The Madeleine Stories

The title of Anka Muhlstein’s new book, ‘M. Proust’s Library’, at first struck me as odd, since Proust did not have much of a book collection. Proust seems to have committed large sections of whatever he read to memory, making the ownership of books superfluous. But she has the wider meaning of library in mind. One of her threads helped me to better way frame the famous madeleine incident.

Proust’s Search can actually be condensed quite a lot once we ignore all the Marcel flashback stuff. A middle-aged man, in anguish over how to become a writer, has a pleasant glow of reminiscence after the taste of a pastry dipped in warm tea creates a kind of space-time wormhole to his childhood. But the glow fades. He takes a walk in the Bois in order to bring back more of these unforced memories. The walk ends in gloom as he is reminded simply of the loss of beauty in his life. He visits a childhood friend—but their conversations do not show him a way forward as an artist. He commits himself to some sort of asylum for renewal, which he interrupts to take a short trip to Paris during the war years. He sees startling events, but still cannot figure out how to knit them together into a narrative.  Years later he returns to Paris again and accepts an invitation to a soirée filled with characters he had known throughout his childhood and youth. It is here that everything changes.

Muhlstein writes about the moment of his artistic self-discovery:

At the very end of the novel, the Narrator suddenly sees François le Champi on a shelf in the Prince de Guermantes’s library, and the mere sight of the volume triggers the memory of “the child I had been at that time, brought to life within me by the book, which knowing nothing of me except this child it had instantly summoned him to its presence, wanting to be seen only by his eyes, to be loved only by his heart, to speak only to him. And this book which my mother had read aloud to me at Combray until the early hours of that night… [A] thousand trifling details of Combray which for years had not entered my mind came lightly and spontaneously leaping, in follow-my-leader fashion, to suspend themselves from the magnetized nib in an interminable and trembling chain of memories… [and re-created] the same impression of what the weather was like then in the garden, the same dreams that were then shaping themselves in [my] mind about the different countries and about life, the same anguish about the next day.”  George Sand is the only writer Proust read as a child whom he comments upon in La Recherche…. (pages 7-8)

So this book-inspired unforced memory, about a country waif adopted by (and later married to) a woman named Madeleine, is the more powerful of the madeleine stories, touching as it does not only on Marcel’s artistic breakthrough and its source in literature, but also Proust’s deepest psychological nature.


5 Responses to “The Madeleine Stories”

  1. marimann Says:

    This is a wonderful insight; thank you so much for sharing it. It just reaffirms my belief that the more you dig into Proust, the more there is to find…

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I agree. I have tried to explore other writers in this kind of depth but only Proust has so far been inexhaustable.

  2. Marcelita Swann Says:

    With all the senses explored…taste, with the madeleine cookie (Combray); touch, with the starched napkin (Balbec); kinesthetic, with the uneven paving stones (Venice); sound, with the ‘spoon knocking against the plate’ or the railwayman’s hammer on a wheel of the train…it is through his eyes, with the sense of sight, that the memory of reading ‘François le Champi’ echoes your thoughts of the “book-inspired unforced memory.”

    Thank you for weaving Anka Muhlstein’s book, ‘M. Proust’s Library,’ back into the novel.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I agree that Proust explores all the senses as potential pathways to connect to a genuine experience of the past without the intrusive filtering of rational intelligence. But, ironically, his need to tidy up the structure of the novel pushes him to expand on the madeleine pun. My post is a bit too tidy in this regard. Sight is on a par with taste, hearing, etc.

  3. marcelitaswann Says:

    From the Overture in ‘Swann’s Way,’ “Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind.” (Modern Library, p. 62.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: