Amongst all the dreary EU blah blah, my attention was, this morning, alerted to a report of importance concerning literature. It was courtesy of Paddy O’Connell who is my second favourite radio broadcaster after the sublime Eddie Mair. Eddie doesn’t work on Sundays and when Paddy has the day off, which he did last week, the world falls to pieces; causing disorientation and lack of direction, at least until Tuesday when I have to go back to work. Anyway, the report concerned itself with an apparent revival of Proust’s sponge cake saga, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu or, in English, Looking for the lost Madeline.
For me, Proust has always been like olives: you know you’re supposed to like them but it’s hard work. As an older adult, I grew into the black ones (as long as they’re covered in herby bits), but the green varieties have always been a non-starter. It used to be a rather pretentious secret; the rationale being that you never feel sufficiently grown up unless you can happily spear an olive that isn’t noir in colour. Come to think of it, the same thing applies to Madelines that must comprise the most boring cakes ever invented (only don’t tell anyone I said so).
Paddy sent someone off to le deluge ridden French capital to see what the bright young things were saying about the born-again Proust. One or two types, with their mouths full of green olives, maintained that A la Recherche was like the bible: every time you returned, you found something new. On the other hand, most of the interviewees admitted that, not only had they never finished reading it, they knew no-one else who’d succeeded, which is hugely reassuring. Even now, I can picture a wine-driven evening in the South, under an old fig tree, where one precocious youngster claimed it was impossible to journey into rural France without being au fait with Proust. Naturally, we called for another glass of rouge and kicked this upstart back to dear old Blighty.
I’ve attempted A la Recherche a couple of times. I think my record is thirty pages. I don’t mean to boast but I’ve devoured (and enjoyed, unlike green olives) Pagnol, Daudet and Flaubert amongst others so I don’t believe I’m out of the French literary loop. My point is, not everyone likes the same stuff. When I was a person who wore younger women’s clothes, we had a saying: so many men and so little time. It was short-lived. It didn’t take long to realise that the meaningful truth was, ‘so many books and so little time’.
In my country, it’s the same thing with all the ‘classics’: I adore Dickens because I love those long, rambling descriptions of people and place. Most of my closest friends and family hate him precisely because he uses fifty words when three or four would do the trick. And if you read Dickens on Kindle, you can see their point: the facility to turn back and remind oneself of the temps perdu is de rigeur. I love Hardy because, for me, he conjures the very essence of Dorset. But it’s the essence of a solitary and reflective walker. On the other hand, I’ve never got to grips with most of our so-called classics. I like Pride and Prejudice but only, I fear, because of the infamous BBC production. I’ve never finished Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights: I find no empathy with character or place. I could go on. I’d like to say that it’s essential to be able to relate to something but, despite the acceptance that France is my other country, there’s nothing in a green olive that draws my sensibilities.