Thursday, November 14, 2013

This Madeleine's for You

Have to admit it never occurred to me till Mike's last post that a writer's compromised sense of smell--or, for that matter, color blindness, or a hearing issue, not to mention the deadened taste buds from excessive smoking--could be a real handicap when it comes to writing description.

So sad.

Imagine a Proust doppelganger stubbing out his Gauloises in the ashtray on the kitchen table, wiping his lips, smiling at his mother, then dunking his petites madeleine in that cup of tea, from which touch of tea and cake to palate . . . springs . . . nothing but cardboard and tepid gruel, stone and crumbling chalk.  So, alas, Marcel doesn't stop, intent upon the extraordinary changes taking place.  No exquisite pleasure invades his senses, the vicissitudes of life fail to become indifferent for him, and no new sensation gives the effect of filling him--as love does--with a precious essence, an essence that wasn't simply in him, but was him.  No feeling of something starting within him, leaving its resting place, and attempting to rise from his depths where it was embedded like an anchor.

No recognizing that, no matter how often we may see an object, it is with more vitality, a more unsubstantial yet more persistent, more faithful rendering, that the smell and taste of things remain poised a longer time, like souls, ready to remind us, amid the ruins of all the rest.

No recapturing the old, dead moment, no return to Combray.

The taste of cake and tea, that archetypal involuntary memory or deja vu, wasted, and no monumental 3,000 word search for lost time.

But fortunately, Marcel, even though he probably smoked, could still draw on his senses--all five of them--and "Proust's madeleine" has become a touchstone in twentieth-century literature.  And draw he does, creating masterfully evocative settings and descriptions that entice and embrace the reader.

And it turns out that this month is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann's Way, the first volume of his In Search of Lost Time.  So grab a copy of Swann's Way and treat yourself, at the very least, to the opening "Combray" section, usually titled "Overture," and learn from a master how to evoke the senses and use setting and description to ground the reader in the story.

Next time, once I finish Swann's Way again, we'll chat some more on how to use setting and description to evoke the senses and bring our fiction to life.

Enjoy your madeleine . . . .

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