It is asserted by many connoisseurs that the popularity and comfort of any café can reliably be perceived as standing in inverse relation to each other. So it was that, on one cold March afternoon, I found myself on the Avenue des Peupliers in a small family-run salon de thé whose owners I considered to be amongst the most refined in Paris in providing a traditional yet relaxing environment in which to imbibe the finest tea and partake of the most exquisite cakes to be found in the capital.
On this occasion, I had walked to the salon from the Grand Club de Rue Voltaire, where I had not one hour before completed a closely-contested squash match with Monsieur Charles Gommendy, a match which had, regrettably, ended with my defeat by three games to two. After a much-needed shower, during which time both I and my opponent successfully avoided commenting on each other’s competitive qualities, and on several disputed points which had punctuated the contest, I had politely declined his invitation to take liquid refreshment with him in the club bar and, citing a non-existent appointment, shouldered my squash bag and begged his leave.
Now, here in the comfortable environment of the salon, I recalled that, as I had passed by the open door to the Club bar, my nostrils had been suddenly assailed by an odour of stale beer much of it, I assumed, emanating from the facility’s carpet whither it had been conveyed via a series of spillages over an extended period of time stretching back to the 1970s when the Club had been founded. Such had been the olfactory impact of the carpet’s bouquet that I had at once determined to make for the Avenue des Peupliers in search, first, of more sophisticated refreshment and, second, of sanctuary from the sensory barbarism endemic, both to my current locale and to the immediate vicinity of the charmless building in which the Club was housed.
Leaving the confines of the club, I had proceeded towards Montmartre passing a number of cafés with whose interiors and wares I was, much to my regret, sadly familiar. Despite a feeling of fatigue brought on by my exertions on the squash court, I had found my pace quickening as I remembered the sense of despair I routinely felt during my reluctant visits to these places of researched mediocrity to confer with professional colleagues on matters unsuited to an office environment. I had reflected, with grudging admiration, that from their headquarters in whatever characterless North American cities currently harboured them, their owners had succeeded in finding the precise combination of furnishings – brown sofas, blonde wood and red walls – which offered neither style nor comfort. Moreover, each venue’s ensemble presented the appearance of having been delivered, flat-packed, in a single container, from a culture which cared nothing of the one to which it was supplying its wares. Tea, if it was offered at all in any of these dismal establishments, I had reflected, was invariably presented to the customer contained in a perforated, plastic bag immersed in scalding water, itself contained in a mug or cardboard beaker displaying the name of the corporate entity culpable for the existence of the emporium. The bag was typically attached to a piece of string, the other end of which was fixed to a small piece of cardboard bearing the name of the blend. To the best of my recollection, the skills available to those functionaries responsible for preparing the beverages offered to me were, on no occasion, sufficient to prevent the piece of cardboard and the entire length of the string from joining the tea bag in its occupancy of the scalding water. All that remained was for the customer, should he or she choose to do so, to add milk (contained in a battered communal flask with a screw-top lid) and to stir the concoction with a wooden stick. The removal of the tea bag from the scalding water was, in my limited experience, both logistically challenging and potentially hazardous, there being little choice but to allow it to remain in situ and further contribute to whatever flavour might be discerned as emerging from the slowly-cooling preparation.
Shortly afterwards, as I had neared the Avenue de Peupliers, I remember lamenting the fact that my age now obliged me to take notice of every ache and pain appearing in my body and not only to afford them my attention, but to seriously consider treating them with a modicum of care and rest. As I did so, I suddenly realised, with a certain degree of resentment, that my most recent squash opponent, the aforementioned Monsieur Gommendy was unlikely to be troubled with such concerns being, in my estimation, a mere youth of some sixteen or so summers.
Thus it was that, pushing open the heavy, oak-panelled door to the Café Angelina, I had been momentarily reminded of my Aunt Léonie’s parlour at Combray with its elegant furnishings, fine art and finely-woven carpet. I remembered, in my youth, visiting my aunt’s home for tea, sometimes with my parents, sometimes, when I was older, alone. Yet, stepping over the threshold of Monsieur and Madame.Le Corbusier’s salon, the memory had disappeared almost immediately with the ringing of the brass doorbell, attached by a spring to the back of the door where it was fixed with a steel shoe cap. Suddenly disconnected from my memories, I had removed my hat, sensing a momentary silence as the salon’s clientele paused in their conversation and turned to see who might be applying to join them in taking refreshment.
Yet, even as the sound of the doorbell was fading, it had been replaced by the chiming of a Louis XIV clock standing on the mantelpiece at the far end of the room. Instantly, my attention had been drawn to the clock with its Boulle case surmounted by a brass putto which I had often admired during my previous visits. I recalled that my eyes had sought out its handsome form complete with its glazed door, enamel plaques and ornate decorative mount, and that, even at a distance the length of a squash court, I could discern the movement of its pendulum, crafted, as I knew it to be, in the shape of Phoebus. By the time it had struck four, Madame Le Corbusier had appeared from the kitchen and joined me by the door, smiling in recognition as she walked the length of the salon towards me.
