly berating Celeste for bringing him such a gastronomic nightmare (or gourmet’s dream, from Liebling’s point of view).

As an extra added bonus, this sighting is also a madeleine reference.  Besides my own madeleine moments, shared here, I have experimented with making them myself, which you can read about and see recipes for here.  What caught my attention in Liebling’s description of  madeleines, which he attributes to Larousse, is the addition of brandy.  No recipe I had ever seen for madeleines included spirits of any kind.  I have apparently missed out.  So a little googling finally turns up this recipe (from this article):

Adapted from ‘”The New Making of a Cook” by Madeleine Kamman (William Morrow, 1997)
Time: 1 hour, plus at least two hours’ chilling

1 cup unsalted butter, more at room temperature for buttering pan
2 medium eggs
3 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 1/2 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour, more for flouring pan
2/3 cup sifted cake flour.

1. In a mixer fitted with a whisk, cream butter until white. Add 1 whole medium egg and 1 medium egg yolk. Place egg white in a bowl, and set aside. Continue mixing until blended. Turn to low speed, and add 3 large egg yolks (adding whites to the one in the bowl), beating after each addition. Add lemon zest and rum, and continue mixing for another minute.
2. Increase speed to medium. Add 2/3 cup sugar and the salt, and beat until all traces of sugar crystals disappear. Add remaining sugar, and whip another minute. Transfer batter to a large bowl. Wash and dry mixer bowl and whisk, then add egg whites. Beat until foamy, then add lemon juice and continue beating until very smooth and white.
3. Mix flours, and sift two-thirds of the flour over batter. Fold together until just blended. Fold in one-quarter of the egg whites. Slide remaining egg whites on top of batter, and sift remaining flour over. Fold all layers together until batter is perfectly homogenized. It should be soft and fluffy. Spoon batter into a pastry bag fitted with a small (about 1/4-inch) round tip. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter a madeleine pan (small or large molds). Pipe batter into molds, so they are three-quarters full. Bake until they form humps and are nut brown around edges, 6 to 8 minutes, longer if using large molds. Remove from oven, and bang pan on a countertop to release madeleines from molds. Carefully lift off any that stick. Place in a folded napkin to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter.

Yield: about 60 small madeleines.

As you can see, this recipe calls for rum, not brandy, but I can use the amount given as a basis for how much brandy to add.  Have I made these madeleines yet? Non. Will I make them? I bought the brandy yesterday.

Bon appetit.



Come into my Boudoir

Vivian: “So you do get up.  I was beginning to think you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust.”

Phillip Marlowe: “Who’s he?”

Vivian: “You wouldn’t know him, a French writer.”

Marlowe: “Come into my boudoir…”

From The Big Sleep, a 1946 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian, for Marcel Proust on the anniversary of his death, November 18, 1922

Bonne nuit, Marcel

The Creative Habit

July 10th is the anniversary of Marcel’s birth in 1871, and 137 years later, he is still going strong.  My latest Proust sighting occured in this book,  “The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life” by Twyla Tharp:

“When Marcel Proust dipped his petites madeleines into his tea, the taste and aroma set off a flood of memories and emotions from which modern literature still has not recovered.”

The above quote and the ones that follow are from a chapter called Muscle Memory in which Tharp discusses the form of memory retained by our bodies by a repeated physical act, in an unconscious form similar to the Proustian madeleine moment.  You know the saying that one never forgets how to ride a bike?  That’s what she means.

“Muscle memory has its uses in the creative process, perhaps more for acquiring skill than for developing inspiration.  But it’s useful nevertheless.”

So what’s the connection between muscle memory and Proust?  Well obviously, he had to learn the skill of bending his elbow to bring the madeleine to his mouth without spilling the tea in the spoon- not really. 

“…the exercise is less about muscles and more about perceiving structures and harmonies anew- from the vantage point of the author rather than the reader.”

 The exercise Tharp is speaking of is, in whatever field of endeavor you aspire to, you should choose an example or a mentor that inspires you or challenges you and emulate them, to the best of your ability.  This is where Proust comes in:

“Raymond Chandler and Proust went through a similar process when honing their very different crafts.  Chandler believed Hemingway to be the greatest American novelist of his time, and he wrote imitations of Hemingway’s style to absorb what he loved about it.  Proust went further, spending twelve years translating and annotating the writing of the English art historian John Ruskin.  He also wrote a series of articles for Le Figaro imitating the styles of such 19th century literary figures as Balzac and Flaubert.”

I think there is much value in this advice, and I think Marcel would agree with me and with Twyla. 

I have not tried to write in the style of Proust, but I have tried to paint in the style of my favorite painter, Vincent van Gogh.  Here’s an attempt, in acrylic:


And here’s an attempt in oil, in the style of Marc Chagall, on a subject and a place nearer to Proust’s world:

The Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, 18 years after Marcel’s birth, which brings us back to the day, 137 years ago, that we look back to today; Joyeux Anniversaire, Marcel.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Boy, is that title going to get me some hits or what??  Imagine the disappointment when the post turns out to be about Colette and Marcel Proust.  And, not, well, you know…or not so much, at least.

