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.
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
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 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|