Biographies from the Basement: Marcel Proust

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia –

Next Friday 18 November marks the centenary of the death one of the world’s greatest ever novelists, Marcel Proust, whose magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, published in 1913, is one of those most influential literary works which seem to change the collective imaginative landscape. Proust described French high society life during the era known as La Belle Epoque, a period at the end of the 19th century which witnessed immense creativity and growth in the arts, culture and politics in France and beyond. Proust was deeply emmeshed in the glittering salon world he depicts, but as a gay man of Jewish heritage he was also outside it, and able to subject it to the penetrating gaze of one who is simultaneously an insider and ‘other’.

Our display of books from the special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library this month will showcase some of our many wonderful biographies of Proust, as well as some of his contemporaries such as fellow writer Emile Zola, actor Sarah Bernhard, composer Gabriel Fauré and painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

What is it, from the reader’s point of view, that makes Proust so special and makes him speak to people over a century later in a totally different society? I asked a dear friend and devoted user of our library service, who I know to be a huge Proust fan, to put into words what he means to her. I think she expresses brilliantly how a book can open an entire new world to the reader – a phenomenon that makes libraries such magical portals. Before I ‘hand over’ to her, I’d like to remind readers to check out our podcast about the special Biographies Collection, Biography Central. It’s available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic and Anchor and wherever you get your podcasts.

Marcel Proust – A Reader’s View

Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time is made up of seven volumes and tells the story of ‘Marcel’ (not exactly Proust, but a strange, dream version of him) from early childhood in Belle Epoque Paris to the end of the First World War and the moment at which he realises he is now ready to write the novel we’ve just read. It has an enormous cast of extraordinary characters, all of whom have some kind of impact on the formation of the writer whose experiences it describes.

It takes a long time to read Proust – but that’s the point! When I embarked on it, I soon realized it wasn’t like reading anything I’d read before and that I would have to slow down and take my time with each sentence. The narrator takes you into a labyrinth of introspection, describing the sensory experiences and emotional shifts he experiences with a depth of forensic detail that is overwhelming. Out and about in the society he longs to conquer, the narrator’s capacity for acute and often brutal observation excavates the peculiarities and contradictions in his characters. Above all and not surprisingly, Proust takes his time with every possible reflection, speculation, and with the many lengthy digressions that certainly made me feel not so much that I was seeing what he saw as that I was inside his mind. I had one of the most exciting reading experiences I’ve ever had and a revelation of what Proust was doing when I was half way through the third book, The Guermantes Way. In that volume, there is a 150-page section which describes in characteristically obsessive detail a grand dinner in Paris at which Marcel is a guest. Marcel arrived at the dinner as I was leaving the station on a train journey. People arrived, people greeted each other, went in to dinner, ate, drank, talked. Marcel left the dinner party two-and-a-half hours later as I got off the train. 150 pages. The dinner party had happened in my imagination in real time, by a fantastic coincidence the length of my train journey, and I was stunned at how brilliantly he had achieved the illusion that I too had lived it.

Proust is also very funny! The vicious Madame Verdurin, cruel and snobbish hostess of her ghastly ‘salon’ at which people are feted one moment and abused the next dislocates her jaw laughing at a bad joke. Marcel is constantly destabilised by events, reacts disproportionately to the unexpected, and puts his foot in it. A recent critic compared the Marcel of the novel to Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm and it’s a great comparison!

I don’t know if ‘Proust can change your life’ (as Alain de Boton claims in the title of his 2006 book about him) – I know there is no-one like him and nothing like his achievement and reading it is an epic journey.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library


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