Inspired by Proust

One of the greatest French and European novelist of the 20th century, Marcel Proust, was born 150 years ago, on 10 July 1871. This post, by Zvezdana at Chelsea Library, is about ‘the madeleine moment’.

His masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu), also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, is generally viewed as an allegorical search for truth. It consists of seven novels, published between 1913 and 1927 (the last three books were published posthumously). During the war years, the author revised his novels, enhanced the realistic and satirical elements, deepened its feelings, and became determined, even obsessed, to finish his novels with the ultimate Time Regained (Le Temps retrouvé) before his death. 

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The first volume, Swann’s Way, is one of the most distinguished novels of childhood. It starts with the narrator’s simple statement: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ It soon becomes clear that this man suffers from insomnia. He tosses and turns in his bed, falling to and from various levels of partial wakefulness and drifting on confusing gusts of memories that surface just for a few seconds, only to tease the sleeper. For a long time, when he lays awake at night and revives old ‘intellectual’ memories of his childhood in Combray, he thought that the past was lost, forgotten, flavourless. 

Those who fall asleep as soon as their head touches the pillow, they would probably agree with Alfred Humbolt’s observation, whose publishing company rejected Proust’s manuscript in 1913:  

I may be as thick as two planks but I can’t understand how a gentleman can take thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before going off to sleep.

Certainly, a reader does not need to be insomniac to appreciate and intensely enjoy Proust’s writing.  

Proust portrays an oversensitive boy and his impressions and memories of his family, friends and acquaintances, superbly brought back to life by the famous taste of a madeleine cake dipped into lime-flower tea. The novel is the story of Proust’s life, but not a simple autobiography. The way how Proust treats his main themes – the meaning of love and time – is what keeps the novel fresh and relevant to readers hundred years ago and today, alike. 

When he remembers Swan, his other friends and family members, from his childhood, it was not the same as what he knew and understood as an adult. Moreover, the people he was associated with, had also very different views about the same issues and other people. Their age, social status, gender – influenced and colour theirs and his perception, inevitably.  

A ‘real’ person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift.

Proust’s question is how to discover the real meaning, how to filter the real memory from later made-up memories. The narrator involuntarily recalls an episode from his childhood after tasting a madeleine cake dipped in lime-flower tea.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

Suddenly, the years of closed, forgotten and forbidden events and memories are thawing away and reviving the real past, the truth.  

‘The madeleine moment’ – or Proust effect – became the most famous literary device in French literature. The expression ‘a madeleine de Proust’ describes ‘smells, tastes, sounds or any sensations reminding you of your childhood or simply bringing back emotional memories from a long time ago’.  

Inspired by Proust’s novel, I wonder if reading of a particular book has triggered something like ‘a madeleine moment’ for you?   Has a book affected you so much that whenever you taste a certain food or drink, that you are so vividly transported into the realm of that book?  

Inspired by Proust display at Chelsea Library

Some examples from library staff –

In Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ Pierre Bezukhov, as a prisoner of war, shares a potato and the whole philosophy of human existence with another man. How they appreciated every single morsel of that potato, has stayed with them. 

And in Anne Tyler’s ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant it mentions ‘consoling pot roasts’ and stews ‘made with love’.  

Which book do you automatically associate with a special food or particular cuisine? And, after tasting that food, did you crave for more or you were quite disappointed?  

Authors such as Andrea Camilleri take specific care to add food and particular cuisine to their characters. Inspector Montalbano is the perfect example. Many Sicilian restaurants reinvented themselves by offering dishes mentioned in Camilleri’s novels – ‘Eat like Montalbano’. The author even created a glossary at the of his novels with useful explanations of Italian dishes. For example, the glossary in ‘The Sicilian Method’ described sartu di roso and spaghetti alla carrettiera. 

Food and wine inspired by one of Andrea Camilleri’s books

What about Robert Burns? If you are not aware, the Scottish poet is third in line after Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria in the number of statues dedicated to a non-religious figure worldwide. Few literary figures convey more about nationhood than Robert Burns on the day of his birthday, 25 January, when Scots celebrate Burns Night – eating traditional haggis, drinking whisky and reciting poetry. And you do not need to be Scottish to celebrate.

Has a book affected you so much that whenever you taste a certain food or drink, that you are so vividly transported into the realm of that book?  

Twilight, Life and Death and Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

Years ago, I always associated pomegranate seeds with Greek mythology – Persephone and Hades. However, after ‘Midnight Sun’ by Stephenie Meyer my connotations have been updated. For better or worse, apples also received a new makeover, adding her Twilight tinge to a previous combination of a biblical and fairy-tale image. 

