How Proust Can Change Your Life
Travelling by car south-west of the cathedral town of Chartres, the view through the windscreen is of a familiar northern European arable landscape. One could be anywhere, the only feature of note being a flatness to the earth which lends disproportionate significance to the occasional water-tower or agricultural silo asserting itself on the horizon above the windscreen wipers. The monotony is a welcome break from the effort of looking at interesting things, a time to rearrange the twisted accordion shaped Michelin map before reaching the chateaux of the Loire, or to digest the sight of Chartres cathedral with its claw-like flying buttresses and weather-worn bell-towers. The smaller roads cut through villages whose houses are shuttered for a siesta that appears to last all day, even the petrol stations show no sign of life, their Elf flags flapping in a wind blowing in from across vast wheatfields. A Citroen makes an occasional hasty appearance in the rear view mirror, then overtakes with exaggerated impatience, as if speed were the only way to protest against the desperate monotony.
At the larger junctions, sitting innocuously among signs vainly asserting a speed limit of fifty and pointing the way to Tours and Le Mans, the motorist may notice a metal arrow indicating the distance to the small town of Illiers-Combray. For centuries, the sign pointed simply to Illiers, but in 1971, the town chose to let even the least cultured motorist know of its connection to its most famous son, or rather visitor. For it was here that Proust spent his summers from the age of six until nine and once again at the age of fifteen, in the house of his father’s sister, Elisabeth Amiot – and here that he drew inspiration for the creation of his fictional Combray.
There is something eerie about driving into a town which has surrendered part of its claim to independent reality in favour of a role fashioned for it by a novelist who once spent a few summers there as a boy in the late nineteenth century. But Illiers-Combray appears to relish the task. In a corner of the rue du Docteur Proust, the Patisserie-Confiserie hangs a large, somewhat misleading sign outside its door; “The House where Aunt Leonie used to buy her madeleines.”
Competition is fierce with the boulangerie in the Place du Marché, for it too is involved in the, “fabrication de la petite madeleine de Marcel Proust.” A packet of eight can be had for twenty francs, twelve for thirty. The boulangère – who hasn’t read it – knows that the shop would have had to close long ago had it not been for In Search of Lost Time, which draws customers in from across the world. They can be seen with cameras and madeleine bags, heading for the house of Tante Amiot, an undistinguished, rather sombre edifice that would be unlikely to detain one’s attention were it not for the fact that within its walls, young Proust once collected impressions used to build the narrator’s bedroom, the kitchen where Françoise prepared lunch and the garden gate through which Swann came for dinner.
Inside, there is the hushed, semi-religious feel reminiscent of a church, children grow quiet and expectant, the guide gives them a warm if pitying smile while their mothers remind them to touch nothing along the way. There turns out to be little temptation. The rooms recreate in its full aesthetic horror the feel of a tastelessly furnished, provincial bourgeois nineteenth century home. Inside a giant perspex display cabinet on top of a table next to ‘Tante Léonie’s bed,’ the curators have placed a white teacup, an ancient bottle of Vichy water and a solitary, curiously oily-looking madeleine, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be made of plastic.