Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

February 14, 2001 - Marcel Proust

There is an old Celtic belief that the souls of our ancestors are held captive in plants, animals and other objects when they die. These souls can be lost forever unless a descendant or kindred spirit happens to pass close by and awaken the lost soul. If we happen to recognize the voice of the lost soul, the spell is broken and it is released from its prison of death. Having overcome death they return to share our life. I am now convinced that something like this happened to me.


It has been a dark, wet winter along the swollen Loir river. I have not seen the sun for several months. After a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I decided to visit the cave of my friend, Jean Montambaux, with the hope lifting my spirits. Even the cheerful ça va-t-il of Monsieur Jean failed to change my mood but I accepted a petit verre of Vouvray nevertheless. As I watched Jean dip one of the rectangular cookies from Brittany called a petite beurre in his glass of Vouvray, for some unknown reason, I was tempted to try it myself even though it was something that I had never tried before. No sooner had the Vouvray soaked petite beurre 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. And at once the vissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the Vouvray and the petit beurre, but that it infinitely transcended these savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. 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 a moon pie which my friend Jack Marshall and I ate every day at Patrol Boy camp in Cordele, Georgia, more that forty years ago. We used to dip it in our RC Colas before eating it.

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of moon pie soaked in RC Cola...immediately the giant moss draped oak trees of St. Simons Island rose up like a stage in my memory. So in that moment all the azaleas in our front yard and everywhere on the island and the marsh grass along the Frederica River and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the Methodist church and the whole of St. Simons Island and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my little taste of petite beurre soaked in Vouvray.

Marcel Proust readers have already recognized my parody of the extraordinary events leading to his Remembrance of Things Past. For Proust it was petites madeleines soaked in lime blossom tea that triggered the eight volumes and three thousand pages of his classic novel. To read the real explication of his recollection see Swan's Way, Marcel Proust, PP. 48-51.

In my search of the source of the Loir river, I came across the small town of Illiers-Combray. It is a small quiet village nestled in the wheat fields of the Beauce. It is a few miles southwest of Chartres and about two miles south of the source of the Loir river. It is also the ancestral home of Marcel Proust's family and the central setting of his masterpiece. Although he never actually lived there, he did spend some summers in Illiers with his family when he was a child. It was his childhood memories of those visits to Illiers that triggered the beginning the eight volumes of his reflections on the past. He describes in exquisite detail the streets, buildings and surroundings of his fictional Combray. Although he changed the names of some things like the name of the village, it exists today very much like he described it. In 1971, the village changed its name from Illiers to Illiers-Combray to take advantage of Marcel Proust's fame and the odd literary tourist.

The first time that I went to the village of Illiers-Combray, I knew very little about Marcel Proust. I was vaguely aware of his novel but what little I had read did not interest me too much. He seemed a little too prissy for me. I am more of a Herman Melville type. I would rather be hunting whales to near extinction and sitting on south sea beaches than whining for dozens of pages about how hard it is to wake up in the morning.

The little I knew was what I read a book written by Larry McMurtry call The Evening Star. In that novel, the heroine was an elderly lady who was reading Proust. It was her lifelong dream to finish the eight volumes and she had been working on it all of life. I later met other people who claimed to be reading Proust in this same sisyphistian way. I always got the sense that these people were toiling in punishment like the man in the Greek myth rolling the boulder uphill for eternity. I have never found anyone who had actually read the whole work and most people have told me that they tried to read Proust but couldn't get through the first volume. Even Aprille who devours books in huge gulps, told me that she tried to read him when she was much younger but gave up. This surprised me because there is nothing that seems to daunt her reading tastes.

At one time I was convinced that reading Proust was a snobbish thing to do and that everyone was doing it to acquire a kind of intellectual ranking. To say "I have read Proust" would be like a mountain climber saying that he had climbed Mount Everest. In fact, it may be harder to read the eight volumes of Remembrance of Things Past than to climb the mountain. I don't know of anyone who has finished Proust but many people have climbed the mountain, albeit with teams of Sherpas and bottles of oxygen.

Still after hiking to Illiers-Combray and wandering around Aunt Léonie's house, I bought a copy of, Swan's Way, the first of the eight volumes of Remembrance of Things Past to at least get a sense of what Proust is all about. After about ten naps induced by reading, I ask a professor friend to read a little and tell me what he thought. After a couple of days, he gave me the book back. His comment was that "these are some bored ass people." Swan's Way is only about 462 pages but finishing it is a formidable task. I would compare it to getting to the base camp of Mount Everest which is no mean task in itself. I now see why it is a lifetime chore to read it all. The question remains of why should anyone do it?

When I told Aprille that I couldn't read Proust without falling asleep and that I didn't believe anyone had actually read the entire eight volumes. I piqued her interest and awoke her Zen spirit. She often says that she is a Zen Buddhist but she is so competitive that it is hard to associate inner peace with her will to win. We debated strategy as though for war. My attempt to get an English professor to act as sherba had failed abysmally. So like all fin de siécle Americans we fell back on technology. That is to say, we bought Swan's Way on audio tape. It was recorded in English and I might add unabridged.

This was a surprisingly good plan. Although a first glance, Proust seems dense and let say academic, Swan's Way is really more like a conversation after long meal with a fine Chinon. Among friends the conversation can leap around as one memory sparks a completely different subject. Everyone at the table are is loose enough from a good meal to talk intelligently for hours. Time passes quickly on such evenings, and time too passes quickly when you listen to Proust on tape. Like a kind person with an odd accent, who once you adjust to their linguistic eccentricities, it becomes part of their charm. Both Aprille and I caught the Proust bug, sisyphistian or not remains to be seen. I took her to the Proust museum for Valentine's day and she thought it was very romantic. Go figure.

Now we make jokes about Proust like a South Park episode or Senfeld. We have taken to drinking lime-blossom tea with our petites madeleines. Just this morning I said "Dear, do you remember when Proust said:

...an invisible bird was striving to make the day seem shorter, exploring with a long-drawn note the solitude that pressed it on every side, but it received at once so unanimous an answer, so powerful a repercussion of silence and of immobility, that one felt it had arrested for all eternity the moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly".

Her reply was "Of course, but you have to remember that Proust was a master of nuance and subtlety and those words can't be taken literally. Still yes, the invisible bird is making a lot of racket in the garden"

"Indeed, quiet so".

After listening to the audio, reading is much easier. Since I have taken up the task of reading Proust myself, I am even considering taking on the whole eight volumes. My friend, Mike McBride, who is a retired diplomat living in Paris has been reading Proust in the original French. This is sort of like climbing the north face of Everest without oxygen or Sherpas. I am quite happy that I have reached the base camp. Whether or no, I go any higher depends on many things. But in the main, it depends on whether I can find the audio tapes for the other seven volumes.

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February 7, 2001 - La Chandeleur
January 31, 2001 - Winter Comfort Food
January 24, 2001 - Festival of Saint Vincent
January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist Aprille Glover
January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
December 27, 2000 - Summer Dreaming: Escargot
December 20, 2000 - Let Them Eat Cake
December, 13 2000 - Back to France
November 29, 2000 -Beignets Aux Fleurs d'Acacia
November 15, - Thanksgiving
November 8, - Pousse D'Epine
November 1, 2000 - Col de Vence: A day on the Moon
October 25, 2000 - Cult of the Black Virgin
October 18, 2000 - Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 - Provence: All Good Things

 

 

       

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