Some books become so well known that they spawn entire tourist industries without many people having ever read them. Even those who’ve never reached the 4,391-word closing sentence of James Joyce’s Ulysses for instance – or even the 22-word opening one – may well be aware that the plot essentially consists of a man walking around Dublin. And for those who are not, a trip to the city will soon make it clear. Every place that Leopold Bloom so much as passed now has its own commemorative plaque – and every 16 June, the date on which he passes them in Ulysses, Dublin hosts what is surely the only huge annual drinking binge inspired by a classic of modernist literature.
The same – minus the booze – also applies to a modernist classic from France. Not everyone reading this will have got through Marcel Proust’s mammoth life work In Search of Lost Time. Yet most will probably know that a ‘Proustian rush’ is when long-forgotten memories come flooding back – and perhaps too, that the original one was caused by a madeleine cake.
The big moment comes early in the novel when the unnamed narrator is in characteristically downbeat mood. His mother makes him tea, and then: “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 a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than... an exquisite pleasure invaded my senses... Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?”
The answer, several paragraphs later, is that he’d been spontaneously reminded of happier times: “And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, 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.” And with that, the narrator is launched on a sea of memories that he spends the next 3,000 pages telling us about.
That passage from Proust has provided an extraordinary boost to the profile of madeleine cakes themselves – which, made just of light génoise sponge, sometimes flavoured with lemon or almonds, would not necessarily appear to be France’s most exciting contribution to gastronomic history. Before Proust, madeleines were already popular there; thanks, it’s usually said, to Louis XV, who named them after his father-in-law’s cook. After Proust, they became so globally famous that a few years ago – despite their comparative plainness – they were almost inevitably France’s choice for a celebration of the best cakes and biscuits from each member state of the European Union.
Proust and his cakes have also led to a rare instance of a place renaming itself after somewhere fictional. In 1971, the 100th anniversary of his birth, Illiers – the little town near Chartres where he spend part of his childhood – became Illiers-Combray. If this seems a fairly shameless way for the town to proclaim itself the site of the narrator’s most precious memories, then it’s also been a profitable one. Today, there’s a Proust museum in what was indeed his aunt Léonie’s house, and at least two boulangeries that claim to be where she bought her madeleines. As one writer has put it, “going to Illiers-Combray and not tasting a madeleine would be like going to Jerusalem and not seeing the Wailing Wall” – which is why around 2,000 cakes are sold in the former every month.
Given the circumstances, only a spoilsport would point out that Proust scholars now believe that Combray is based as much on Auteuil (near Paris), where his uncle lived, as on Illiers. Or, more heretically still, that he doesn’t seem to have been all that bothered about madeleines. In an earlier draft of the novel, the same memories were triggered by a slice of toast eaten with honey.
In 2007’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes about working with Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel on cutting-edge experiments about the nature of memory; experiments, says Lehrer, that proved Proust had got there first. Taste and smell, it transpires, are the only senses connected directly to the hippocampus, the centre of the brain’s long-term memory. The others are processed by the parts concerned with language, and so can’t produce memories quite so intense or spontaneous. No wonder nothing is quite so instantly evocative as the taste and scent of what we eat – even if it’s a humble cake.