To Proust or not to Proust
‘One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory’. Rita Mae Brown
Memories get a bad wrap from quite a lot of folk, including Rita Mae Brown. Yet so many song lyrics dwell on memories. Love songs frequently combine memories with intense regret, and in turn these tunes provide musical backing for film soundtracks. You just can’t get away from memories.
The French writer, Marcel Proust was the first to use the term involuntary memory. In his novel Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) he revives childhood memories. He wrote about how the past can come back to us, when we smell a particular smell or we eat a food that we may not have eaten since childhood.
I was raised as an English girl and in winter this involved prickly woollen thermal undergarments and fat globs of Vick’s Vapour Rub. Much as I like gum trees, the smell of Eucalyptus oil still triggers memories of scratchy wool and inhalations of vapour rub.
It’s strange how smells can take you back to childhood and often it happens when you least expect it. For some reason the delectable aroma of vanilla essence, always provides nostalgic feelings of pleasure. But I can never remember where this memory comes from.
At university I was besotted with a particular perfume that was heavy on vanilla and the orient. It was not a subtle combination and in hindsight it may well have whispered, cake shop.
Apparently, Proust – he of the madeleine cakes that triggered nostalgic childhood memories – went through several drafts of his famous novel, Remembrance of Things Past. In the first draft it was toast with honey that inspired nostalgic memories. In the second draft it changed to a biscotto and finally by the third draft he settled on a small, soft madeleine cake.
Thanks to Proust the simple madeleine became one of the most evocative and powerful metaphors in French Literature. For those who haven’t yet indulged in madeleines, they’re a simple plain cake, baked in scallop-shaped molds and lightly flavoured with lemon or almonds.
These little cakes went on to become more famous than its showier sisters, such as the overblown meringue.
According to Proust it was the quick dip in hot tea that did it, for the tisane/tea bought out the full flavour of the madeleine and released a rush of involuntary childhood memories.
As Anonymous once wrote, ‘Die with memories, not dreams.’
Photo: French actor Alain Delon who starred in the Proustian film, Un amour de Swann (Swann in Love) 1984. Delon was also terrific in Visconti’s The Leopard and Le Samouraï, where he played a preternaturally cool assassin.