LONDON – Next month sees the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece “Remembrance of Things Past” (or, if you prefer D.J. Enright’s translation, “In Search of Lost Time”). So stand by for what one expert calls a Proustathon.
“Untold universities have planned at least one reading or roundtable dedicated to Proust. Every self-respecting bookstore will hold its own Proustathon, with authors, actors and book lovers reading snippets from his epic novel. The Center for Fiction in New York has scheduled a Proust evening, and the French Embassy is organizing its own Proust occasion. There are Proust T-shirts, Proust coffee mugs, Proust watches, Proust comic series, Proust tote bags, Proust fountain pens and Proust paraphernalia of all stripes.”
As it happens, I’m reading “Swann’s Way” on a Kindle — which is more appropriate than you might think. The novel was effectively self-published by Proust himself (he paid a publisher to put it out) because the manuscript had been turned down by umpteen respectable publishing houses. If he had written it today, he could have published it himself, at no expense, as a Kindle book, just like E.L. James, the author of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” did in more recent times.
The resolution to read the whole of Proust’s masterpiece is (like the resolve to read Joyce’s “Ulysses”) more honored in the breach than the observance. I say this with feeling because the man who first commissioned me to write for this paper — the late, great literary editor Terry Kilmartin — produced a fine translation of it and I always felt guilty in his company because I had not read it. But there is one part of “Remembrance … ” that even those who have not read it will know. It’s the passage in “Swann’s Way” where the act of eating a quintessentially French confection called a “madeleine” unlocks Proust’s memory.
“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.”
After which, as they say, the rest is (personal) history.
Information technology is wonderful but it can’t do what that tea-soaked morsel of cake did for Proust. What about smells, though? They are perhaps even more evocative than tastes because — as any wine-buff will tell you — our noses are much more discriminating than our tongues. And here we come to Amy Radcliffe, a designer at Central Saint Martins art school in London, who wondered whether there would be a way to capture fleeting olfactory memories before they disappear into thin air. She has come up with an ingenious device that can capture and reproduce odors accurately. She calls it — what else? — the Madeleine.
To all intents and purposes, it’s an analogue odor camera. It collects the smells emanating from a particular object and corrals them in a vial that is then sent off to a laboratory where a mass spectrometer analyses the content’s molecular composition — the “recipe” of the smell, as it were. This can then be digitally transmitted and used to create the same odor if desired.
It’s a lovely idea, but I guess most people would regard it as an example of what one might call leading-edge uselessness. The other evening I sat next to an eminent computer scientist at dinner and described Radcliffe’s invention to him in those terms. He was not amused, and proceeded to tell me a story about an inquiry he had had many years ago from a major fish wholesaler. This man was based in London but the fish he bought and sold were landed from trawlers in Scotland. This was a pain because he liked to be able to smell a catch before deciding whether or not to purchase it. Was there any way, he asked my dinner-companion, that this new Internet thing could help him to reduce the amount of traveling he had to do?
There wasn’t — then; but maybe there is now. Which only goes to confirm the old adage that “pure” research is just research that hasn’t been applied yet.