After the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered

Confession: Despite my whining (see here, here, and here), I actually love Proust.

Chances are good that if you have spoken to me any time in the last 4 months, I have probably talked your ear off about Proust at least once. I. Just. Can’t. Help. It.  It is inevitable that anytime you spend a whole semester on one author (much less on ONE BOOK) you suddenly start to see him as the missing link to Understanding of the Universe. But people, Proust really is that link.  And since madeleines are his link to everything, I obviously had to make them.

Madeleine making_22

Before I wax poetic about Proust and share with you the things that I have been mulling over the past several months about memory, food, and Truth of Reality, I have a couple disclaimers:

  • I am not suggesting you go out and read In Search of Lost Time yourself. It is like 3,500 pages long and at least 1000 of those are subtly veiled disturbing sexual innuendoes that I blithely missed about 95% of the time. The remaining 2,500 pages are split evenly between impossibly (albeit poetically) boring descriptions and PURE GOLD, but I’d feel bad if you got mired down in all the dross. If I hadn’t had a professor dragging me through it, there is no way I would have made it through.
  • If you do read Proust, it really is only worth it if you read almost all of it. I am firmly convinced that there are two types of Epics in the world, and they all come down to Harry Potter vs. LOST. In Harry Potter, every seemingly insignificant detail reveals it’s importance in the last book, every question is answered, and you have a great sense of doneness on the last page.  Would it be worth it to just read the first book? NO. In LOST, you could watch every single episode and still not have a clue what happened at the end because there is no conclusion, no answers, no meaning. (Can you tell that I still haven’t recovered? And I am getting pretty scared with every new plot twist and reoccurring LOST actor who turns up on Once Upon a Time. Don’t you do this to me again JJ Abrams!) Proust is of the Harry Potter variety, where so much is tied together in the last couple hundred pages that you pretty much have to underline them continuously.

So now that you know I am not going to actually ask you to read much Proust, let’s talk about it.


There are books that talk about the best of life – the heroic, the mighty, the magnificent – and then there are books that talk about the worst of life – the criminal, the poverty, the miserable.

And then there is Proust, who makes a painfully accurate study of mediocrity. Do you know what happens over the course of the 7 volumes of In Search of Lost Time? Almost nothing. It is like one painfully long second-rate dinner party that just won’t end, peopled by beings so tragically normal that they are grotesque and described with Dickens-esque detail. His is the painstaking study of Reality – which is often mediocre at best, disappointing and tragic at worst.

Because for Proust, the real tragedy of life is that it passes, it’s over, and that’s the end. What he wants to find is some way for our lives to be more than just a passing blip, for our memory to be more vibrant than just a list of facts. What he manages to slowly formulate, over all those long tedious pages, is a whole philosophy of what actually constitutes reality, and how we remember it.


If you have read any Proust, or know anything about him, chances are you know about the madeleine. For Proust, there are certain experiences that hold within themselves the Truth of Reality. We taste something, we see something, we smell something, and it awakens within us a memory so rich, that all of the sudden what we are tasting, seeing smelling, isn’t what is before us, but that long gone thing that we experienced. We reclaim little fragments of our paste through these experiences and these are what actually make up reality.

The process that leads to this revelation begins with a soggy cookie. In one of the earliest and most famous scenes from all of Proust’s writings, the adult narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of tea and then eats it, provoking an onslaught of memories so vivid that he feels he has regained a part of his past that had been lost. His entire childhood arises from that one bite. How is food so powerful?


“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”


Over the next 3,200 pages, the narrator spends a lot of time deeply dissatisfied with reality and life, but he does experience a couple more moments like the one above, moments where something prompts the past to come back, bubbling sweetly up within him. In the final book, he realizes that all along he was wrong about time, about memory. It’s not just a list of things that happen. It is a catalogue of sensations that define us, that hold within themselves the greatest memories.

 “An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them.”


So what does this have to do with me, with you?

I have been thinking since I read this about what the reality is of this stage of life, and the futile task of recording it. How will I remember the sweet daily normalness of this first year of marriage? I can write blog posts of all the things I’ve done this fall, I can make facebook albums and hang up pictures. I can instagram all the things I eat and tweet about everything I see. But none of those things stop this precious time from slipping away and then it’s gone, and I have nothing but images of a reality that are far from it. There is no way that I can hold on forever to what these months feel like.

But luckily, there are those moments when the memories sweep over us, returning us to that moment when they happened. Years from now, I hope I eat pistachios and think of late nights watching TV. I hope I am offered eggnog and think of our first Christmas together. I hope I smell onions and remember with laughter the time our apartment smelled like them for days. I hope I hear that song we danced to and think of the few moments we got to steal to talk on our wedding day. Pumpkin gooey cake, brussel sprouts, flannel sheets, “Forever Young.”  These things fill the vase of hours that these months have been.

Madeleine making_23

Is there any food for you that embodies an entire memory, person, or time? Or maybe it’s  a song, a sound, a smell, a touch — anything. Leave a comment below to share.

***If you want to try making madeleines, I used this recipe, and looked at these tips. You should also read this fantastic post about making them.

(PS: The gratuitous KitchenAid photos are because I am a little obsessed with our newest kitchen helper and I was trying to master the ribbon-of-batter-goodness-dripping-off-the-mixer picture, the trademark of all good baking posts. This necessitated me standing on a chair at an odd angle practically getting batter on the camera.)

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10 Responses to After the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered

  1. Sharon says:

    I’ve attempted Proust a few times and always given up – surprising every time, because i love thick contemplative books, and because I associate taste/smell with memory so intensely, almost religiously. Making my mother’s corn chowder on Christmas. Eating peanuts because my grandfather dispensed them freely to us around the holidays. A whiff of a certain laundry detergent bringing a certain boy screaming back to mind.

    • Hannah says:

      Like I said — it is rough [perhaps even a mistake] to read them all. : ) But, if know you can’t read them all, the first one is probably the richest on its own, so start there!

      And no I want corn chowder.

      Also, that “good boy smell”… best thing ever.

  2. Emily says:

    As soon as I saw a madeleine I knew this was going to be about Proust. I’m working my way through, slowly but surely!

    • Hannah says:

      Perhaps you should read them with a plate of madeleines at hand! It will definitely be a more delicious experience! Which translation are you using? The quotes above are from the recent Enright/Moncrieff translation.

  3. I suppose it should stop surprising me how often you write about exactly what I have been thinking 😉 Not via Proust, of course, though I loved learning about him through you. But I have thought a lot about how I want to treasure up this time and how futile all attempts to do so seem to be. We might not be able to reconstruct it day by day, but the little moments can be so swiftly and happily restored. Memory is really a blessed gift.

    • Hannah says:

      Great minds think alike! its delightful living these parallel experiences… but soon you will have a beautiful bouncy baby to write about and then I will have to bow out. : )

  4. great post! madeleines are absolutely on my favorite list!! and I have to say: I LOVE the color of your kitchen aid!! 🙂 I definitely have got some smells which embody nice memories, for example garlic & onion – which is my father 😉 or if I am doing these ones which make me think immediately of my mother ..thanks for making me thinking about those moments again 😉

  5. Hannah says:

    Thank you! I have been pining for a buttercup yellow kitchen aid for years and I kind of just want to set it in the middle of the table with flowers in the bowl when I’m not using it because it is sooooo pretty!

    I think anyone who really loves food understands this connection without even being told. : ) I hopped over to that link and those look sooooooo good! My brain is telling me to be skeptical of the potatoes, but the finished product looks so delicious that I think I’ll have to go for it!

  6. Pingback: It takes you back to love. | The Art in Life

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