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Proust – Memory and the Foods of Childhood



Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.

Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…

When from the distant past nothing remains, after the beings have died, after the things are destroyed and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, yet more vital, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense architecture of memory.

Yet again I had recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dunked in a linden-flower tea which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long await the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street where her room was found, arose like a theatrical tableau…

Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann (1913) in: À la recherche du temps perdu vol. 1, p. 47 (Pléiade ed. 1954)(S.H. transl.)

When Lin Yutang (???) writes “what is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?,” it’s easy to see that as a flip comment. Actually, it’s a very serious remark about the way our memory works–just like this celebrated passage from Proust. The image of Proust’s madeleine, a spongy almond-flavored cookie baked in a press to look like a scallop shell, a delight with an afternoon cup of tea or coffee, has become an icon for this reclusive writer. But what is Proust telling us in this passage? All memories are not created equal, he suggests, some are imprinted more strongly than others. One can have a very sharp recollection of a specific experience from one’s childhood, and still have forgotten entirely what one had for breakfast in the morning. Moreover, the long-past recollection need not even be associated with some objectively significant event, something traumatic, or happy, or historical. Second, he is pointing to the role that smell and taste play in memory, which may in fact be very intense but is not generally closely associated with memory. Third, he is noting that memory and its clarity and detail depend a lot on the mood of the individual, both at the time of the initial experience and at the time of occurrence. One can struggle to recollection without success, and then the memory can come back suddenly, flooding the imagination of the rememberer, triggered by the strangest coincidence–the cup of linden-flower tea and the cookie, for instance. In our age, memory is facilitated greatly by artificial intelligence, by the Internet and computerized search programs. But the purely human memory has a very curious search program. The way we order and collect thoughts and memories is not entirely logical, and it links to all the senses–those of vision, touch, taste and sound. Our mind seems to act like a great sewing machine, stitching things together for reasons that may not immediately be present but which generally relate to the synchronization of the senses. Proust may not be a neuroscientist, as Jonah Lehrer suggests in his recent book, but he certainly appears to anticipate discoveries made long afterwards by scientists studying the functioning of the human brain.

Let’s pass from vision, smell and taste to sound. In other passages, Proust keys his recollection to sounds, like the last Beethoven string quartets and the chamber music of César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns. My friend Larry Bensky has done a terrific job combining readings from Proust with musical selections at Bard College’s Radio Proust project, which provides a wonderful introduction to Proust and the world of music. But there is one chamber piece I closely associate with Proust and the reading of his novel. I listened to it for the first time on a cold winter day when I was home sick, drinking tea and lemon in an effort to stay hydrated. Ever since that time, listening to it brings back recollections of fever and coughs, lemon and tea, and reading Proust. It’s Maurice Ravel’s piano trio in A minor, composed about the same time that the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was appearing, in 1914. This is one of my favorite pieces of chamber music, unmistakably modern and still clearly an echo of earlier works, like the Saint-Saëns trio. The somber notes in a minor key, the brilliant adaptation of simple Basque tunes into beautifully elaborated movements, the wonderful notes struck by the cello at the outset of the third movement, and at last, the process of recollection as themes enter, depart and are revived, all strikes me as consummately Proustian, just as it reflects the great genius of Ravel. By the way, there is a curious thread that ties together the lives of Maurice Ravel and Marcel Proust: it’s the amazing figure of Céleste Albaret, who was housekeeper to Proust in his last years, and then moved to the little village of Montfort-l’Amaury west of Paris to keep Ravel’s home.

Listen to an inspired performance of Maurice Ravel’s piano trio in A minor by the Beaux Arts trio, recorded at Indiana University back in the late seventies:

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