Has a fictional character from a novel or film led you to try a particular food, to consume that martini ‘shaken – not stirred’ or even to buy (or dream of buying) a car they’re driving?  

Well, I almost choked on a spoonful of peanut butter after watching Brad Pitt in ‘Meet Joe Black’!

According to Crains’s Chicago Business newspaper:

James Bond has inspired sales of Aston Martins and BMWs with his super-cool onscreen wheels. Now a vampire who drives a Volvo is getting the attention of young drivers. Since the release of ‘Twilight’ in 2008, teens and young adults have been drawn to the Volvo C30, driven by the character Edward Cullen.’

According to one of our young readers, this is exactly what many of her friends did: 

I remember how right after the release of the first ‘Twilight’ film everyone was mesmerised by the film, but also by the classy new Volvo Edward Cullen was driving. At that time a few of my friends had passed their driving tests and wanted their first car to be ‘Edward’s car’ as they called it.’

What about smells and sounds? Do you imagine suddenly bumping into the Durrells while immersed in the music of the cicadas and the distinct scent of pine trees?  

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

A few magical extracts from ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell which make me want to transport myself as quickly as possible to Corfu:

‘Spring merged slowly into the long, hot, sun-sharp days of summer sung in by cicadas, shrill and excited, making the island vibrate with their cries. In the fields the maize was starting to fill out, the silken tassels turning from brown to butter-blond; when you tore off the wrapping of leaves and bit into the rows of pearly seeds the juice would spurt into your mouth like milk. On the vines the grapes hung in tiny clusters, freckled and warm. The olives seemed weighed down under the weight of their fruit, smooth drops of green jade among which the choirs of cicadas zithered.

When the sun sank there was a brief, apple green twilight which faded and became mauve, and the air cooled and took on the scents of evening.

The sea was smooth, warm, and as dark as black velvet, not a ripple disturbing the surface. (…) Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight, blood-red path across the dark sea.’

Roaming through Proust’s novel can easily lead us to the Belle Époque, to Parisian artistic saloons, to some of the most loved artists and famous expositions, to our own memories.  

‘It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it (our own past): all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.’

According to the general French view, everyone has their own ‘madeleine de Proust’ and the question is: what is yours? We’d love to hear them, so please do comment below.

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Be the Light in the Darkness

“Be the light in the darkness” is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, 27th of January.

The theme encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide…We can all stand in solidarity. We can choose to be the light in the darkness in a variety of ways and places – at home, in public, and online.

For more information about this and to find out more, please click here.

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, Chelsea Library held a virtual Chatterbooks last Saturday, reading the novel Friedrich, with a group of local children.  Ten copies of this poignant book were bought, giving an opportunity to our young readers to read it.

Hans Peter Richter‘Friedrich’

Superb, sensitive, honest and compelling

Hans Peter Richter wrote his novel ‘Friedrich’ in the style of a memoir. When the book was published in 1961, it was one of the first German books to deal with the Nazi period.

It is about two German families, who live in the same apartment house. It is the story of friendship of the non-Jewish narrator and his Jewish neighbours. ‘Friedrich’ begins in 1925, when the narrator was born, and ends in 1942, when he is 17. It takes place during the period when the Nazis came to power and into the early years of World War II.

“Before every genocide, perpetrators divide society into those considered worthy of human treatment, and those who are not. Distortions are deployed using propaganda and stereotyping to identify and victimise a specific group (or groups), followed by discrimination – often enshrined into law. The darkness leading to genocide also causes deep emotional trauma. For those affected, fear, hopelessness and dread all have a profound and long-lasting impact.”  https://www.hmd.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/HMD-2021-Theme-vision-summary.pdf

This is exactly described in Hans Peter Richter’s novel.

A snowy day in 1929, the narrator is five years old and watches from his window Friedrich and his mother playing in the snow and making snowman. He is begging his mum to hurry up, so they could go downstairs and join the Schneiders. Eventually, they are ready, just about to leave, when this incident happened. The landlord, Herr Resch insulted the child, as soon as Mrs Schneiders went inside, and the five-year-old was on his own. The narrator’s mother did not say anything comforting to Friedrich or to her son, just to move away from the window. Neither did she want to be associated with the Jewish family (hence her delaying getting ready), nor did she want to get into trouble with their landlord.

Richter’s style encourages the reader, not only to learn about growing up in Nazi Germany, but to develop a nuanced view of the characters and circumstances of the period. The novel provides an accessible and complex picture of the issues of this period, tied to a historically accurate chronology.

