When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.
From 'Memory' by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
A few years ago I decided to read the greatest novel of all time - 'A La Recherche de Temps Perdu' by Marcel Proust. It's in seven volumes and I knew I'd never get to the end alone. I decided a self- help group was the answer and so the 'Proust Group' was established. It's never been a big group and at the moment there are five of us in it. We meet once every month and we read on average 25 pages, it takes us about and hour and a half. Like Proust, we digress, we discuss the things that our reading reminds us of, we analyse the characters, we speculate on why Proust wrote things the way he did and we discuss his plot and his philosophy, and we drink tea whilst we do it.
It's a lovely thing to be involved in, but progress is slow; very, very slow. We are just coming up to the end of volume three. We have calculated that it will take us over twenty years to finish all the volumes, but we don't care. The reading is the thing. Time, in this instance, does not matter in the slightest.
Proust desperately wanted to get to the end of his life's work before he died and he told Celeste his housekeeper that the day he wrote 'fin' was the happiest of his life, because he had feared there was not enough time left before he died. And time, of course, is really what 'A la recherche' is all about; time and that which brings back time - memory. The first word of the book is 'longtemps' and the last is 'temps'. Between those two little bookends are one and a half million words mostly written at night, by hand, sitting up in bed in a cork lined room in the Boulevard Haussmann. This is Jean Cocteau's sketch of Proust in his otter skin lined overcoat, which he often used as a bedcover and then wore during the day.
'In Search of Lost Time', is fictionalised autobiography. Proust ruthlessly used his own life and his friends lives as grist to the mill of his work and there have been numerous analyses of who really was whom in the novel. Proust is an unreliable narrator; prone to fantasising, to going off on tangents, to philosophising and to analysing at enormous length. The plot is intricate, sometimes we're not sure what he means and the reader feels like she's opening a series of Russian dolls where each memory contains another and sometimes another. What I hadn't expected is that Proust can be very very funny, and sometimes very very sexy. He can describe an event and you think 'Did what I think happen, really happen?' And it usually did.
It is of course the story of a sentimental education, the young man that the narrator looks back on cannot wait to be in love, to have sex, to get under the skin of life. But he seems bound to be an endless observer as if at some great ball where the other guests, happier, more richly dressed, more fully part of the world, whirl around him in an elaborate dance to the music of time.
And the book reflects back to us what memory does, it is indiscriminate. It can contract a year into a sentence and then some detail such as the braiding on a woman's jacket can warrant pages of exquisite, sensual description. Every serious novel written after Proust owes a debt to him, without him there would be no Virginia Woolf, no Ben Okri, no Anthony Powell. Proust did it first; he showed us what a novel can be and what a life is.
There is a lot of food in the novel, in fact books have been written about the food alone. I have one, it's called 'Dining with Proust'. But everyone knows how the novel starts; the narrator dips a Madeleine into a cup of linden blossom tea and the perfume sets off seven volumes of recollection.
'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, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray... when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.'
You will need a Madeleine tin to make the distinctive shell like little buns and a genoise sponge mixture. Here we go.
Put the oven up to maximum - 230c and butter and flour your madeleine tin
2 large eggs
60g caster sugar
1/2 tsp orange flower water
60g plain flour sifted very well with 1/2 tsp baking powder
60g melted butter
A food mixer is almost essential unless you have strong wrists. Whisk the eggs and sugar until white and falling from the whisk in a thick ribbon. Add the orange flower water. Sift in 1/3 flour and fold in gently, repeat with the next third then add the final third and the melted butter. Fold all together and fill each madeleine mould about 2/3 full. Set aside in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
Put into the hot oven and turn down to 200c. Bake for no more than 10 minutes. Turn out and dust with icing sugar. Makes about 25.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
'Late Fragment' by Raymond Carver (1938-1988)