by Marcel Proust and John Ruskin,
translated by Damion Searls
Hesperus Press, August 2011
Paperback, 112 pages
Review by Eric LeMay
Almost a decade ago, I read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in a studio apartment wedged above a Taco Bell. Depending on the breeze, the greasy smell of chalupas would waft into the room, and I’d half-note the oddity of following Proust’s long, unraveling sentences, as though thought, too, were a breeze, curling and winding and turning back on itself in an elegant drift, while the industrial deep fryers just outside needled at my reptilian brain.
Had I not been reading Proust, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but once I entered his book, everything became intricate, alive—the heft of the volume in my hand, the lumpiness of the old futon, the way my girlfriend, who was also reading Proust “in French” would glance from her volume to mine, checking my progress and occasionally huffing at a botched translation. It was wonderful. Reading Proust could turn even the stench of fast food into a meditative occasion.
For those of us who love to read and love to eat, Proust offers the most profound vision of how those pleasures intertwine. In his masterpiece, he shows how the self resides in the world around us, in those places and things that preserve our memories for us, like genies in bottles. This experience of self-discovery and self-return happens in Proust’s most famous passage, when his narrator is having tea and a Madeleine. “In that moment,” he suddenly sees:
all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and 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, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
It’s a beautiful moment. A forgotten childhood returns, a former self reappears, and we realize, through a chance sip of tea, how much life any of us lives and how that life inevitably slips away. Memory, though a gift, can’t save us from time. And yet Proust doesn’t present us with this vision as an idea, but an experience, one he enacts—and has us enact—by reading his words. Here, for example, he begins with his memory of reading as a child, and as the memory spins outward, it encompasses an entire village:
And sometimes, at home, in my bed, long after dinner, the last hours of the evening also sheltered my reading, but only on the days I reached the final chapters of a book, when there was not much more to read to get to the end. Then, risking both punishment if I was discovered and the insomnia that, once I had finished the book, might last all night, I re-lit my candle after my parents went to bed; in the street outside, between the gunsmith’s house and the post office, bathed in the silence, the sky was dark but nonetheless blue and full of stars, and to the left, on the raised lane just at the turn where its elevated ascent began, you could feel watching you the monstrous black apse of the church whose sculptures did not sleep at night—just a village church but still of historical importance, the magical abode of the Lord, of the consecrated bread, of multicolored saints, and of the ladies from the neighboring chateaux who, on feast days, making the hens squawk and the gossip stare, crossed the marketplace in their “turn-out” to go to mass and, on their way back, after leaving the shadow of the porch where the faithful, pushing open the vestibule door, scattered the errant rubies of the nave, did not pass the pastry shop on the square without buying one of those cakes in the shape of a tower, protected from the sun by an awning—“manqués,” “Saint-Honorés,” “Genoese”—cakes whose leisurely, sugary scent remains mixed in my mind with the bells of high mass and the happiness of Sundays.
This passage, which somehow weds childhood despair, the village gossips, the chimes at midnight, and the smell of a sugary cake isn’t from À la recherche du temps perdu, but from an introduction Proust wrote for his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, entitled “On Reading.” Proust published it in 1905, after an intensive study of Ruskin and a few years before beginning his novel, and it reads like a miniature of the masterpiece to come.
As its translator, Damion Searls, says, “Proust’s entire mission, as an artist, was always to re-create in the reader’s mind what there was in Proust’s,” and it’s a testament to this translation that you can see his mission arising here, in all its vast ambition. Here’s one more passage, from a portrait of Proust’s great-aunt, a woman with an implacable sense of her own palate, in which Proust pulls a complete character from a Sunday lunch:
My great-aunt’s always justified criticism . . . which implied that the cook had not actually known how to make the dish, could not help but be particularly intolerable to my grandfather. Often, to avoid argument with him, my great-aunt, after a tiny nibble, did not give her opinion, from which we knew immediately that it was not favorable. She kept quiet, but we read a considered and unshakeable disapproval in her gentle eyes, which had the power to make my grandfather furious. He begged her, his voice thick with irony, to favor us with her opinion, grew impatient with her silence, plied her with questions, lost his temper, but you could tell that she would be led to the stake rather than confess what my grandfather believed, that the cream in the dessert was not too sweet.
That last sentence, piling up the grandfather’s contortions, as though we were at the lunch table, watching him writhe, would be overwhelming if not for it landing on that minor, everyday moment: You think the cream’s too sweet—just say it! “On Reading” reminds us of Proust’s great achievement, that reading doesn’t merely record experience, but creates it, opens it up. Reading allows us to think and feel more than we otherwise would.
And isn’t that the aim of the best food writing? We read it not only to learn about this or that ingredient, but also to see how a cup of tea or a dollop of too-sweet cream runs to the core of who we are. The best food writing helps us not merely to know that, but experience it. As Proust says of Ruskin, “There is no better way to discover in yourself what you yourself feel than to try and recreate in yourself what a master has felt.” We read and we become greater than, more truly, ourselves.
“On Reading” isn’t a food book. It’s a collection of Proust’s writings on Ruskin, the English art critic, as well as a lecture by Ruskin that Proust annotated and a few other pieces by Proust on the importance of reading. It does, however, offer a look at the writer who will go on to write the single greatest passage of food writing. And at forty pages, it isn’t nearly as daunting as the 3,200-page novel. Pop it in your pocket. It won’t weigh you down. Take it Taco Bell; see what happens.
July 4, 2012