Madeleines – a Proustian experience


In Marcel Proust’s monumental study of voluntary and involuntary memory, In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator, now an adult, describes how the taste of a madeleine cake brings flooding back to him the days of his youth in Combray where he grew up.

So what better for a dreary Bank holiday Monday monsoon than a fine cup of tea with madeleines to dip, if you so desire, associated hopefully with the memory of an August Bank holiday in days gone by when the sun shone.

Here is the recipe I use, and it never fails. And if you want to enjoy the Proustian experience, see the extract from the novel below:

For 12 madeleines – Preparation time 20 min.

75g melted butter
75g sugar
75g wheat flour
1 large egg
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp rose / orange blossom water (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 200 C.
Mix together the egg with the sugar, then add the rose / orange blossom water.
Add the flour and the baking powder and stir well.
Add the melted butter. Stir well.
Pour some mixture in the madeleine mould. Make sure you don’t fill it to the top.
Bake for exactly 10 min.
Keep an eye on the madeleines so they don’t burn.

When done, take the madeleines out and leave to cool a little before you unmould them.

From Marcel Proust: In Remembrance of Things Past

Marcel Proust

Many years had past during which nothing of Combray, except what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one winter’s day, as I arrived home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, something I didn’t normally drink. At first I refused, but then, for no particular reason, I changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they’ve been moulded in a fluted scallop shell. And so, tired after a tedious day with the prospect of a depressing day to follow, I mechanically 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, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my entire body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no hint of what had caused it. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Where had it come from, this overpowering joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those flavours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Where had it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp and define it?

. . .And suddenly the memory came to me. It was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I didn’t go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie would give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things since, without tasting them, on the trays in patisserie windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place alongside others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, devout folds, were either obliterated or had been dormant so long that they had lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a remote past nothing survives, after the people are dead, after things have been destroyed and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain a long time, like souls, ready to be recalled, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of memory.

Translation adapted by John Lyons

This road. . .

This blog is primarily dedicated to the writing and the translation of poetry, although during the so-called ‘silly season’ of the summer, I have strayed and wished to experiment with other types of writing, not excluding some stretches of straightforward nonsense which I have categorised as drivel. Some of this drivel, the story of Jonah and Anna-Belle, for example, has served its purpose as a sort of catharsis.

Furthermore, (and perhaps there is no need to state the obvious) I am no art critic, and it may have seemed a little presumptuous on my part to offer my views on a handful of paintings. Nevertheless, I have dared to write about those paintings that did catch my eye during visits to London galleries, in the knowledge that although I might be completely misguided in my interpretations, at least I have expressed my belief in the fundamental value of art. It has been a valuable exercise for me at least.

Writing is central to my life, and it is the activity most capable of lifting my spirits if I ever feel dejected. The moment I begin to write, the world around me disappears and I remain totally focused on the lines in front of me. That does not mean to say that whatever I write is necessarily of any value to anyone other than myself. The lines below were written this evening.  

This road

This road takes me back
            into myself
back into my country
          into my intimate landscape
along paths where wheat and barley grew
          where oak was planted
where elm and chestnut
          offered me shade
and where love was once possible

This road takes me
          past a home I once occupied
beside ditches and warrens
          and streams that meandered
carelessly into the future
          a home where I was content
and where one road
          led naturally to another
to where a friend once lived
          or to where I first kissed a girl
her body pressed tightly
          against mine
so that I felt the purity
          of the energy
that coursed through her veins
          that made her skin glow
and I savoured the tenderness of her lips
          as I looked into her eyes
on a day that I wished
          would never end

In a sense it never did

This road took me to Paris
          to Madrid and later
to destinies far beyond
          to climates I never imagined
and to challenges I never knew
          that I would face
But this road remained
          always a path
that led back
          to the home I loved
and to those I loved
          with all my heart

John Lyons

Edward Middleditch – Crowd, Earls Court (1953)

The English artist, Edward Middleditch (1923–1987), was a painter, draughtsman and printmaker and one-time Keeper of the Royal Academy. Despite initially being a conscientious objector at the outbreak of World War II, he did eventually see active service in France and Germany with the Middlesex Regiment; he was wounded and also received the Military Cross

Crowd, Earls Court, 1953 (oil on board)

Middleditch took his motifs from the natural world: grasses, water, feathers, opening petals, reflections, and in particular he sought to capture the way observed patterns in water currents and light gradually shift.

This preoccupation can be seen marvellously in his canvas Crowd, Earls Court (oil on board, circa 1953). In this study, what captures the eye initially are the swirling patterns of light on the pavement in the foreground. The human subject, relegated to the second plane, is a tightly packed crowd that appears to be trying to flee from the canvas. Beyond the crowd, to the left, there is a burst of light that emanates from an unseen source behind the wall. The entire energy of the painting travels up from the pavement, up towards the crowd and beyond, as though the crowd is being swept along by the power of the light. The clothes worn by the figures in the crowd, although indistinct, suggest something Biblical, and one wonders whether the explosion of light that appears to be attracting them may not be a Messianic figure.