Since the narrator and Friedrich are two, eight year-old boys, young readers more readily engage with them. As the boys grew older, the situation in Germany was getting worse.

This extract from “The Ball” (1933) illustrates that the boys were eight years old.

“Initially the Schneiders, the Jewish family, are much better off than the narrator’s family but gradually their lives become restricted and diminished, economically, politically, and socially. During this period the overwhelming majority of Germans came to believe in and support Hitler and the Nazi Party. The vast majority of Germans were neither sadistic nor perverted; they were normal people in extreme circumstances. The narrator’s father joins the Nazi Party and the narrator joins the “Jungvolk” (usually called “Hitlerjugend,” or Hitler Youth) and participates in Kristallnacht. One of the core issues that Friedrich allows students (readers) to explore is how, and why, the narrator and his family become Nazis.

As the events and incidents unfold, told from a boy’s point of view, we see the confusion and misunderstanding about the changes in society under the Nazis, and wonder who, if anyone, attempted to understand where things were heading.”

(Museum of Jewish History, Teacher’s Guide)

I would like to express my gratitude to Carla and Maximilian Lubin, our regular Chatterbookers, who read the novel and recorded “Potato Pancakes” and “Snow” for us to share with our readers.

 

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Christmas with Dickens

We have a special reading event at Chelsea Library this Tuesday 3 December, 6.30pm – we will be reading extracts from Charles Dickens’ favourite Christmas stories. Perfect for this time of year along with mince pies, mulled wine, Santa Claus coming to town, enchanted shop windows and more.

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail”

“God bless us, every one!”


If this event sounds just the thing to get you into the festive spirit, then come along.  You can book a free place here on Eventbite.

And as a taster, here’s an extract from ‘The Haunted House’ –

Under none of the accredited ghostly circumstances, and environed by none of the conventional ghostly surroundings, did I first make acquaintance with the house which is the subject of this Christmas piece.  I saw it in the daylight, with the sun upon it.  There was no wind, no rain, no lightning, no thunder, no awful or unwonted circumstance, of any kind, to heighten its effect.  More than that: I had come to it direct from a railway station: it was not more than a mile distant from the railway station; and, as I stood outside the house, looking back upon the way I had come, I could see the goods train running smoothly along the embankment in the valley.  I will not say that everything was utterly commonplace, because I doubt if anything can be that, except to utterly commonplace people—and there my vanity steps in; but, I will take it on myself to say that anybody might see the house as I saw it, any fine autumn morning.

The manner of my lighting on it was this.

I was travelling towards London out of the North, intending to stop by the way, to look at the house.  My health required a temporary residence in the country; and a friend of mine who knew that, and who had happened to drive past the house, had written to me to suggest it as a likely place.  I had got into the train at midnight, and had fallen asleep, and had woke up and had sat looking out of window at the brilliant Northern Lights in the sky, and had fallen asleep again, and had woke up again to find the night gone, with the usual discontented conviction on me that I hadn’t been to sleep at all;—upon which question, in the first imbecility of that condition, I am ashamed to believe that I would have done wager by battle with the man who sat opposite me.  That opposite man had had, through the night—as that opposite man always has—several legs too many, and all of them too long.  In addition to this unreasonable conduct (which was only to be expected of him), he had had a pencil and a pocket-book, and had been perpetually listening and taking notes.  It had appeared to me that these aggravating notes related to the jolts and bumps of the carriage, and I should have resigned myself to his taking them, under a general supposition that he was in the civil-engineering way of life, if he had not sat staring straight over my head whenever he listened.  He was a goggle-eyed gentleman of a perplexed aspect, and his demeanour became unbearable.

It was a cold, dead morning (the sun not being up yet), and when I had out-watched the paling light of the fires of the iron country, and the curtain of heavy smoke that hung at once between me and the stars and between me and the day, I turned to my fellow-traveller and said…

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Reality more astonishing than fiction reading event at Chelsea Library

According to Hastings Borough Council’s blue plaque, Elsie Bowerman (1889-1973) was a suffragette, barrister (first woman barrister at the Old Bailey) and a survivor of the Titanic disaster.
One thing that most people don’t know about her is that Elsie Bowerman joined Scottish Women’s Hospitals as a nurse and a driver in summer 1916 and went to Romania and Russia with the Serbian army.
Why Russia? Why the Serbian Army?
London Units of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (NUWSS) appealed for funds.
At the request of the Serbian Government the London Committee of Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service provided two New Field Hospitals and a Motor Transport Section to accompany the Serbian Division in Russia.
Elsie was twenty-six and thrilled when she begged her mother to let her go and drive for Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Dear Mother,

Mrs Haverfield has just asked me to go out to Serbia at the beginning of August to drive a car. May I go? … I’ve been dying to go and drive a car ever since the war started… It is really a chance to go to the front. They want drivers so badly so do say yes. It is too thrilling for words.

