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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Tag Archives: Marcel Proust

The Cognac:  Cognac de Collection Jean GrosperrinFins Bois 1990

www.lagabare.com

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time: Vol. V, VI, and VII by Marcel Proust

As I head into the Proustian homestretch I think I’m in need of something special—a fine, aged cognac. French, fluent and gratifying.

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THE COGNAC

It’s a pool of bright amber in the glass, with a rich, pleasing nose, displaying citrus and floral notes, both subtle and classy. The palate is authoritative, tempered by a spicy, vanilla creaminess. Elegance with a maturing bite. (45.9% abv)

Cognac de Collection Jean Grosperrin is one of two brands marketed by La Gabare, one of the last family-owned cognac houses in France. La Gabare doesn’t actually make cognac. Rather, it buys quantities of the double-distilled spirit from the hundreds of winemakers in the Charente department of France (where the town of Cognac is located, and which holds the AOC designation for cognac). These are winemakers who over the years have skillfully distilled small amounts of cognac and often left them to mature for decades in their cellars. They are secret stores, backed by their own special stories, making up what Jean has called “the exceptional heritage that sleeps in the cellars of Charente.” Left unblended, they make for prize cognacs “that have their own distinctive personalities and which are made with family skills.” Skills which, sadly, have been lost in many modern estates.

Jean worked for many years as a cognac broker in the Charente department. The job allowed him access to the some of the region’s finest private stocks of maturing cognac. He decided to establish his own cognac house in 1992, with the philosophy of keeping the cognac he purchased intact, to allow it to mature further in their original barrels (or transfer it to “dames-jeannes” to halt maturation), to the time it was bottled, unblended, as vintage, single estate cognac. He felt “a true sense of urgency in the need to save just a few drops of this individual know-how, dating back 40 or 50 years to a time when the winegrower made all the decisions, without the knowledge and sophisticated techniques we have today.” It was in many ways a project to help preserve the cognac-making heritage of France.

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In 2004, with his health failing, Jean Grosperrin turned the business over to his son Guilhem. He has embraced his father’s artisanal philosophy, searching throughout the region for barrels of cognac bearing the elusive combination of “complexity and personality,” and with certifiable vintage. No easy task. Yet the Grosperrin stockpile of cognac amounts to the equivalent of over 80,000 bottles, some stock dating prior to 1940.

Our 1990 vintage comes from a small farm in Patreville, in the Fins Bois region of the  Charente department. It is from the 1990 wine harvest. Impressed by the quality of the cognac, the winegrower had set it aside. La Gabare purchased it in 2012 and prior to its bottling in 2016, it was further aged in Grosperrin’s cellars located on the banks of the Charente River in the community of Saintes.

For me, a fitting complement to Proust–inherent quality, nicely aged, with a distinct narrative.

THE BOOKS

Volume V:  THE PRISONER

The Prisoner has sometimes been translated as The Captive, but Albertine is more accurately Marcel’s prisoner. He has convinced her to come to Paris and live with him in the family apartment. His mother is conveniently away, but the long-standing family live-in servant Françoise is around, and none too pleased with the arrangement. Indeed it does seem odd that Albertine (with her guardian aunt turning a blind eye) should give herself over to Marcel’s erratic control. She is hardly let out of the place and when she does go off on her own it sets in motion Marcel’s raging jealousy, absolutely certain as he is that Albertine is having lesbian affairs.

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[from a 2011 film for French television by Nina Companéez, with Caroline Tillette as Albertine and Micha Lescot as Marcel]

His love for her does reach a fever pitch, but only when she’s away from him. Nor does Marcel actually seem capable of consummating his love for her. He seems most content observing her sleep. Marcel’s preoccupations make this the most bizarre segment of the entire book. I don’t think I am alone in thinking— for heaven’s sake, man, get yourself together and get on with your life.

It is a relief when the scene changes for an extended period and the narrator secrets himself away to the salon of Mme Verdurin, and we return to the social antics of Baron de Charlus. Morel, his on-again, off-again lover is there, impressing everyone gathered with his violin playing. But the Baron has irked the Verdurins by his control over the evening, and fireworks ensue. When Marcel finally returns home, a quarrel with Albertine erupts, spoiling the next two days, until finally Marcel wakes to find that his sometimes beloved has packed up and fled, leaving Marcel agonizing over what has gone wrong. Only Françoise is relieved that Albertine has finally seen the light. Well, Françoise and the reader.

