Of Madeleines, Monuments and Memoir

A man at a party praised my husband for his determination to read all three volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — a literary tome, which “[in]several thousand pages, retraces the course of [the Frenchman’s] adolescence and adulthood, democratically dividing his experiences among the narrator and a sprawling cast of characters.”

Remembrance of Things Past is a monument of literature,” the man said.

Unlike my tenacious husband, most of us have not read Proust, though many know of his Madeleine sponge cake, referred to by a legion of readers, including this writer who admits she has not read the first page of Proust’s factional account of meals and musings, memories and wisdom; a pity, since it includes great plums for memoir, such as—“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

The challenge of personal truth is a topic we often discuss in workshops. In fact, while researching this brief essay linking the famous sponge cake to monuments and memoir/essay, I discovered a factoid:  In his first drafts, Proust had used toast and honey, then biscotti as his evocative foods, finally arriving at the now-immortal Madeleine.

A monument, as described by Wikipedia, is “created to commemorate a person or event . . . [or] part of [the] remembrance of historic times or cultural heritage.” As it is with personal narrative.

Writers choose to scribe memories for differing reasons—to be part of a writing community, to hone skills for publication, to create true stories for posterity. Most wish that their true stories will capture life events as well as their unique ways of looking at the world. As with the bronze monument, personal narratives commemorate a life, which will ultimately become historical and cultural accounts.

Our recent American narrative involves removal of certain monuments—all of their protagonists sculptors portrayed as heroic. The problem with heroes is that they are one-dimensional and cannot withstand a closer examination; heroes too easily fall off their pedestals, figuratively if not literally. As it is with memoir and personal narrative. In our stories, we should not be the hero or the villain, but a real person with secrets, bad habits, prejudices.

My favorite monuments (and memoirs) tell a story, show narrative motion, and offer the audience room for interpretation. All beckon the viewer to linger.

Of course, it helps if we can find our own personal Madeleine. Some food for thought. As Proust wrote,— “when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, . . . the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”  


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