These documents – Appeal for Funds, Elsie Bowerman’s private correspondence – and many thousands more, about (very much) neglected and (almost) forgotten events and people and whole fronts in the Great War, can be found in the archive collection of Women’s Library, LSE.
Meanwhile, if you are puzzled, come to our reading event on Tuesday 30 October, 6.30pm at Chelsea Library and discover more astonishing facts.
Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Happy 40th anniversary Chelsea Library

Today, Thursday 12 April, marks Chelsea Library being in its current location on the Kings Road for 40 years. Over to the staff there to tell us more…

After having spent its youth and most of its middle years in Manresa Road, Chelsea, one fine spring day in 1978 a new library for the now “Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea” opened here at Chelsea Old Town Hall.

At the time of the relocation the King’s Road was arguably a much more diverse place and the vibrant and challenging, fashion and music scenes of the time were very much in evidence along the road.

Some local faces and places were captured for posterity by an ex-member of staff and quite a few of her images are included, with gratitude, in a display here at the library. Also included are some images of the library as it was when it was first opened.

To mark this anniversary we will be running a birthday card making workshop with 70s fashion theme in the style of designer Celia Birtwell as the library has an amazing Costume and fashion collection.

The workshop will take place today in Chelsea children’s library 3 to 5pm with some refreshments. We will also have some games, musical chairs, pass the parcel…come and help us celebrate!

Edited to add – if you’d like to see photos from the celebration, take a look at our Facebook page

Forty years young at Chelsea Old Town Hall!

Party time at Chelsea Library!

 


Last Friday we hosted the Chelsea Library Summer Reading Challenge party. We had over seventy completers and one hundred parents and children turned up to dance to Diane’s Latin American compilation and find Willy Wonka’s golden fridge magnet—the winner is yet to come forward! Please if you find the golden ticket nestling between packets of shrimp shaped haribos and some savoury crackers contact Chelsea children’s library! Continue reading “Party time at Chelsea Library!”

Crazy Comic Club fun

Last week was the last week of the school summer holidays and Chelsea and Brompton Libraries wanted to go out on a creative high so we invited James Parsons, of the Crazy Comic Club,  to do two illustration workshops in one day, Chelsea in the morning and Brompton in the afternoon.

Continue reading “Crazy Comic Club fun”

Fashion for the People: a history of clothing at Marks & Spencer

Reference librarians Karen and Gillian write:

Recently, Rachel Worth, Professor of Dress and Fashion at Arts University Bournemouth, delivered a presentation on the history of Marks & Spencer at Chelsea Library. This post is based on what we learnt about the high street giant from Rachel’s fascinating and insightful lecture.

From very humble beginnings in a Penny Bazaar stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market in 1884, Michael Marks and – from  a partnership that began in 1894 – Thomas Spencer together built a company that would become Britain’ s biggest clothing retailer.

From the archives
From the archives

Today, Marks & Spencer is a company synonymous with quality, reliability and customer care, but do we associate it with fashion?

Well – yes! Marks & Spencer was at the forefront of bringing accessible and fashionable clothing to the masses, at the same time being a pioneer in using new textiles, displays techniques and marketing methods – including the use of “supermodels” before the word was ever invented.

In the 1890s most working class people made their own clothes, and initially the market stall sold haberdashery (dressmaking materials). The sales slogan of “Don’t Ask The Price, It’s A Penny” summed up the business model. By the outbreak of World War One the company had expanded considerably and had diversified into homewares, but clothing remained at the heart of the business.

Marks & Spencer revolutionised how we bought clothes and also how clothes were sold, focusing on ready-to-wear affordable goods; high quality, well designed and fashionable clothing. In the 1920s M&S was ahead of most other retailers in its marketing and retailing methods setting an upper price limit on clothes. It also accepted the return of unwanted items, giving a full cash refund if the receipt was shown, no matter how long ago the product was purchased, which was unusual for the time.

 

Picture from M&S Magazine, Christmas 1932 Womenswear advert with three women and two young girls
M&S Magazine, Christmas 1932 Womenswear advert © M&S Company Archive

M&S Fashion advertorial with a series of women in M&S clothes
M&S colour supplement in ‘Woman’ magazine, May 1958

It entered into long term relationships with British manufacturers, and sold clothes of the “St Michael” brand, introduced in 1928.  As the company dealt directly with manufacturers it was able to keep prices low and to maintain input in the design and quality of clothes sold in its stores. It was one of the first companies to introduce standardisation in sizing.  It also aimed to cater for all members of the family; children’s clothing and ready-to-wear suits being particularly popular.

