Madeleine biscuits dipped in lime blossom tea

I have read the first chapter of Proust’s door stop of a book about four times, and the rest of the book never.  Proust’s book is usually known as Remembrance of Things Past although In Search of Lost Time is apparently a better translation (even better if you take lost to also imply wasted).  In most cases I would prefer the title that I was first familiar with, and would resent the later “more correct” imposter, but in this case I find the correct title suits even the first chapter of the book so much better than the pretty, nostalgia of the other that I can accept it happily.  In Search of Lost Time is somehow a much sadder title. 

I love the first chapter as a whole, and it ends with Proust’s most famous scene.  He has a madeleine biscuit dipped in tea as an adult and that specific taste stirs such an unusual feeling in him that he seeks to understand the origin of the feeling.

And suddenly the memory appeared.  That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, when I went to say good morning to to her in her bedroom, my Aunt Leonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom.

Proust goes on to reflect on the power of certain senses to recreate the past in our minds.

When nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.

Whenever we get a run of sunny autumnal days in Wellington my mind goes back to Japan.  In Osaka the autumn and winter was cold but dry, and the weather would seem to hold forever; a series of days like hard blue beads on a long white string. 

I mentioned before that I had more money to spend while I was in Japan, and one of my favourite occupations in the weekend was to go to the record store and buy CDs.  Tower Records in America Mura was three floors.  When I first walked in sometime in 1998 I couldn’t believe it.  Three floors of CDs!  People from other countries that I worked with did not seem impressed, but in Wellington at that time the largest CD store was probably half the size of one of the floors at Tower.

Once I had being buying CDs for awhile from the pop and rock floor I began to explore further afield, and went up the third floor where their were whole aisles devoted to world music, and reggae and funk (and ska, and bluegrass, and whatever you could imagine).  One day, almost at random, I bought a compilation CD called Africa Funk.  It is a CD that started an obsession for me.  While I searched out further recordings by many of the people on that CD there was one musician on it that I began to crave.  I mentioned him one day to a British guy I worked with called Gavin.  He smiled, “ah yeah, Fela.  When I used to DJ you could slip a Fela track on late at night and the dance floor would fill up again.”  He lent me a CD called The Black President.  I simply could not believe that such music existed. 

I have written about Fela Kuti before.  He is in this post for example.  For me he is the greatest popular musician of all time.  Of course he wasn’t popular anywhere but Nigeria for quite a while, but in Nigeria he was a hit machine.  Here is Fela live.  Organic, endless, a driving funk on top of which there is shimmy and sweat.  Those horns, my god, so wild, calling, calling, calling you, insistently into the endless night.

In my last year in Japan I would leave the office with a friend of mine at lunch time and we would go and get lunch at a cafe.  This guy was an artist who had somehow ended up as a man in gray suit in a office in Japan.  For a long time I think I assumed he was not a very good artist, but this turned out not to be true.  Many years later, on a return visit to Japan in 2008, we caught up with him at his house which was crowded with his work and it was very good.  Huge canvases of colour, impressionistic scenes of Osaka.  This friend was also a fan of Fela, but an even bigger fan of Coltrane, and I bought a few CDs as a result.

Even though American jazz is a lot more contained than the wildness of 2am in Lagos, I still find Coltrane’s style has that edge to it.  I think that on tracks like this one it is the drumming, the loose, open snare and cymbal sound, and the jabbing, discordant piano chords behind Coltrane’s quite clipped lines that give it this edge for me, and of course the way the melody slowly comes undone in his hands.

Whenever I hear Coltrane I think of my friend in Japan.  He was a man with two clearly separated parts of his personality.  Most of the time I saw him he was a man sitting unhappily at a desk answering telephones and prodding at the keys of his computer.  Every now and then though we would go out for all night karaoke and bar hopping and he would be a changed man.  Actually pretty wild.  He spent an evening riding a child’s  tricycle around a bar careening off walls and shouting enthusiastically to other patrons who looked distinctly ill at ease with this drunken tricycle hoon bothering their ankles.  At karaoke there was always a point where he would snatch the microphone off you mid-song and start doing an impression of a death metal vocalist (which I have once heard accurately described as the sound of someone vomiting into a bucket).  It was hard to equate this man with the fellow at the desk on Monday morning.

Or the artist in his crowded, shadowy Japanese house jammed with huge unframed canvases we visited a last time in 2008.

When we left him after lunch and a bottle of wine for what was probably the last time, we came out onto the narrow street into the bright sun, and traffic noise, and took photos.  He stood with his wife and raised a hand to say goodbye, his wide thin mouth slightly curled in a smile, and then Cathy and I turned and walked back to the subway station.  I felt heavy and tired and somewhat grim.  Somewhat like I would have liked to cry.

Here’s to you, friend.  A little music for the endless night.

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2 thoughts on “Madeleine biscuits dipped in lime blossom tea

  1. Proust is pretty damn awesome… And yeah, In Search of Lost Time is the more accurately evocative title…

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