Of Madeleines and Memories of a Love Past
During most of the summer, I have spent my time reading about love and loss. I have delved into literary theory, theology, psychoanalysis, and literature. In a recent article – “Can We Read the Book of Love?” in PMLA – Richard Terdiman writes: “people love being in love, and when they are they talk and write about it with an expansive intensity.” I am struck by a persistent desire as readers to read about love. Romance novels continue to be the largest portion of book sales in the United States, and during a recession romance novels increase in sales. Indeed, “we love being in love.”
Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse observes that “to try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region where love is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).” Barthes and Terdiman seem to agree that love and to write about love is to be excessive: both too much and too little.
In his recent novel, A Familiar Rain, John Geddes explores the problem of love and loss: the problem being one where we strive to return, always, to a love lost. While reading A Familiar Rain, I was also reading and writing about Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; more specifically, I was writing about The Fugitive, a book that opens, “Mademoiselle Albertine is gone,” and narrates the loss of Albertine and Marcel’s reactions. In A Familiar Rain, we are presented with a protagonist who falls in love and loses his first love. Throughout the novel, he is researching memory and returning to our memories (at times the novel seems to recall H. G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay). Of course, the novel illustrates the problems of this search for lost time.
The problem with reliving memories, we learn, is that “all of the sorrows and the trauma we usually get over by forgetting, she can still recall. It could torment her. I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse.” And indeed, this is precisely the problem with remembering: intrinsic to a memory is not always a positive experience. Memory can force us to long for that which is now lost and yet persistently present because we cannot, we do not, forget. Nowhere is this more true than in the story of love, where “memory is burned into your consciousness.”
In Proust’s Swann’s Way we read:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the dram of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in the winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, and a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked the morsel of cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestions of origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? (I.60)
The madeleine has become a symbol of memory and being flooded by memories. This is not a negative or a positive, and how we read this passage will vary from reader to reader. In A Familiar Rain there are many “madeleine moments” in which a character sees something that provokes a memory of the past, and often enough, of his first love, Laura.
Abbey stood very close to him, peering over his shoulder as he leafed through the book. He could feel her body next to his and instinctively leaned in toward her basking in her warmth. As he turned a page his heart leapt; there on page seven was Laura’s handwriting where she inscribed Laura Whitaker, SMC. He felt as he if could hardly breath. He was holding in his hand Laura’s favourite book, a book she had held many times and he was looking again at her signature in her distinctive handwriting style as if she had penned it today.
He began to experience an overwhelming sense of guilt, as if Laura was looking down on him at that moment, shocked that he was reveling in the physical closeness of Abby. The room started to spin and he felt lightheaded and nauseous. It seem liked his legs were not able to support him and before he knew it, Abbey had helped him to an oak chair and managed to get him seated.
This moment is a madeleine moment, a small object is able to overwhelm the viewer and he is overcome by memories of things past. Northrop Frye in a brief passage on Proust observes:
If we try to recall our identity from conscious memories of the past, it retreats like a forgotten name, until we give up trying. But sometimes, when our minds are on something else, the movement is reversed: the memory comes out, as it did to Proust, touches the rememberer, and says, in several ways, “here you are.” (CW 29, 330)
These small items provoke wonderful memories and they remind us of who we are and where we belong. A Familiar Rain is an elegy to a lost love, and yet it is also a novel on the infamous madeleine, which has come to symbolize the entire Proustian project. The strangeness of memories and remembering is not the memory itself but rather, as Frye notes, those smaller things that provoke memories. These small objects overwhelm us precisely because love is overwhelming; it is, in the words of Barthes, too much and too little.
© 2011 – 2014, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.