I recently read a book called “Earthly Paradise: Colette’s Autobiography, drawn from the writings of her lifetime, by Robert Phelps” (published 1966).  Apparently, Colette didn’t actually write an autobiography per se, but she did write a lot of what the editor, Robert Phelps, calls “autobiographical prose”- memoirs, portraits, essays- and these works are what he used to piece together this book.  And on the very first page, non, the very first sentence of the book (in the Editor’s Foreword) we have Proust invoked:

In her own lifetime, and especially outside of France, Colette was best known as a novelist, as the creator of Gigi, Cheri, Claudine; and as such, her place in twentieth-century fiction is very high, comparable among her countrymen only with that of Proust.”

This is possibly not so surprising, in that they both excel in their ability to see and record the fine details of a person, a time, a place, an object- and in their mastery of conveying, in vivid and evocative words, these observations in a way that relates the parts to the whole.  What is surprising and interesting, at least to me, is that Colette and Marcel were contemporaries, they traveled in some of the same circles, shared some of the same friends, both lived in Paris and even met on a few occasions.  And- here’s where the Sodom and Gomorrah come in- both were attracted to members of their own sex.

Colette’s “autobio” actually contains several references to Proust, including a portrait she wrote of him in her last book, published in 1950, entitled En Pays Connu.  Here are some of her observations of Marcel:

When I was a very young woman, he was a very good-looking young man.  Trust the portrait of him by Jacques-Emile Blanche.  That narrow mouth, that mist around the eyes, that tired freshness, both the features and the expression really are those of the young Marcel Proust.”

(The portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche)

Years later, after the conclusion of WWI, she saw him again:

When I saw him again in the Ritz Hotel, where he lived during the war, his illness and the passing years had already done their swift work on him.  His agitation and his pallor seemed to be the result of some terrible inner force.  Dressed in tails, standing in his timidly lighted hallway, at the heart of a darkened Paris, Marcel Proust greeted me with faltering gaiety.  Over his evening dress he was wearing an unfastened cape.  The expression of the white, crumpled shirt front, and the convulsions of his tie terrified me as much as the black marks under his eyes and around his mouth, the sooty, telltale traces that an absent-minded malady had smeared haphazardly across his face.”

That seems a very sympathetic portrait, n’est-ce pas?  Yet Jean-Yves Tadie, in his 1996 biography of Proust entitled Marcel Proust: A Life,  passes on to us this description of Marcel, written by Colette in 1895, that he says is “shocking in its disdain”:

“…I was hounded, politely, by a pretty, young literary-minded boy.  He compared me…to Myrtocleia, to a young Hermes, to a love of Prud’hon’s…My little flatterer, thrilled by his own evocations, never left me…(I did not much care for) his over-weaning politeness, the excessive attention he paid to those he was talking to…”

Sometime around 1917-1918, Colette sent Marcel a copy of her book Les Hueres longues.  Did he read it?  What did he think of it?  From reading Proust’s correspondence of the period, Tadie tells us this: 

When Colette sent Proust Les Hueres longues, he picked out a few quotations from ten or so pages so as to compliment her on them.  This was his method for making people believe he had read a book.”

Although he pretended to have read Colette’s book and complimented her on it, in a letter to someone else he said that he found “…contemporary writers unbearable”.  One assumes he includes Colette in this assessment.  But in March of 1919, Proust read Colette’s book Mitsou, and he admitted that he cried upon reading the letter from the heroine at the end of the book.  So he must have found this short love story “bearable” reading, probably because it is a love story and because the heroine writes her so-touching letter when she realizes that her loved one, once he senses that she “belongs” to him, no longer loves her.  A theme close to Proust’s heart.

And so, to another theme close to Marcel’s heart: Sodom and Gomorrah.  This is actually the title of Volume Four of Proust’s novel, but when the original English translation was published, it was called Cities of the Plain.  It is the section of the novel that primarily deals with homosexual and lesbian activities, and presumably, Colette read it.  In 1932, in her book Le Pur et L’impur, she wrote a chapter called Sodom, and once again, we find Proust in the first line:

Ever since Proust shed light on Sodom, we have had a feeling of respect for what he wrote, and would never dare, after him, to touch the subject of these hounded creatures, who are careful to blur their tracks and to propagate at every step their personal cloud, like a cuttlefish.  But- was he misled, or was he ignorant?- when he assembles a Gomorrah of inscrutable and depraved young girls, when he denounces an entente, a collectivity, a frenzy of bad angels, we are only diverted, indulgent, and a little bored, having lost the support of the dazzling light of truth that guides us through Sodom.  This is because, with all due deference to the imagination or the error of Marcel Proust, there is no such thing as Gomorrah.”  

And yet Tadie says that Colette was delighted by Sodome et Gomorrhe, and adds, “…(she) knew what she was talking about…”