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.