November 18, 2022
Dear Frenchly Readers,
The novelist Marcel Proust died 100 years ago, yesterday. He wrote his monumental seven volume novel, In Search of Lost Time ( À la recherche du temps perdu), during the years of 1909 and 1922. He is considered to be one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century.
Yet. How many of us have read that seven volume novel? (Please tell me if you have, and I will file your name away for a future prize of some kind!)
I am embarrassed to say, I have not. My dad, visiting last night, told me he, too, had never read them. I thought for sure he would have. My husband, Dan, got through two. Though he fared better with Proust than Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which he tried and tried again, mired forever on the Spanish plateaus with a madman, some windmills and a dude name Sancho, he was unable to grasp why Cervantes had to go on and on and on. With Proust he was able to land, at least, on the delicacy of the writing.
Proust was an asthmatic, a closeted homosexual and he was devoted to his mother. He died after three years of illness, when he was confined to his bed and working feverishly into the night to finish his last novel; he finally succumbed to pneumonia.
And yet the enduring and iconic notion of the madeleine, the small scallop shaped cake that Proust describes as “those short, plump little cakes…” which the narrator eats in the first volume, Swann’s Way, and is, by way of his tastebuds, transported back to Sunday mornings with his aunt, Leonie, who used to feed him “a little crumb of madeleine… dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”
Since the publication of À la recherche du temps perdu, the notion of the madeleine has taken on a life of its own. Even the uneducated, like myself, who have never sat down and really read Proust, save for a passage or two in a French Literature class, will invoke the madeleine whenever we want to easily (and eruditely) make a point about memory and how we can all be transported by simply biting into a little tea cake or, for that matter, a morsel of Thanksgiving stuffing.
This is an interesting article by the British food writer, Claire Finney, about the power of madeleine moments and how they are used in culture (even soccer matches) to invoke the power of memory, even unconscious memory. Finney beautifully describes Proust’s madeleine as “a literary storm in a cup of lime flower tea.” She also recounts that “in the first draft of the novel, it was not a madeleine but a tartine – a slice of bread spread with jam – that caused the collapsing of time between Proust’s past and his conscious present. ‘It was Proust’s editor who scored it out and replaced it with madeleine – a brilliant idea’ says [Barry] Smith*, ‘because they are so beautiful and memorable.’” (Barry Smith is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses.)
Yesterday, a poem came into my inbox (from the Poetry Foundation) by the San Francisco Renaissance poet, Kenneth Rexroth. It’s called “Proust’s Madeleine.” I share it here, below. We all have our madeleines. Some, of course, are more like Thomas Mann’s rotting strawberries; others transport us back, back and back again to something transcendent.
Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
Slow horses and fast women.
I hope that for all of you who celebrate Thanksgiving (and those who don’t, too), that you will only have the lovely sweet memory confections of the kind you might dip into lime blossom tea; and if you don’t have those to hold onto, then you will make new memories next week that are just as sweet.
Cook, watch & read ce weekend (Cuisinier, Regarder et Lire):
Speaking of madeleines, Frenchly has two opportunities for you to create some of your own:
1. You can enter here, for free, for a raffle that will give you and a guest an all-expense-paid-trip, flying business class, to Paris. Once there, you’ll be treated to a cruise on the Seine with the celebrated CroisiEurope; a stay in the luxurious Westin near the Louvre; a night at the Moulin Rouge; a personalized shopping experience at Le Printemps, the Harrods of Paris, and a gift box from French Wink. All the details are right here. Enter to win!
2. On Dec. 1st, four Frenchly writers, Karen Karbo, Philip Ruskin, Catherine Rickman and Keith Van Sickle will join me and Dan Slater, of Alliance Française de Pasadena, for a free one hour virtual afternoon event where we will give travel tips for going off the beaten path in France in 2023. It’s free! It’s on Zoom. We’ll make jokes! Sign up here. I can’t wait to see you.
Next week, why not cook up a batch of madeleines for yourself or your guests? They are splendidly easy to make, take only a little time, and are wonderful in a basket, warm or cool, with tea, coffee, warm milk or cold cider. If you don’t have a madeleine pan, don’t worry—just use your muffin tin and butter it and then only fill it 1/3 of the way up. Here’s a recipe for madeleines infused with Earl Grey tea (from the awesome Dorie Greenspan!) and another that is gluten free.
A couple of weeks ago, we published a review by Andrea Meyer of a new movie called Peaceful with Catherine Deneuve. In it, an oncologist played himself. This piece, in The New York Times, is about the real doctor who played a doctor in the movie. It’s a very moving article by the wife of a man who died in 2021, and whose husband was treated by this doctor.
For more reading, I’ve included a few of my favorite new pieces on Frenchly this week. See below.
I am still watching The Crown. Or suffering through it, I should say. I’d almost rather watch David Tennant play a vicar who ties up a woman in his basement in Inside Man than bear another second of the boring and idle nastiness of The Royal Family, as portrayed in this last season. Am I alone? Do you like it? Write me and tell me why? And poll: How do you feel about Dominic West? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
(One can really appreciate the French dispatching with monarchy in…1792.)
Will you be hosting next week? If so, we have this Frenchly guide from Keith Van Sickle for the perfect cheese board.
I will be making pies this weekend. I assume you might be, too. Come to our homepage for lots of ideas for French tartes—like tarte au citron or the lyonnaise—and give your Turkey Day a little French flair…
Have a good weekend.
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