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Volume VI:  THE FUGITIVE

Albertine is gone, but of course not forgotten. Marcel schemes to get her to return, but nothing works, not even an offer of 30,000 francs to her aunt if she can persuade Albertine to return to Paris. Nor does a hint to Albertine of a yacht and a Rolls-Royce. At his most frustrated, Marcel receives a telegram. Albertine has been in an accident. Thrown from her horse while riding, she struck a tree and was killed.

Marcel is swirling in grief. Yet he cannot help himself from searching deeper into Albertine’s life just passed. He discovers she has had numerous lesbian affairs. It adds a new dimension to his pain, although it is not long before he returns to his social circles. Who should he encounter but his old flame, Gilberte, the daughter of the now deceased Charles Swann. The young lady has come up in the world, her mother having remarried, to Baron de Forcheville this time, allowing her entry into the Guermantes clan. In addition she has inherited a fortune from a dead uncle, enough to make her one of the richest women in France.

Proust portraitIn the meantime, and on a refreshing note, Marcel and his mother finally make their much anticipated trip to Venice. Marcel is spellbound. The enchantment of the city is well-served by Prout’s prose. On the train back Marcel learns that Gilberte plans to marry Marcel’s old friend Robert Saint-Loup. Swann’s Way and Germinates Way have been united!

Lest the reader get too comfortable, Saint-Loup also turns out to be homosexual, or, as Proust delicately terms it, an invert. The object of his affection — Morel! The former lover of his uncle, the infamous, now declining Baron de Charlus.

Like Proust’s own world, it’s an all-consuming, passionate, jealousy-ridden, but ultimately minor, focus.

Volume VII:  FINDING TIME AGAIN

It is 1914 after all. Europe is at war. Young Frenchmen are being killed in their tens of thousands.

Yet, oddly, the book seems only marginally concerned. Marcel does lose his friend Saint-Loup to the fighting, but it is not something that preoccupies him for long. It seems secondary to the intricacies of relationships among the social elite. Marcel spends much of this time in a sanitarium, away from Paris, so his disconnect could be seen to be justified.

With the war over, Marcel returns to the city once again. The salons are still active, but the people have changed markedly. They are considerably older and closer to the inevitable. Baron de Charlus, especially, has not aged well. It leads to lengthy musings on death, a reflection of course of Proust’s concerns about his own demise. It makes for some of the most affecting passages in the book.

The narrator’s recollections of his past life, all the way back to the years in Combray with his mother, this ‘finding time again,’ is the catalyst he needs to begin, as a writer, to capture the life he has led, a life whose end he now knows is not far off. His world, as idle and and elitist as it has been at times, must be the stuff of his literary creation. Suddenly there is an urgency to get on with it. As he says, “It was high time.”

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These seven volumes (here published in six books) are proof of Proust’s determination. Years of lying in bed, writing doggedly through the night, constructing what many would argue is the foremost literary achievement of the 20th century.

In Search of Lost Time changed the face of fiction, making a sharp break from plot-driven narratives. It is all about the many facets of character, about introspection, about the role of memory in shaping the many aspects of our lives. Tedious at times, it nonetheless sustains our interest and admiration over its great length and through some of most intricate literary prose ever composed.

I have every belief Proust died a satisfied man.

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The Whisky:  EdduSilver Brocéliande

www.distillerie.fr

The Books:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III & IV by Marcel Proust

It’s month 2 of my 3-month Proustian quest to read his 7-volume mega-novel In Search of Lost Time. To lubricate the challenge I turn to a French whisky, distilled in Brittany, a part of France that Proust knew as a young beginning writer. Brittany inspires. I read and sip.

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THE WHISKY

It’s a cheery amber in the glass. Florals and vanilla oak on the nose. On the palate, engaging forest notes, lingering vanilla, all with a nutty, spicy bite. A pleasing cereal aftertaste that leaves you pondering what makes it different from anything you’ve tried before. (42% abv)

Maybe it’s the buckwheat! Eddu Silver Brocéliande is the only whisky in the world to be distilled entirely using buckwheat. Brittany’s own black buckwheat (blé noir in French, eddu in Breton).

