Picture the scene.
A hotel restaurant in Torquay, situated on what the slightly eccentric owner refers to as “the English Riviera.”
Run by the husband and wife team of Basil and Sybil Fawlty, it’s called Fawlty Towers, naturellement. And they’re having a bit of a tete‐a‐tete with with their newly arrived guests, who travelled from California via “a little back street called the M5”.
The gist of it is they would like some dinner.
Mr Hamilton: “I want a Waldorf Salad!”
Mrs Hamilton: “And a green salad for me!”
Mr Hamilton: “And to follow, a couple of filet mignons — steaks! Done rare! Not out of a bottle!”
A match made in hell, while Sybil is less than fond of Basil’s musical choices — generally highbrow opera and classical (“That’s Brahms! Brahms’ third racket!) — he disapproves of her literary choices. Strongly.
As the Hamiltons wait for their meal, Sybil is seen reading one of her lurid pulp fiction favourites. It’s Never Love A Stranger by Yankee romance novelist Harold Robbins, which is the cue for the little piranha fish to indulge in some gooey girls‘ talk with Mrs Hamilton
“Seriously though, his men are all so interesting — ruthless and sexy and powerful.”
“Who’s this then, dear? Proust? EM Forster?,” provokes the snobby pretentious Basil as he hands out the menus, totally unnecessarily. He then savages Robbins’ work, sarcastically telling the Hamiltons
“Oh, yes, of course. My wife likes Harold Robbins. After a hard day slaving under the hair dryer, she needs to unwind with a few aimless thrills. Have you read any? Oh, it really is the most awful transatlantic tripe, a sort of pornographic muzak. Still, keeps my wife off the streets.”
So in case you didn’t know, Basil’s premier cuppa thé, Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust, was a giant of literature: an early 20th century French novelist whose massive, several thousand-page epic In Search Of Lost Time is considered by critics one of the great fictional works of the era but is considered a tad difficult to read by mass audiences.
Edward Morgan Forster, the other one, was another popular early 20th century novelist, writer and critic whose works often dealt with the themes of British and colonial class struggles and — especially near the end of his writing career — homosexuality. Considered more accessible than Proust, his work has been adapted into many period piece films such as Howards End and A Passage To India.
However, as I’m authoring this from the Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera to Brits), it’s Marcel Proust that I’m focusing on.
In 1907 Marcel Proust, then 36 years old, embarked on what would become his masterpiece, In Search Of Lost Time. A multi-volume work about memory and the essence of art, the project grew from one book to a second in 1912 and a third the following year, eventually expanding to seven volumes – four published in Proust’s lifetime and three after his death at the age of 51 on 18 November 1922.
“For a long time, I went to bed early…”, is how In Search Of Lost Time begins, and it’s also how the story ends for many readers, who may find Proust’s prose to have soporific qualities. Poetic and dreamy, sprinkled with dashes and parentheses, his sentences are exceptionally long – on average 30 words, twice that of most novelists. After receiving three rejections for the first volume, Swann’s Way, Proust decided to self-publish, which today sounds markedly less self aggrandising than it did back then.
To mark the centenary of Proust’s passing, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) has been hosting a major exhibition in Paris, where some of the secrets of the construction of his epochal novel are revealed.
“What will strike the visitor is the extent to which Proust works, corrects, writes in the margins, in the spaces between lines. He sticks papers in when he doesn’t have enough space. These are the famous ‘paperolles’, large strips of paper,” Nathalie Mauriac Dyer, Director of the Institute of Modern Manuscripts at CNRS, told RFI.
In the exploration of In Search Of Lost Time, we also find Proust’s famous sweet treat the madeleine (so delectable even the Pet Shop Boys sang about it on 2012‘s Memory Of The Future, while psychiatrist Madeleine Swann in the last two James Bond movies is obviously a thinly veiled tribute) – which started life as a humble not exactly stale old piece of toast, as early drafts of the scene discovered in the writer’s original notebooks reveal.
The mini sponge cake that has become the most famous detail in all seven volumes makes its appearance early in the first book.
For the protagonist, Marcel, “the taste of the madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me” releases a flurry of vivid memories, giving him access to the “lost time” he is searching for. “This is the Proustian theory of involuntary memory caused by a sensation that recalls events that may have taken place years before, explains Guillaume Fau, head boy of the BnF’s manuscript department. “It brings back or recovers lost time.”
Proust suffered most of his life with severe asthma, and although he liked to socialise – he had some torturous secret gay love affairs – he also spent long stretches in bed, writing with a tray on his knees.
His neurologist father urged his sickly son to get out in the fresh air and play sport, noting that asthma was not a COVID-like contagion. Proust’s mother, however, was prone to mollycoddling, and from around 1906 he felt compelled to follow her counsel, staying cloistered inside with a steady supply of caffeine and aspirin, battling on until his respiratory problems finally got the better of him.
He‘s buried in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (tombstone neighbours with legendary imports Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison) so if you‘re visiting the city you can double bubble before ordering your Ritz salad.
Would you care to see the wine list?
Main Proust source: France’s national library celebrates Proust 100 years after his death.
Exposition Marcel Proust: la fabrique de l’œuvre runs until 23 January 2023