Sunday, 19 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: aunt Léonie’s house and the pie of smells

One of the main elements of Proust’s style, I’ve noticed, is that he creates layer upon layer of comparisons.   

Many people must have written about the long passage about sleep and dreams at the beginning of Swann’s Way, and the famous madeleine episode, I will instead write about something else: the pages after the madeleine episode. 

As the narrator (generally called Marcel) tastes a madeleine dipped in tea, he experiences strange sensations and an all-powerful joy that he doesn’t understand.  

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.” (Vol.1, P.1)

A few paragraphs later, he starts to describe Combray, and his aunt Léonie’s house. She is an invalid, confined to two adjoining rooms, and she would spend her afternoon in one room whilst the other is being aired. 

“They were rooms of that country order which—just as in certain climes whole tracts of air or ocean are illuminated or scented by myriads of protozoa which we cannot see—enchants us with the countless odours emanating from the virtues, wisdom, habits, a whole secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral, which their atmosphere holds in solution;” (ibid.)

(I need to break his long sentence into smaller chunks in order to talk about the images).

Rather than describe what the rooms look like, Marcel writes about smells: “just as in certain climes…” is an analogy and “which their atmosphere holds in solution” is a metaphor. The latter is particularly interesting. 

“smells natural enough indeed, and weather-tinted like those of the neighbouring countryside, but already humanised, domesticated, snug, an exquisite, limpid jelly skilfully blended from all the fruits of the year which have left the orchard for the store-room, smells changing with the season, but plenishing and homely, offsetting the sharpness of hoarfrost with the sweetness of warm bread, smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving and settled, heedless and provident,” (ibid.) 

His metaphors become more complex. First, he writes “weather-tinted”, which is a metaphor because the word “tint” means “colour (something) slightly; tinge”. Then he follows it with a simile, “like those of the neighbouring countryside”. Next, he says the smells are “humanised, domesticated”, the way one writes about animals. That is followed with “an exquisite, limpid jelly”, which is reminiscent of the earlier metaphor “which their atmosphere holds in solution”. Then he writes “smells changing with the season”—is this an expansion on “weather-tinted”? He describes the smells (hoarfrost, warm bread), then follows with a complex metaphor, “lazy and punctual as a village clock”.

“linen smells, morning smells, pious smells, rejoicing in a peace which brings only additional anxiety, and in a prosaicness which serves as a deep reservoir of poetry to the stranger who passes through their midst without having lived among them.” (ibid.) 

The smells are first concrete and specific (linen), then more general and abstract (morning), and completely abstract (pious smells). The next part of the sentence becomes more metaphorical: “rejoicing in…”. 

“The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt I would be kept waiting a moment in the outer room where the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, which was already alight between its two bricks and plastering the whole room with a smell of soot…” (ibid.) 

The narrator now builds more metaphors upon metaphors. I especially like “saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent”—which Marcel tastes. I also like “the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire”. Personification of the sun is not unusual, but the image of the sun creeping in to warm itself before the fire is so mad, so unexpected. 

“… I would pace to and fro between the prie-dieu and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie, an immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers and the patterned wall-paper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.” (ibid.) 

Proust goes further and further in his metaphors. The air is “thickly clotted”, and a large part of the sentence is about the fire baking the smells like dough and making a country pie of smells. A rich image, and it goes with the earlier metaphors of “an exquisite, limpid jelly” (of smells) and (the smells) “which their atmosphere holds in solution”.

The rooms of aunt Léonie are described almost entirely by smells. Thick with metaphors. And all of these images and metaphors link back to the thing that evokes these memories: the smell and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. 

I’m reading In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright). 


  1. Very true. There are few proper poets who employ metaphors and similes as densely as does Proust. Even Shakespeare, who seems to have an endless spring of deep comparisons at his disposal, doesn’t stack them, layer upon layer, them the way Proust does. The effect of this rich superabundance of imagery and sensation is truly hypnotic – and also sensitizing. -- Michael N

    1. About Shakespeare, I'm not sure. Take the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, that is thick with metaphors. Mixed metaphors.
      I also think it's difficult to compare, because plays and novels are very different forms. But yes, the way Proust stacks metaphor, layer upon layer, is unusual. Most novelists don't do so.

  2. Proust is indeed a very olfactive writer, which he shares with his favourite poet, Baudelaire. The way he talks of how smells and flavours, despite being very frail, hold the immense edifice of the memory was quite striking in the madeleine episode (near the end of it). A great antithetic image. I see a similarity with Baudelaire’s famous poem « Le Flacon » which you could check out to see how Proust may borrow from the former how he closely links smell with memory.
    We could also think of how he closely associates earlier the varnish smell of the stairs with his sufferings regarding his want of attention from his mother, or the smell of chesnut tree to Swann.

    1. Oh yeah, I remember the detail of the varnish.
      Proust is right that smells can trigger strong memories, though the scene is slightly ruined a bit for me because I know what a madeleine is like, and er Proust hypes it up a lot lol.


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