The subdued use of colour further enhances the power of the draughtsmanship in this composition that I found to be truly mesmerizing. I’m sure that once you have seen this richly suggestive painting for yourselves, at Tate Britain, Earls Court will never look quite the same.

A sad note from the editors

Count Dracula at his country estate

We regret to announce the immediate cessation of our agreement with the author of the Jonah and Anna-Belle saga. It would appear from everything that Dr Van Helsing has told us that our poor colleague’s recovery may at best take a lifetime, and at worst may never happen. 

In addition, recent figures have shown that the readership for the installments of this sorry saga has dwindled almost to nothing. It seems that the busy busy people of today’s digital Candy Crush age have no interest in the lives and loves of our eponymous heroes. Some will even go as far as to say “good riddance” when they read this news. So be it! Jonah and Anna-Belle are now doomed to go their separate ways for all eternity!

The pastiche of Bram Stoker’s language used in the portrayal of the Dutch Dr. Van Helsing, (originally summoned to Whitby by Jonathan Harker to protect Lucy and Mina from the attacks of Count Dracula), has fallen particularly flat. It may have been worth a try, and there is no dishonour in admitting that it failed miserably to capture our readers’ imagination. Bram Stoker’s ground-breaking Gothic novel is, however, still heartily recommended.


Dr Van Helsing’s bulletin on health of Jonah author

The distinguished Dutch psychiatrist, Dr Van Helsing, has kindly just sent us this bulletin on the health of our dear colleague, the author of the saga of Jonah and Anna-Belle, who has been returned to the secure NHS facility in Whitby, following a two-day absence, after absconding from those premises. Some readers may recall that he was found only last night in the vicinity of Bromley South railway station.

In the interests of forensic science we have refrained from sub-editing the good doctor’s English for fear that we might reduce the powerful impact of this woeful narrative:

Whitby secure NHS facility, Saturday 29 August 2015

window bars
Exterior view of window bars

So I go pay visit to the patient in his room, and he is pale and thin and his green eyes are drawn and he is sit on the corner of his bed closest to window. He don’t react when I enter his room and so I stand in silence and I observe his mannerism. First he count the fingers of the left hand “One, two, three, four, five.” He stare at the fingers and say: “Nothing changes.” Then he repeat the exercise with his right hand, like so: “One, two three, four, five.” And again he say “Nothing changes.” This procedure he repeat a number of times as if never going to stop.

And now I step forward and I ask him, “My dear boy, what never change?” Here he look at me with those deep sorrow filled eyes of his and he say: “Nothing. Nothing changes.” And he turn and look away out the window. “Who is Jonah?” I ask him. He answer without look me in the eye. “Jonah is a sailor.” “And Anna-Belle,” I ask. “Who is Anna-Belle?” He pause, he turn now to look me again in the eye and he say. “Why Anna-Belle is the girl of Jonah’s dreams, of course.” “Yes, yes, my dear boy. But do these people really exist? This Jonah and this Anna-Belle, are they not mere figleafs of your fertile, dare I say febrile imagination?” Now he look at me hard and enquiring, from head to toe he look at me, and then he say: “Of course they are real. I created them, and they are real and I hate to see either one of them suffer.”

I am truly amaze and baffle, I never see a case like. So dysfunctioning, so severe! He appear not to distinguish between reality and the stuffing and nonsense of fiction, so it is as though this Anna-Belle and this Jonah are living and breathing humane beings. Most astonishing for a man of his quite obvious sensitiveness and intellect. Most concerning.

So I say to him, thinking to go along with his delusion in order observe the path it lead, I say to him, “Tell me about this Jonah and this Madame Anna-Belle. Why you so worry about them, why you absconded from this place? What you hope to achieve?” Now he smile at me and open up, and relax spread wide upon his gentle features and he take deep breath and he talk: “Jonah and Anna-Belle were old friends from their childhood days. They grew up more or less side by side in two families that were very close. But life separated them and for years and years they never saw one another nor heard a word. Until one day they meet again and discover that neither of them is currently married. And Jonah sees that Anna-Belle is just as pretty and lively and feisty as ever she was in their youth and he feels the old spark reignite and he falls for her. They have this great common history, and as the days pass, the banter between them when they converse is electric and it is as though they were never apart, and it feels too that they should never have parted and that now they have rediscovered each other they should be together for ever and ever, and part no more. Nevertheless, there is a fly in this ointment, an imbalance, if you like: despite the deep deep feelings that Jonah professes to her, Anna-Belle does not fully reciprocate, and she insists on dating someone else and fails to respond to Jonah’s heartfelt pleas.”

Here this delicate over-sensitized soul pause to wipe a tear from his left eye, and I take advantage of the moment to jump in and I say to him, “But my dear boy. This is the stuffing of fairy stories, the stuffing of Hollywood. You surely cannot believe this ‘happily ever after’ finale crap, it is like the believing in the Santa Klaus or the Teeth Fairy, or the little leprechauns at the end of the Irish gardens.

Suddenly he grow tense, his fists clench. He lift his little green eyes and point them dagger-like right into mine and he say: “Dr Van Helsing. If you are not going to take me seriously, I will not say another word to you. Ever. EVER!”

