More than cake: unravelling the mysteries of Proust’s madeleine

Proust's madeleine has slipped into common parlance as it did his tea. But what are we missing when we cite the famous literary device? 

Clare Finney

In April 2020, the Celtic Star – newsletter of Celtic Rangers FC – published a piece titled ‘A madeleine moment stretched over the next 11 seconds in Oporto’. Reading idly over my dad’s shoulder, I was intrigued how the writer was possibly going to apply France’s most famous literary device to a 2003 goal against Sevilla.

The madeleine moment – or Proust effect – the writer went onto explain, concerned “the ability of memory to be invoked involuntarily when it had been previously blocked”. It was inspired by À la recherche du temps perdu, a novel by Marcel Proust, one of the most celebrated French authors of the 20th century. In the Celtic Star's analogy, watching one moment of football invoked memories of another, which highlights a common misunderstanding of the Proust effect and the gulf between Proust and the sensation that bears his name.

In À la recherche du temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past, Proust created not just a novel, but a universe, vividly and exquisitely rendered over 1,267,069 words that are as remarkable for their psychological accuracy as they are for their quantity. As Graham Greene observed: “For those who began to write at the end of the 1920s or the beginning of the 30s, there were two great inescapable influences: Proust and Freud, who are mutually complementary.”

Yet to most of the world – even to most of the inhabitants of his hometown of Illiers-Combray, where the air is filled with the scent of baking madeleines and the shops are stuffed with cake-shaped souvenirs – Proust is best known for his confectionary choices, thanks to one scene early on in the book, when a mouthful of “those short, plump little cakes…which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell” unlocks the protagonist’s memory of his aunt Leonie who on Sunday mornings would feed him “a little crumb of madeleine… dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”

In some ways the pre-eminence of this scene is well justified. It is as baked into French language and culture as Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole is in English. In France, a madeleine de Proust is a common expression referring to a smell, taste or sound which dredges up a long-lost memory. For a long time, their Desert Island Discs equivalent was called Madeleine Musicals.

When Proust wrote of the heady succession of memories that flow from “the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it” – the aunt’s bedroom, their old grey house, the garden, even “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” – he articulated an feeling with which we are all deeply familiar. We see it in the Disney film Ratatouille, when food critic Anton Ego eats the eponymous dish and is transported to his mother’s kitchen. Heston Blumenthal created a whole restaurant, Fat Duck, around the concept. It was the accuracy and luminous quality of Proust’s description that gave this universal experience his name.

Yet, like every literary or cinematic device that takes on a life of its own beyond the context of the original work, there is a risk of over-simplifying or misunderstanding the madeleine. For one thing, the significance of the madeleine scene lies not in the madeleine, says Patrick Ffrench, professor of French at King’s College, London, but in the tea: “It is the crumbs in the tea, and the sensation of that, that makes him ‘shudder’ and fills him with ‘extraordinary pleasure’. So it is a bit paradoxical.”

Moreover, though the profusion of madeleine merch you’ll find in Proust’s hometown today suggests otherwise, it is not the sight of the madeleine that moves him, but how it tastes: “perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days.” As Denise Gigante, professor of English at Stanford University points out, sight “is the most cognitive of all the senses, so it has less power to break through the conscious present.” In short, the sports writer’s madeleine moment – the sight of the Sevilla goal – is not a madeleine moment at all.

For a long time, the French equivalent of Desert Island Discs as called Madeleine Musicals.

Smell on the other hand – and when we talk of taste we really mean smell, as aroma accounts for 75% to 95% of what we think we are “tasting” – has a special capacity to trigger memories because we smell before we think. As Barry Smith, a philosopher and founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, explains, to smell something is to directly project upon the amygdala – “the centre of the brain responsible for memory and arousal”.  

The reason smell is missing from Proust’s scene – or, rather, that it is bound up in his description of the taste and texture of the tea and the soggy cake crumbs – is that they are more difficult to define. “People don’t have names for smells,” says Smith. “They have names for the sources of smells, or for tastes, but there are few words to describe the quality of odours. This means smell gets lodged in our memory in a way that doesn’t get interfered with – we don’t buff them up with talking about them.”

Of course, there is one, quite simple reason the madeleine constitutes the sum total of most people’s knowledge of Proust. Spanning seven volumes, it may be the longest novel in history, but the madeleine scene crops up in the first few pages: even the most cursory of Proust’s readers know this scene. In fact, many scholars argue it is the book’s true beginning. “One way of thinking about it is that the novel has a ‘false start’, says Ffrench. “The writer is struggling to remember his past, and can’t get beyond a particular point so he gives up on it… declaring his childhood town of Combray being ‘to me in reality all dead. Permanently dead? Very possibly.’ Then the madeleine intervenes.”

'In the first draft of the novel, it was not a madeleine but a tartine that caused the collapsing of time between Proust’s past and his conscious present'

The madeleine appears courtesy of the writer’s mother, who upon seeing that he is cold offers him tea – “a thing I did not ordinarily take,” our narrator observes, but “for no particular reason I change my mind.” This arbitrary decision leads to him dipping the madeleine in his tea – and unlocking a door to the whole of his childhood, observes Ffrench. “It is the narrative device to start the novel off ‘for real’.”

There’s a brilliant paradox to this literary storm in a cup of lime flower tea, and that is that in the first draft of the novel, it was not a madeleine but a tartine – a slice of bread spread with jam – that caused the collapsing of time between Proust’s past and his conscious present. “It was Proust’s editor who scored it out and replaced it with madeleine – a brilliant idea” says Smith, “because they are so beautiful and memorable.” This sounds momentous, but in a way simply serves to underscore just how little the madeleine itself matters, says Ffrench. “There is a temptation to think there is something special about that cake that lends itself to that experience – but it is the sensation and the fact it has come unbidden and unexpected, from outside of him.”

Indeed, if anything about this scene has been distorted with time and retelling, it is the cake’s importance, agrees Gigante: “these things tend to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, but I don’t think it is objects we need to release the past so much as the sensation they cause: the smell, the taste, the sound of the song, which triggers the mind to unleash its ghosts.” The real beauty of the Proust phenomena is that you never know where you might find it; that one person’s jam sandwich can hold as much transformative power as another’s madeleine.

Image by Nancy Liang.

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