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).

Sighting #3: City of the Dead in the City of Lights

 Marcel Proust is buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  No, I did not sight him there, unfortunately I am not in Paris.  But in my increasing desire to return to Paris (last time was in 2005), I purchased Rick Steves’ 2007 guidebook to Paris and discovered Marcel in the pages covering the cemetery.   When we were in Paris in 2005 we didn’t visit Pere Lachaise, although I wanted to because I knew Marcel was buried there, but we just ran out of time (as did Marcel and the others there).  We did spend an afternoon in the Montmartre Cemetery and spent quite a bit of time photographing the elaborate tombs and mausoleums, also befriending the cats that apparently live there.  At dusk the guards herd everyone out by blowing whistles and ringing bells- enough to wake the dead.

Back to Marcel and Pere Lachaise.  The picture above is of his tomb there, it is a free use pic from Google and although it is small, you can just see Marcel’s name and dates (1871-1922) on the front and the bouquets of lilies people have left on top.  There are also stones on the tomb, left by visitors; this is a Jewish tradition and Marcel’s mother, Jeanne Weil, was Jewish but his father, Adrian Proust, was Catholic; Marcel himself never practiced any religion.  He wrote this in The Guermantes Way: “Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces”.  And, of course, he would know.

Here is what Rick Steves has to say about Marcel:  “Some who make it through the seven volumes and 3,000 pages of Proust’s autobiographical novel, Remembrance of Things Past, close the book and cry, “Brilliant!”.  Others get lost in the meandering, stream-of-consciousness style, and forget that the whole “Remembrance” began with the taste of a madeleine (type of cookie) that triggered a flashback to Proust’s childhood, as relived over the last 10 years of his life, during which he labored alone in his apartment on boulevard Haussmann- midway between the Arc de Triomphe and Gare de l’Est- penning his life story with reflections on Time (as we experience it, not clock time) and Memory, in long sentences.”  (page 307)

I can just imagine Proust spinning in his tomb like a dreidel over Steves calling his novel “autobiographical”.  Marcel always denied that the novel was autobiographical, but as anyone who knew him or has studied his life along with reading the novel knows, that is a bit of literary license on Marcel’s part.  There are certainly many moments that touch or in some way spring from Marcel’s life, but there are also many fiction elements or disassociations from his life; the major one that I immediately think of is that in the novel, the Narrator has no brother.  Marcel had a younger brother named Robert.

There are other things we could quibble with Steves about, but like mourners at a funeral, we won’t bring them up now.  Rick Steves also says this about Pere Lachaise: “Enclosed by a massive wall and lined with 5,000 trees, the peaceful, car-free lanes and dirt paths of Pere Lachaise cemetery encourage parklike meandering.”  He also used the word “meandering” in his description of Proust’s novel, and so one feels that maybe Marcel can be at rest here.  But I worry about those 5,000 trees and the dirt paths.  Perhaps the gift one should bring to Marcel’s tomb would be some of that “fumigation” powder he used to burn to relieve his asthma.