At this point my face redden slightly and a cold sweat come upon me and I realise I push too hard: a mark has been stepped across and it better to press no further in my elucidations. And so I say to him in my best bedside, “Yes yes, now you should get some rest, my dear boy, and not overexert your mental facilities. We can continue our conversation in another time.” And so diploma-like I withdraw, but as I so do I perceive that his eyes have once again swung round to focus upon the window, and upon whatever else he see beneath the blue sky way beyond the bars. Such a sad sad situation! Where will it end?

Signed Dr Van Helsing, M.D.

Brian Patten – Armada

Dartford Library

All my life I have been a voracious reader and I will read anything anywhere, whether it’s words on a passing T-shirt, graffiti on buildings, anything: as soon as my eyes light on text, I’ll read it. As a youngster, one of the great joys of Christmas was the knowledge that I would receive five or six new books as presents, particularly from the parents of family friends. Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne was one of my favourites: I loved the descriptions of the tropics and the exotic names of the different fruits and vegetables, yams, breadfruit, papayas, and so forth. Published in 1857, it was a text that William Golding drew on quite heavily when writing The Lord of the Flies.

Naturally these Christmas books did not last forever: they were soon devoured and I would be off in search of more. So I have always been a big fan and a great user of the public library system in this country. I grew up visiting the libraries, particularly in Bexley Village, and I got to know all the librarians immediately, or should I say, they got to know me as I pestered them week after week for new books.

Brian Patten, Armada (1996)

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, while others were off sunning themselves in foreign climes and enjoying the local vintages, I found myself with time on my hands in the mediaeval town of Dartford. The sun was out and the beautiful displays of flowers in the park were in full bloom, so I sat there and topped up my tan for about thirty minutes. But being a busy busy busy sort of person, I couldn’t sit there all afternoon, so I decided to enter the pubic library which is adjacent to the park. I love to peruse the shelves in these libraries to see what sort of selection they have, whether any of my favourite authors are included or excluded. Dartford is, after all, a funny old town: there you can cross paths with a Chinese man with long straggly dreadlocks wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and take it completely in your stride.

Anyway, into the library I go and I run my eyes across several shelves until I come across a book of poetry, Armada, by Brian Patten, not a poet I usually have had much time for in the past. Truth is, in the early days of the famed Liverpool poets, I went to hear him read in a small venue in Oxford, and he was so shy that after reading one poem he stood up and stumbled out (he’d clearly had one or two pints) leaving his audience mystified and disappointed. Poor man! I’m more sympathetic these days but back then, I thought it was the end. Still, always prepared to give him another chance, I take the slim volume to a desk and sit down and start to read the poems. Five minutes into the process, a man comes up to me and leans on the desk so I get the full benefit of his 40 per cent breath (this is 3.30 in the afternoon). He tells me he’s a local historian and is going to give a lecture on the history of the area on the following afternoon, would I like to go. There was, of course, only one answer to that.

Back to the poetry. Not a fan of the jokey Liverpool stuff, I am pleasantly surprised by what I am reading and I plough on and I’m genuinely moved by the unsentimental nostalgia that Patten evokes for the vanished neighbourhood where he grew up. With my loyal readers in mind, I jotted down a couple of quotations from the text to give a taste, but I would highly recommend the book to anyone who spots it in their local library.

By the time I got to where I had no intention of going
Half a lifetime had been passed.
I’d sleepwalked so long. While I dozed
Houses outside which gas-lamps had spluttered
were pulled down and replaced,
And my background was wiped from the face of the earth.

from “Betrayal”


One by one the souls of these houses and their tenants
have been undone by the fingers of bankers.
Among the debris where the religion lady wept
now only a sprinkler weeps.

from “Neighbourhood Watch”

Stop Press – Jonah author found in Bromley

From our Editor-in-chief

Dr Van Helsing
An artist’s impression of Dr Van Helsing

We have just received news that the author of the saga of Jonah and Anna-Belle has been found safe and well in South-East London. At around 7 p.m. this evening, following a tip-off from a member of the public, Sgt. Quentin de Link of the Metropolitan Police discovered our author sleeping under a railway viaduct just outside Bromley South Station. He was hungry and thirsty and totally disoriented according to Sgt. de Link.

When we spoke to the sergeant a short while ago he made the following statement: I approached our man very cautiously though he seemed to me to be in a state of very deep sleep, perhaps dreaming in some Freudian way, I could not say. I shook him gently by the shoulder not wishing to alarm him. He sat up and rubbed his little green eyes and just stared at me. When I asked him what he was doing in Bromley he replied, and I wrote it down in my notebook lest I forget it: “Who is Bromley?” 

Tonight we have also been in touch with Dr Van Helsing, the eminent Dutch psychiatrist who has been treating our author at a secure NHS facility in Whitby. Dr Van Helsing assures us that the patient will be returned to Whitby first thing tomorrow and that treatment will resume immediately and in the words of the good doctor “with a vengeance”.

We promise to keep our readers informed with up-to-the-minute bulletins.

More to follow tomorrow.

P.S. Readers new to this roman-fleuve will have to follow the “Jonah Anna-Belle” thread in order to know what on earth is going on!