The origins of Distillerie des Menhirs (named after the ancient standing stones common to the area) date back to 1921, when Francès Le Lay, the great-great grandmother of the present owners, began distilling and aging a hard cider brandy called lambig. That tradition passed down through the generations and in 1986 Guy Le Lay and his wife Marie Anne built the present distillery, initially for the production of cider, using only local ingredients, the distinctive Pommeau de Bretagne (with AOC designation since 1997).

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In 1998 they turned their attention to the distillation of whisky. But not just any whisky, rather one authentically Breton, using local buckwheat (at considerably more expense than barley). A separate building was constructed and a pot still acquired for whisky production alone. Their first buckwheat whisky, Eddu Silver, went on the market in 2002. Soon the three Le Lay sons were an integral part of the business.

Recently the even more idiosyncratic Eddu Silver Brocéliande came into production. Brocéliande is the fabled Paimpont forest of Brittany, where many of the Arthurian legends are said to have taken place, and where, if you looked hard enough, you might even find Merlin’s tomb. Distillerie des Menhirs sources oak from this magical, mythical domain and uses it to construct barrels for the secondary maturation of its Brocéliande whisky.

Buckwheat tenderized by The Lady of the Lake. Cheere! as medievals would say.

THE BOOKS

Volume III:  The Guermantes Way

I was not long into this book when I noticed an article on a news website detailing how a Canadian professor researching at the Centre National du Cinéma in Paris had uncovered what is believed to be the only known film footage of Marcel Proust. If it is indeed him, he is descending the steps of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris in 1904, following the high society marriage of Armand de Guiche and Elaine Greffulhe.

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Interesting that the church should be Madeleine, given how the madeleine, the French pastry, is forever associated with Proust. But more interesting is the fact that the Count and Countess Greffulhe, parents of the bride, were Proust’s inspiration for two central figures in this book, the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes.

The brief film clip is a further glimpse into how Proust, weaving solo down the steps past several richly garbed couples, was a part of this aristocratic milieu, but somewhat distinct from it. His pearl gray overcoat and bowler hat, favourite attire of Proust, is out of line with the black tuxedos and top hats of the other male guests.

At the beginning of Volume III the narrator moves into an apartment adjacent to the suites occupied by the Guermantes and is quickly enthralled by the prospect of becoming part of their social circle. Proust himself was constantly attracted to the salons of Parisian high society, and therefore it should be no surprise that they should occupy much of In Search of Lost Time. More than one hundred pages of The Guermantes Way is devoted to the personalities at play during a single visit to one such salon. A repertoire of diverse characters jostling for societal position make for engaging, but ultimately laughable scenes. Proust goes to great lengths, with his characteristically intricate sentences, to draw a sweeping group photograph of these characters. It does get tedious at times, as the Belle Époque itself must have been for the economic underclass which made up the majority of French citizens. The salon segments are at their most interesting when they touch on the famous real-life Dreyfus Affair, exposing the anti-Semitism that coursed through Parisian society at the time.

Volume III has its more universal and lasting moments, among them the death of Marcel’s much-loved grandmother, or when for a brief period the focus is on the clever Robert de Saint Loup and his army pals. But the class conscious Proust has mostly other preoccupations, so we need the thoroughly witty, thoroughly snobby Duchess, the painful Princess of Parma, and the grossly obnoxious Baron de Charlus, if the life of the salon is to come alive. They are all excellent reminders of why the French aristocracy of the day was on its last legs.

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Volume IV:  Sodom and Gomorrah

As the title suggests we’re in for forbidden sexual intrigue, much of it homosexual, albeit in language that reflects the guarded public discourse about the topic at the time of Proust.

