My Evening With M. Proust

In Guest Contributors by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams


BERKELEY: As the host and moderator of Publishing Perspectives’ year long Proust-reading experience, The Cork-Lined Room, I’ve often found myself wondering: Who exactly is it that is out there reading and apparently enjoying the 3000+ pages of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time? For whom am I spending evenings reading and posting? Is it Francophiles? Wanna-be literary snobs? I hadn’t the faintest idea.

So, when Eric Karpeles, artist and author of the essential guidebook to the use of visual arts in Proust, Paintings in Proust, (and translator of Lorenza Foschini’s book Proust’s Overcoat which will be published by HarperCollins in August of this year), invited me to attend a lecture he was giving at the University of California at Berkeley, I jumped at the opportunity, both to hear his talk, and to check out exactly what the audience would be like. (The promise of a Proustian inspired dinner at Chez Panisse following the lecture and accompanying concert only served to sweeten the offer.)

Somewhat surprisingly, my introduction into the real world of Proust lovers began on my Southwest Airlines flight from Houston to Oakland. I had started chatting with the woman sitting next to me, and was telling her why it was that I was making the trip to Berkeley. She looked at me in amazement, telling me that she loved Proust, and that he had, as the saying goes, changed her life. It turned out that she hadn’t actually read In Search of Lost Time (not enough, um… time), but she had read, re-read and given out to friends countless copies of Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life.

It turns out that the woman is a winemaker, and through de Botton, she had learned about Proust’s concept of sense-memory. This idea, of memories being “unlocked” through the senses, is something she now tries to bring into her winemaking: Good wine, she feels, should invoke sense-memory, and bring to the drinker a sense of the past. Proust, via Alain de Botton, had taught her to see that. I was, to say the least impressed: Despite having not actually read Proust herself, she was still able to appreciate at least a small part of his work, and use it in her own. Proust had, indeed, changed her life.

At Berkeley, Eric’s talk was SRO. Students. Older people. Couples of all sexual persuasions. A mother who had flown in from the east coast and her college-aged son. Alice Waters Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Booker Award winning author Michael Ondaatje. Even two of the readers from my online group were in attendance, wanting to meet me, and, because of my enthusiasm for Paintings in Proust, wanting to hear what Eric would have to say. People were sitting in chairs, sitting in the aisles, standing in the back of the hall and beyond, all brought together by a love of Marcel Proust. For anyone who loves Proust, the visual arts, and literature, it was a sight to behold.

And in his talk, Eric didn’t disappoint. Skillfully weaving together visual examples of the work that inspired Proust (everybody from Giotto to Vermeer to Whistler), excerpts from Proust’s work read by Jane Mickelson, as well as his own thoughts and insights, Karpeles demonstrated exactly how it was that the visual arts influenced Proust, and how it was that he then translated his visual experiences into words. It was, as the woman seated next to me exclaimed when it was over, “an illuminating and memorable talk.”

After a musical interlude of the passages that inspired Proust’s fictional composer Vinteuil’s sonata, beautifully performed by April Paik on violin and Heather Pinkham on piano, it was on to Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters had put together a Proustian-inspired menu that was a fitting climax for the evening:

Asperges et sauce gribiche: green asparagus salad with gribiche sauce

Raie au beurre noir: Eastern skate in black butter

Gigot dagneau avec sauce béarnaise et petits pois à la française: grilled Cattail Creek Ranch leg of lamb with béarnaise sauce, green peas, new onions, and escarole

Tarte feuilleté aux pommes: apple puff pastry tart

Of course, what Proust dinner would be complete without an additional two courses: an amuse bouche of boeuf en gelee, the cold spiced beef in aspic with carrots that, in Within a Budding Grove, Francoise prepared for the diplomat m. de Norpois, inspiring him to tell Marcel’s mother, “You have a first-rate cook, Madame.” And naturally, the meal ended with fresh warm madeleines, the little scallop-shell shaped cake whose taste and aroma, after being dipped in a warm tisane, awaken Marcel’s memories of his childhood.

As we sat at our tables, strangers becoming friends, drinking our wine, eating our food, and talking about Proust, literature, our lives, and the ways that reading Proust had changed the way we look at things, think about things, even feel about things, it struck me these are the kind of people who love Proust. Not necessarily Francophiles, although loving France doesn’t hurt. Not necessarily wanna-be literary snobs, although wanting to read the best that literature has to offer doesn’t hurt either.

What seemed to link every Proust-lover in the room was a love of life, an openness to life, and the sense that reading and loving Proust can indeed, as Alain de Botton and my new friend the winemaker avowed, change your life. Which means that, through The Cork Lined Room, as I help guide others in their reading of In Search of Lost Time, I am playing a small role in
their lives. Which is, of course, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours a night.

READ: The Cork-lined Room

VISIT: Eric Karpeles’ Web site for more information about his books.

DISCUSS: With which author would you like to dine?

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.