Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Bower of Aromatic Perfume

I was skipping across food blogs this morning when I came across this post at When My Soup Came Alive. The blogger has set up an Event to commemorate her blog's three-year anniversary (congratulations there: well done). "This event is not about cooking or recipes," she writes, "it’s about food, and quality writing. What I want you to do is share your favourite pieces of food writing with the rest of the world …"

As soon as I saw that I thought of Proust's Françoise in the kitchen. Here, then, is my piece of "quality writing."

At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner, its preparation would already have begun, and Françoise, a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions, would be stirring the coals, putting the potatoes to steam, and, at the right moment, finishing over the fire those culinary masterpieces which had been first got ready in some of the great array of vessels, triumphs of the potter’s craft, which ranged from tubs and boilers and cauldrons and fish kettles down to jars for game, moulds for pastry, and tiny pannikins for cream, and included an entire collection of pots and pans of every shape and size. I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

I read In Search of Lost Time for the first time in Las Vegas perhaps five or six years ago. Last year I read it a second time, and this year, when I read it again, I copied out this passage from the first volume, Swann's Way, and kept it. Why? Not only is it beautiful - beautiful in translation as well as in the original - but it gathers several of Proust's ideas in one place: the mythologising of everyday life, with reference to works of art (Shakespeare), suggesting (as does Joyce's Ulysses) that the present swims in the detritus of the past, that every human being participates in the myth of their own society, that art informs, reflects, and enriches life; it also illustrates a sensuous appreciation of the material world; hints at his fondness for Dickens (the elevation of Françoise into "a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions" is very Dickensian), and probably a few other things that I can't think of right now because I woke early today, I'm feeling mildly dopey with dehydration, and I'm still in my pyjamas, which are striped.

The original French text, which is out of copyright, can be found in several places online. Here it is at Project Gutenberg. Lost Time has been translated into English more than once, and the translation I have chosen is the first one, written by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

The Soup blogger, Sra, asks us to "name not just the writers but the publishers, translators, edition, year of publication, all so that it can be easier to find if someone wants to get their hands on it." Here are the details of the edition I read last March:

Publisher: Penguin
Translator: You already know.
Edition: Paperback Penguin Classics
Year Of Publication: First published 1922, my copy published in 2000
Where to find it: Any large bookstore, many secondhand bookstores, and perhaps your local library as well. I haven't checked my library, but I know they have a bad habit of throwing away random bits of series - they used to have all of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time but now they've only got books one and four and what use is that? - so I'm not entirely lambent with hope on the Proust front.


  1. Thank you, it's a beautiful piece. And your writing has set it off well too.

  2. Thank you. It'll be interesting to see what other people have chosen.