The fourth volume of his masterwork opens with Charlus having his way with the much younger Jupien, something which the wide-eared narrator inadvertently overhears, confirming just what an insufferably fake the Baron is. It’s a storyline which is all the more intriguing when you know that Proust himself was gay, but went to great lengths to conceal it. His publisher, André Gide, thoroughly chided Proust for making his main character heterosexual. In fact, if you were to think of the narrator’s lovers as male, rather than female as they are portrayed, it would go a long way to understanding his behaviours. And a long way too in appreciating the frustrations Proust himself must have felt, plagued as he was by desires society would not permit him to exhibit. A friend of Oscar Wilde, Proust knew only too well the potential consequences of being open about his sexual direction.

Much of Volume IV is set back in the seaside resort of Balbec. The narrator’s love interest, Albertine, is not far away, as are the distasteful Verdurins, ensconced in a rented château and preoccupied with creating a rustic parallel to the salons of Paris. Pretension abounds, with the Baron de Charlus at the centre of much of it. The Baron has a new lover, the violinist Morel, but of course goes to great lengths to disguise the fact. The other relationships (and there are several of both sexual persuasions) are never anything but complicated. But, as we well know from the previous volumes, exploring the depths of human relationships is a strong suit of our man Proust.

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Now, for certain we understand the need for the cork-lined walls of the bedroom where Proust wrote and rewrote in his lined cahiers. He needed to be supremely focused if he were to translate his observations of the world he knew into this vastly perceptive, very long novel.

Three more volumes to go. Bring on another bottle of something French.

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The Calvados:  Lecompte – 12 years

www.calvados-lecompte.com

The Book:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I & II by Marcel Proust

There is nothing like a 7-volume / 3,000-page book to enlighten the dark days of winter. For this reading marathon I’ll need three months and three bottles of something wonderfully French. Since much of the first two volumes of Proust’s masterpiece is set in or near Normandy, the first pour will be a time-honoured calvados.

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THE CALVADOS

Nut brown in the glass, the contents release roasted hazelnut aromas infused with spice, notably cinnamon and nutmeg. Creamy and mouth-rich, it’s a caramelized apple, peppery compote showing a touch of fire. Complex and flavoursome. A delight.

No time lost here. All dozen years have worked together to bring this calvados to perfection. Lecompte certainly knows what it’s about.

Its history began in 1923 when Alexandre Lecompte, local trader in wine and spirits, decided to forgo his other holdings and focus on his store of well-aged calvados. Decades later, in 1980, Lecompte was purchased by Yves Pellerin, and is now one of the most acclaimed Maisons de Calvados in the Pays d’Auge, the region of Normandy which bears A.O.C. status for calvados.

3731933081Lecompte distillery, La Morinière, is located in the picturesque village of Notre-Dame de Courson, surrounded by apple orchards that produce some of the finest fruit in Normandy.  It uses double distillation in two traditional Charentais stills. Its eight cellars hold some 800 oak casks, all under the watchful eye of Richard Prével, a third-generation Cellar Master who has overseen operations at Lecompte for a quarter century.

The Lecompte line-up includes 5, 12, 18, and 25-year-olds, a couple of limited editions, and the ultra-premium Secret, a blend of over 100 individual batches, none any younger than 42 years, and with a few casks laid down at the time Lecompte was founded in 1923!

That’s just one year after the death of Marcel Proust.

THE BOOKS

Volume I: The Way by Swann’s (or Swann’s Way)

To understand In Search of Lost Time it helps to know something of the life of its author. From childhood to his death at age 51 Proust was plagued with asthma, and was seriously ill for much of his life, the last three years of which he spent confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and completing his monumental novel at night, propped up in bed, using his knees for a desk. (The bedroom has been recreated in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.)

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He was something of a misfit. He embraced writing as his sole employment, a situation made less daunting by the fact he lived at home into adulthood and when, in his early 30s, his parents died he received a substantial inheritance. It gave him lots of time to read and contemplate the artistic life.

In his youth he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers (the model for the fictional Combray) and his student days gave him access to the upper levels of French society. He became enamoured with the so-called “salons” of the rich, earning him the reputation of being a social-climbing elitist. He was homosexual, but denied it throughout his life. All material for his fiction, of course. It could never reflect the life of the ordinary Frenchman, but would allow him penetrating analysis of upper crust of society in fin-de-siècle France.

The reader is fifty pages into the book before coming upon the famous scene when the petite scallop-shaped cake, the madeleine, is dipped in lime blossom tea. It triggers a flood of memories of his childhood holidays in the home of his eccentric great-aunt Léonie. He escapes to time past, to reflection well beyond surface detail, to extended moments of deep introspection.

