Proust's madeleine

What would a blog about food in the arts be without mention of Proust's madeleine? Remiss, I suppose. So here it is:

Remembrance of Things Past opens, of course, with Proust's famous tea-dipped madeleine. As if obeying the intricate codes of some kind of literary DNA, the whole opus unfolds, with all of its magnificent complications, from Marcel's retrieved memory of dipping, as a boy, bits of cake into his Aunt Leonie's favorite lime-scented tisane. But it is not memory alone that gives the "madeleine moment" its enormous potency; it is memory linked (via what Proust calls "analogy") to present experience. In other words, it is the way in which the middle-aged Marcel's experience of dipping a madeleine in tea overlaps with his almost visceral recollection of dipping similar madeleines into similar teas as a boy that creates the special sort of ecstatic moment that Proust describes as "extra-temporal," "outside time," or "pure time."

Although the memory of the madeleine is returned to the middle-aged Marcel at the very start of the novel, the narrative from that point on progresses more or less chronologically, starting with Marcel at the age he was when he used to sit next to his bedridden Aunt Leonie to take his tea as a child. It is not until the very end of the narrative, some three thousand pages later, that we again meet Marcel as a middle-aged man.

In the extremely long and complex final scene of Time Regained, this middle-aged Marcel is visited by a string of extra-temporal experiences, moments (like that of the madeleine) that seem to him to say, "Seize me as I pass if you can, and try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you." These moments intoxicate him, evoking visions of "profound azure" and impressions of "coolness, of dazzling light." It will be, decides Marcel, the full exploration of this "riddle" that will form the basis of the work of literature he has long despaired of ever being able to write. This work of literature, of course, is what we, as readers of this final scene of Time Regained, have almost come to the end of.

In other words, the genesis of Remembrance of Things Past is revealed just as it comes to a close. And that buttery, shell-shaped teacake is the tiny seam in the narrative Mobius strip Proust creates by threading the tail of his novel, in possibly the most elegant metafictional gesture ever executed, into its beginning. In reading these final revelations, the reader of A la Researche du Temps Perdus (I can hardly bear to call it Remembrance of Things Past, seeing as how entirely distant from Proust's intentions that translation is), finds him or herself magically entangled in the most elaborate of time-skipping "analogies."

QUOTE (from the "Overture" of Swann's Way, Book One, Remembrance of Things Past): day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the 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. . . 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 tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
     I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself.
[long musing on the frustration associated with memories sensed but not retrieved]
     And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. . . . when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
    And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me . . . immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents . . . the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, [were] taking shape and solidity, [springing] into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
[translated by Terrence Kilmartin]

Proust as a boy, about the age he would have been when he had tea with his Aunt Leonie:
and a madeleine:


  1. I love the way these last two pictures look together: a boy and a cookie, what could be more perfect!

  2. I've only read Swann's Way but this reminds me so clearly how much I enjoyed it. I'm going to have to rearrange some things in the to-read pile and add in the next volume.

  3. A man by the name of Jonah Lehrer wrote a book called Proust was a neuroscientist, in which he examines the scientific basis of the "madeleine" phenomenon.
    Here is Lehrer in a Newsweek interview: "Neuroscientists now know that Proust was right, and that our senses of smell and taste, centered in the olfactory cortex, are the only senses that directly connect to the hippocampus, the center of long-term memory. All of our other senses are first routed through the thalamus."
    Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, Wild Strawberries, also associates the taste experiences of youth (in this case, strawberries) with an unforgettable and symbolic re-evocation of time lost.

  4. the best advice I ever heard about reading the whole thing was to just read 2-3 pp. a day, which, if you're diligent, will get you through it in 3 yrs, I think. (I took 10, or more~!)

    thanks for the neuroscience insight. I have that book somewhere...somewhere... I think I'll do a post on the Bergman film (possibly my all-time favorite).

  5. Despite the fact that I was a French minor, I am a big reader, and could easily obtain the whole thing from the French Library, I have never read La recherche and don't intend to.
    One of the funniest things I've ever read was Russell Baker talking about reading it and engaging a Sherpa reader to get through it.
    I agree with his quote from Anatole France: life is too short and Proust is too long.


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