M&S Fashion 4
A Marks and Spencer’s window display of St Michael Terylene skirts, Swansea store, 1957, taken from Fashion for the People, by Rachel Worth

Pioneering methods included having its own textile laboratory to enable the testing of fabrics and dyes before mass production, and the use of rainmaking machines to test water repellent fabrics. New synthetic textiles were particularly popular between the 1950s and 1970s. These included Tricell which was first used in 1957. Another synthetic fibre called Courtelle was first launched, nationally, by Marks & Spencer during  the 60s as was Crimplene and Terylene.

These fabrics were easy to wash, often drip dry, easy iron and held their colour or shape. Terylene, for instance, meant the fashionable 50’s woman could have a permanently pleated non-iron skirt. The introduction of Lycra in  the 1980s revolutionised hosiery,  swimwear and underwear because of its elastic properties.

M&S hosiery advert
Lycra hosiery, The M&S Magazine, Autumn/Winter 1988, taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

 

M&S Fashion 6
St Michael News, July 1953 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

Marks and Spencer has always been design conscious, and no more so than in the 1950s when designs were Paris-inspired with an interpretation of the New Look being all the rage. Colour coordinated clothing and jersey knitwear enabled the fashionable women on a budget to change her look , updating key pieces when on a tight budget.

Picture of a large window display unit with knitwear suspended from the top
Window display of St Michael Orlon knitwear, 1950s

Display and marketing was always a key element of the presentation of M&S fashion ranges.  Before the days of mass advertising it was the window display that dominated; these were eye catching and innovative (see above). Early advertising concentrated on the opening of new stores, but post-war the company began to employ models in print media using the well know faces of the day, including Twiggy in the 1960s:

Ambassador Magazine, 1967 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth
Ambassador Magazine, 1967 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

The heyday of this form of mass marketing was the 1990s when M&S began to use supermodels such as Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer.  Here is Vogue’s front cover of July 1996 with Amber Valletta wearing a Marks & Spencer shirt, which we found in our archives at Chelsea Library:

Vogue, July 1996
Vogue, July 1996


If fashion  is a concept based around our attitudes to  clothing then Marks and Spencer is part of its fabric: with its  high  quality/ good value ethos,  innovative and strong relationships with customers,  and its technological innovations  it  led the way in fashion for the masses.  Our thanks to Rachel for  revealing some of the secrets to the success of  the company over the last hundred years.

Rachel’s book, Fashion for the People: a history of clothing at Marks & Spencer is available to read at Chelsea Reference library.

Gabriel D’Annunzio & Electric Babyland

Daniel, our Chelsea Library Assistant, writes: 

This month in Chelsea Library I have been engrossed in Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s biography of Gabriel D’Annunzio, The Pike: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War . We can learn a lot about PR and customer service from D’Annunzio, a flamboyant and incendiary public speaker. He would certainly know how to increase cyber traffic! A lover of woman and bric-a-brac (although the bric-a-brac probably came first) he mingled warfare with self-promotion, managing on an early bombing raid above Trieste to drop bombs and pamphlets of his poetry.

What D’Annunzio teaches us is to make our lives into works of art. Every gesture, every pose, must be carefully thought out.  Reading his book I’ve picked up the following tips: always wear pressed white shirts, arrive by plane or on horseback for business meetings, conduct your love affairs in the public eye and, if you have a new book out, concoct rumours of your own early death to boost sales.

The book at over 600 pages is a tall order for a three week read and the hold list is growing longer. Many of our readers coming back to borrow it for a second time to get to grips with this extraordinary individual.

Beautiful pig
Beautiful pig

The coffee morning is growing and we have many regulars with interests ranging from writing poetry and jazz to painting watercolours. People  bake their own cakes so please spread the word if you know of anyone in need of a cup of coffee and slice of cake on Wednesdays at 10.30.  There are plenty of activities for all- our weekly events now include a read and create session on Saturday afternoon, in the past we have made pigs and sunflowers!

Don’t forget that we are still running our under 5’s music event, Electric Babyland (aka Baby Rhyme Time), in the children’s library. Over 150 mothers and children come to wriggle and fall over to the primitive sound of Wild Thing and The Wheels on the Bus on Thursday mornings at 11.00am.

Electric Babyland!
Electric Babyland!

Please join us! For more information about our services and activities for children, take a look at the children’s pages on our website.