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The opening section of Volume One unfolds over a summer in Combray, ostensibly from the perspective of young Marcel, although the viewpoint often switches, as it does throughout the novel, to that of an older narrator. The boy takes near daily walks in the direction of property belonging to Charles Swann, a rich stockbroker and friend of the family, or in the direction of a summer residence of the Guermantes, a bizarre family who inhabit the pinnacle of French society. Paris is where they live most of the year and it is there the reader will meet them again.

The book turns to the story of how Swann became entangled with Odette de Crécy, the woman who will eventually become his wife. Here we see to what lengths Proust will go to create a picture of personal relationships and their implications for shaping the society in which the characters are immersed. Proust is the master of intricate, though readable sentences, some of which go on for a half page or more. The reader enters the labyrinth, never knowing what verbal contortions the author will take before nicely disentangling himself and coming to a full stop. As a reader, there is no notion of resisting; you take the ride and learn to appreciate the multiple diversions along the way.

The fruit of the Swann marriage, the red-headed Gilberte, who made a brief appearance in Combray, resurfaces in Paris, in the Jardin des Champs Élysées, pursued by the now teenaged Marcel. It will be one of his many infatuations that never seem to go anywhere. Then again, plot was generally secondary to Proust. His concern was the passage of time, and our attempts to hold to what is invariably lost. Remember the author Proust spent much of his life resting, often in bed. He himself wasn’t going anywhere. He had vast amounts of time to reflect on where his limited life had taken him.

Volume II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s masterwork, which the translator called “Remembrance of Things Past” (now much discredited as a title), remained the standard for several decades after it was published in the 1920s. It is considered a classic of English translation and is still widely read. But recently other translators have taken on the task, with results that have been praised by critics who feel the newer versions are closer to what Proust intended.

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I started with Moncrieff (updated by Terence Kilmartin), augmenting the experience with a recent graphic novel version of Volume I, and  “Paintings in Proust” by Eric Karpeles, a book which brings together the multitude of artwork referenced through the six volumes.

Then, partway through reading the second volume, I switched to the James Grieve version, part of a multi-translator edition first published in the UK in 2002. Though I occasionally found the word choice too current, I took to it immediately. To me the book breathed more easily.

“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” the title Grieve gave his Volume II  (a mindset away from Moncrieff’s awkward “Within a Budding Grove”), immediately sets the focus. Marcel is in love, especially with a troop of adolescent girls who wander about the beach at Balbec, in Normandy, where much of this segment of the book is set.

First though there is his further pursuit of the Swann daughter, Gilberte. The love is unrequited and eventually Marcel comes to his senses (or as much as he is capable) and sets her aside, turning instead to his friendship with her parents, who continue to prove to be an enigmatic pair.

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The scene changes to Balbec (based on the resort town of Cabourg, and above depicted in Nina Companeez’s 2011 television adaptation of the novel). In Balbec an older, though seemingly no wiser, Marcel (still under the wing of his grandmother) quickly turns to a new love interest, several in fact. The “gang,” as Grieve calls them, are an inducement for Marcel to schedule outings beyond the hotel that will give him the best chance of encountering the girls. The painter Elstir is something of a help in getting to know them. A newfound aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup, as much as Marcel admires him, proves a distraction. As does the reemergence of another acquaintance from Volume I, Albert Bloch. Bloch is Jewish and threads of anti-Semitism begin to take hold in the novel, another angle in the depiction of the French bourgeoisie at the time of Proust.

Marcel has settled on Albertine Simonet as his love for life. She has not settled on him. The narrative weaves in and out of the relationship, Proust using any incident that arises along the way as a route to an ever wider analysis of it, analysis that is at times so far-ranging that we can easily lose sight of where Proust is taking us.

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Of course he is taking us anywhere he wants, and that is sometimes the frustration, but more often the pleasure of the book. Incident evokes conjecture, which turns into scrutiny of character, and thus speculation on the direction the French society was headed.

Encasing it all is the masterly Proust prose. Two thousand pages of which remain. I’m eager to press on.

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