Remembrance of Cakes Past

January 25, 2007 at 12:43 pm | Posted in backstory, books, food, writing | 24 Comments

If you haven’t heard a lot from me lately, it’s because I’ve become a lock-in.

I suppose this happens to everyone in the final stages of a novel — I promised myself that the final edits would be done by the end of January, and as a result, I’ve hardly left my bed all month. My bed, you see, is where I write. And as I sit here in bed, propped up by innumerable pillows, staring out the window at winter’s interminable gray drizzle, my laptop cozily warming my knees, it occurs to me Marcel Proust occupied a very similar pose just about a hundred years ago. (Sans laptop, bien évidemment.)

Then I get hungry, and wander over to the kitchen in search of madeleines.

madeleine

I know I’m not the only person who makes the inevitable connection between Proust and madeleines, but for me, it’s a relatively new experience. When I was a kid, madeleines were just a fact of life, preferable to pain d’épice, but definitely not as desirable as an éclair. As I grew up, I heard from time to time about this Proust character and his abiding love for madeleines, and frankly, I always found it a bit puzzling.

Madeleines? They’re nothing special. Of course you can get fancy ones baked fresh from Paris’ most famous bakeries, but when I was a kid, our madeleines came from the grocery store, and were oh so inelegantly packaged in a clear plastic bag. The madeleines of my memory are dry and crumbly, modestly sweet, desirable mostly for their amusing shape, shelf-stability, and absorptive properties when dipped in tea or coffee.

madeleines

Proust, though, he must have had access to a better variety, right? How else could he wax lyrical for 1,300 words about the subject? That’s what I assumed, anyway.

Then, a couple of years ago, I actually read À Coté de Chez Swann. Turns out, the madeleine is not so special:

She sent someone out for these short and squat cakes called Petites Madeleines, which seem to have been molded in the fluted shell of a scallop. And soon, mechanically, worn out by a dull day and the promise of a sad tomorrow, I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had dipped a piece of madeleine. But the moment the mouthful mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I trembled, aware that something extraordinary was happening within me. A delicious pleasure had overtaken me, isolated, with no notion of its cause.*

Ignore the stuff about the “delicious pleasure” and what do you have? Precisely the same dry, crumbly confection that inhabits my own memory. Of course, read a little further, and you find out this is the whole point:

… And all of a sudden, the memory came to me. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine that, Sunday mornings at Combray (in those days I never went out before Mass), when I went to tell her good-morning in her room, my Aunt Léonie offered to me after having dipped it in her tea or infusion.*

Proust (or rather, his narrator) isn’t in ecstasy over the madeleine, but rather this unexpected window into his childhood. He further explains: “It’s clear that the truth I’m looking for is not in it [the cake], but in me.”*

So, there you have it: if you’ve never had a madeleine, there’s not much point is eating one now. On the other hand, if you read French, and you haven’t yet read Proust, promise yourself to do it this year. You won’t regret it.

madeleine

____________________________
*I’m using my own translation here, because I just can’t stand the canonical Moncrieff version. But if you want to compare, here it is again in French and Moncrieff-English:

Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause… Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Ce goût celui du petit morceau de madeleine que le dimanche matin à Combray (parce que ce jour-là je ne sortais pas avant l’heure de la messe), quand j’allais lui dire bonjour dans sa chambre, ma tante Léonie m’offrait après l’avoir trempé dans son infusion de thé ou de tilleul.

She sent someone out for these short and squat cakes called Petites Madeleines, which seem to have been molded in the fluted shell of a scallop. And soon, mechanically, worn out by a dull day and the promise of a sad tomorrow, I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had dipped a piece of madeleine. But the moment the mouthful mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I trembled, aware that something extraordinary was happening within me. A delicious pleasure had overtaken me, isolated, with no notion of its cause … And all of a sudden, the memory came to me. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine that, Sunday mornings at Combray (in those days I never went out before Mass), when I went to tell her good-morning in her room, my Aunt Leonie offered to me after having dipped it in her tea or infusion.

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24 Comments

  1. I always liked pain d’épices better, myself. With Kiri on it.

    love Karen

  2. Yeah, you know my mom used to give us that all the time, and I never liked it. It seems like such a strange combination of flavors, but I guess some kids dig it.

    I’ll take a nutella tartine over pain d’epice any day.

  3. Read Proust? OMG. I’ve really got to get over my dislike of reading novels in French….

    Madeleines in milky-sweetened coffee. Yum…

  4. JChevais — Reading novels in French is something I had to force myself to do at first, but it does get much easier (and even fun!). With Proust, I tried to read a bit in translation, but if you read them side by side, you will soon discover that *everything* that’s great about Proust is lost in the translation. If at all possible, stick to the original, even if it’s only for one volume or just a few pages.

  5. I adore the madeleines dipped in chocolate that they sell at the boulangerie on Place Contrescarpe, possibly even more than nutella tartine. Maybe I should read some Proust and then reward myself.

