Making Peace with Proust: A Tale of Madeleines & Honey
I hate Proust.
I suppose it isn’t really fair to him – his long-winded stream-of-conciousness-esque prose was to me a far cry from the the Hugos, the Camus, the Stendhals, the Molières of my undergraduate French lit degree. Before Proust, I was not aware that one sentence could be so relentlessly long. Reading Proustian prose made me feel as if I were wading through warm molasses- a sticky uphill battle that I wasn’t sure was worth the effort. I struggled to follow his ideas until I threw down my book in frustration and verbally attacked him in class the next day. I wasn’t nice.
But Proust… Proust got the last laugh. He, perhaps more than any other author I’ve ever read, stays with me. With his Episode of the Madeleine, he carved out his own corner of my brain and has never really left. You see, in this but small part of his massive work, Proust introduces the concept of involuntary memory. The narrator writes of how the taste of the Madeleine cake invokes in him a blazingly strong memory of his childhood- sharing a Madeleine with his aunt. The taste of the cake warps him immediately back to his past – a period of his life that he’d previously thought to have mostly forgotten. One memory leads to another, which leads to another, all due to the delicate flavour of a sponge cake dipped in tea. Because he was not specifically trying to reminisce, but was merely reminded of his past due to the taste of the ‘little shell of cake’, the memories that are evoked are called involuntary.
Involuntary memory is also a great way to describe my relationship with the author – I never wanted to recall his writings, but he pops into my brain every so often, whether I wish him there or not. The first time came only a year later. I was teaching English in France and teaching myself to cook. One beautiful Sunday I went to the farmer’s market and bought a jar of fresh honey for a recipe I was dying to try out. Once at home, I eagerly uncapped the vessel, twirled a spoon through the amber liquid… and was immediately transported back to my childhood. You see, it was the exact same flavour of honey that my little brother had loved when he was young. He’d eaten it for years and years, but it was only after having read Proust that I fully appreciated the association my brain had formed between the flavour of that particular type of honey and a fond memory of my brother. Score one for Proust.
That first incident was over five years ago, and since then I have experienced an increasing number of involuntary recollections with Proustian influences.
The scent of the perfume my late grandmother used to wear; the wonderful flavour of a cordial from my youth; the heady smell of a pipe like my grandfather would smoke… all of these memories evoked themselves through taste or smell, and with a smile I think, each time, of Valentin-Louis-Georges-Eugène-Marcel Proust. I guess he’s won me over in the end. Suffice it to say, I’ve made my peace with Proust.