  6. Was wondering how you got flickr to work with 43things

    All I can seem to do is to get it to re-route to flickr.com/photos/jaltenburg

    won’t reroute to /jasonaltenburg for some reason

    wouldn’t be a problem if jaltenburg wasn’t already taken by some other person..
    anyways, sorry, but i ran out of points on 43things to contact ppl about this.

    can email jasonaltenburg.(at).gmail.com

  7. Salut!

    Oh, I almost forgot about those things! Aren’t they delicious?! You’re making me miss my second home. 😦 I wonder if I’ve got a recipe for those somewhere around here…

    I also wanted to say hello to another who uses the same code name! Here I thought I was being original! lol Oh, well.

  8. Oh! How weird. I guess I have a doppelganger.

  9. Can that happen online? 😉

  10. I have neither read Proust nor tried a madeleine, but now I’m itching to do so! The madeleines in your pics look so moist and tasty. I think I will definitely be indulging in some clichéd madeleine and Proust-reading activities in the near future.

  11. embrouillamini — my madeleines were definitely tasty, but moist? Let’s just say you should have cup of tea close at hand to fully appreciate them.

  12. Glad to find another fan of Proust. I especially like the final volume where everything hots up and basically everyone is out of the closet. But I read “In search of Lost Time” years ago before I could read French so unfortunately I read it in English. I’ve noted what you say about the French version and it’s on my list!

  13. Oh, don’t worry, Pinochiette — you’re totally winning. I’ve only read the first volume, although I’m planning to start the second very soon.

  14. Hey-
    I think like sunsets, food items never quite photograph in a way that reflects their fullest beauty. Am I alone on this?

    Anyway, hi to the author. I liked you on deardonut. joel

  15. Ha ha! Very nice post, I’m sorry to laugh but I’m french and Proust is often linked to bad memories! Lire Proust ou Zola est souvent l’un des pires cauchemards des collégiens (14-15 ans)… Il ne faut pas croire… la plupart des français n’apprécient pas beaucoup leur propre littérature… Ain’t that a shame! 😉 As an english language student I have to read “Death of a salesman”, “Lolita”, “Hamlet”, “The mysteries of Udolfo”, “Moon Palace”… what do you think of these ones? (I like Ann Radcliffe very much!) Have you ever read Zola?

  16. Hi Celine – you are better read in English than I! Of course I’ve read Salesman, Lolita, and Hamlet, but I admit I’ve never cracked into Auster… And I only knew the Ann Radcliffe because it appears in Northanger Abbey.
    I have to admit, I couldn’t have imagined reading Proust as a teenager — maybe that’s a mistake. I haven’t read any Zola yet… Which one do you recommend to start with?

  17. Hey Amy, if you haven’t read any Auster yet, I highly recommend Moon Palace — an absolutely WONDERFUL book! One of his more recent ones, Oracle Night, is also quite good. I actually discovered Auster myself when I was working at the bookshop here in France — believe it or not, after all those years, I hadn’t read him yet myself in the States… I think he’s another one of those American authors who is even more respected and appreciated here in France than in the U.S., except for in certain literary (namely NYC) circles, at least that’s the impression I get… Shame on me, I haven’t read The New York Trilogy yet, though… But I’ve heard it’s one of the hardest to dig into and get your head around (ugh, why do I keep ending my sentences with prepositions?!).

    Oh, and I also have to sheepishly admit that I haven’t read that much classic French literature myself, but I did read Zola’s Nana, and I thought it was one of his easier ones to enjoy. So I might recommend that one as a starting point. Enfin, just my 2 cents!

  18. Alice, that’s funny that you mention the remarkable French appreciation of Paul Auster – I was on an Auster bend during my last sojourn in Paris and enjoyed his introspection so much that I scoped out his wife’s equally interesting collection. I really, really loved “Leviathan” (by Auster) and “What I Loved” by Hustvedt (his sweetheart).

    His style must translate well?

  19. Sorry to take this thread in a completely different direction, Amy — but Aralena, I just had to say that I, too, discovered Hustvedt’s wonderful book back when I was getting into Auster, and What I Loved is literally one of my favorite books of all time! Maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but I really, really loved that book. It was just such a combination of so many of the things I love in general, including art history and appreciation, the New York ambiance, sensuality and a story that just sucks you right in… All in all, a really great read! (Hate to use such mundane terms, but well, sometimes the simplest way of saying things is the best. Besides I’m short on vocabulary tonight…)

    *Back to our regularly-scheduled blog thread — and Amy’s thought-provoking observations. I hope you’ll forgive me, Amy!*

  20. No apologies, Aralena and Alice. You’ve convinced me to put Hustvedt on my wishlist.

  21. Pour ma part (je sais que je reviens un peu en arrière dans la discussion) j’aurai conseillé “Au Bonheur des dames” qui est un ouvrage à la limite du documentaire! Intéressant pour son style mais aussi pour sa “véracité sociale et historique”. C’est également un des livres les plus positifs. Zola croque plus souvent la misère que la richesse et le malheur plutôt que le bonheur… Germinal est une oeuvre très connue mais très difficile au niveau du contexte social. Zola a parfaitement décrit la société française de son époque. 😉 (désolée pour tout ce blabla)

  22. Merci, Celine! Je mets Bonheur des Dames sur ma liste tout de suite… Ca concerne les grands magasins, n’est-ce pas? C’est vrai, ca a l’air plus gai que Germinal.

  23. 🙂 All my congratulations for your french! It’s very very good! I wish I could speak english as well as you speak french! 😉

  24. Thank you, Celine — the truth is, my spoken French is much better than written…


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