“Your usual table, Monsieur?” she had enquired, immediately upon reaching the spot where I was waiting in anticipation of my refreshment. I recall nodding in agreement, suddenly aware of the seemingly orchestrated rise in the room’s conversational ambience as the chime of the clock faded and the salon’s clientele resumed their social intercourse. In agreeing to Madame Le Corbusier’s invitation, I had immediately felt safe in the knowledge that my hostess would make every effort to ensure that my visit to her much-loved and highly-esteemed establishment would, yet again, surpass my expectations in terms both of service and comfort, let alone of the sheer joy of spending even a brief period of time in such an aesthetically pleasing and historic venue. Such indeed, I had mused, as my hostess relieved me of my overcoat, scarf and squash bag, was the feeling I had so often experienced when arriving at my aunt’s home in Combray, an imposing three-story dwelling constructed in the late 19th-century in the Provincial Neo-Renaissance English style. The splendour of that property, I had recalled as my hostess led me to my table by one of the salon’s lead-framed windows, was reflected in the status of my uncle, a senior diplomat and one-time ambassador to The Court of St.James in London. I further remembered the house being, on many occasions, the venue of glittering receptions, sumptuous banquets and colourful garden parties, attended not just by family members, but by neighbours, local dignitaries and national figures including, on one occasion, Monsieur Pierre Messmer, President of the Fifth Republic.
My hostess having left me to peruse the menu I had, at first, allowed my gaze to wander about the room, settling, in turn, on its occupants, on its many beautiful architectural and decorative features, and on the numerous objets d’art mounted on its walls and displayed in cabinets, on shelves and on plinths throughout the salon. My eyes having been drawn to the early 19th-century French cut-glass and ormolu chandelier and, for a few moments, to the people, and occasional motor vehicle, hurrying by outside my window, I had lowered my gaze only to find it drawn to the handsome face of a fashionably-attired young woman sitting two tables away from my own. I had been immediately in mind of someone from my past, someone who, based on the powerful feelings of admiration I was now experiencing, had held a not unimportant place in my affections. Searching my memory in an attempt to remember who might once have held such a place, I had become aware of the approach towards my table of Cécile, one of Madame Corbusier’s admirable waitresses who, I assumed, was desirous of ascertaining what I had chosen from the menu.
Being, as I was, a regular visitor, I had needed barely a moment to glance at the menu before swiftly making an order of tea and cake which, even at the instant of its making, had become lost to my memory, distracted, as the latter was, by my desire to identify the cause of my current feelings, which I had presumed to be hidden deep within its recesses. No sooner had Cécile written down my order on her notepad and left my table, than I had resumed my observation of my fellow customer whose presence, at such proximity, continued to affect me in a way I struggled to comprehend, my thoughts accompanied by feelings of confusion, anxiety and passion. Of whom, I had asked myself repeatedly, does she remind me? At what time in my life had I encountered someone who had aroused such emotions in me? Such had continued to be my questions to myself when, after what had seemed to be an eternity but which, in reality, was but a few minutes, Cécile had appeared bearing a silver tray upon which my order resided and towards which, in turn, my attention was thankfully diverted. I had nodded and smiled appreciatively as Cécile carefully transferred the contents of her tray to the surface of my table, arranging the individual items – silver teapot, hot water jug, tea strainer, milk jug and sugar bowl, china tea cup, saucer and plate, silver teaspoon, knife and cake fork – in a precise pattern, beautifully conceived to heighten the customer’s sense of aesthetic pleasure and ease of use. I had thanked my waitress who had then smiled and turned her attention to serving those other customers to whom she had been assigned.
Turning my own attention to the ritual in which I was about to participate, I had raised the lid of the teapot and, taking my teaspoon, stirred its contents, suddenly inhaling the intoxicating aroma of the infusion as it strengthened in front of me. After closing the lid and waiting for a few seconds, I had grasped the teapot by its silver handle, lifted the strainer from its base and simultaneously manoeuvred both towards a necessary rendezvous immediately above my teacup. I had lovingly filled the cup noting, with pleasure, the golden-brown hue of its contents before returning the teapot and strainer to their original positions on the surface of the table. Further manoeuvres had then been performed which had added first milk and then a half-teaspoon of sugar to the contents of my cup before stirring the final mixture and returning the teaspoon to its home on the saucer. Reverentially, I had then lifted the cup to my lips and taken a few sips of what revealed itself to be a delightful infusion, refined yet subtly robust with a subtle, lingering hint of sweetness. In a state of high anticipation, I had then gazed covetously at the plate of petite madeleines placed conveniently by Cécile to the left of my cup, admiring their shell-like forms and, even now, gauging their lightness, their consistency and their promise. Slowly and tenderly, as though caressing a lover, I lifted one of the confectioneries from the plate with my left hand, dipped it quickly yet gently into the contents of my cup, and raised it to my lips.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. 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. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which, on Sunday mornings at Combray, my Aunt Léonie used to 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. And all from my cup of tea.
Then, as the memory had slowly begun to fade, I had dipped what remained of the madeleine in my cup and raised it, once again, to my lips. Once more, a memory of Combray had come to me, this time of a summer’s afternoon when,at the age of sixteen, in the garden of my aunt’s house, I had been introduced to Juliette, her body flexing like an elite squash player as she bowed in a show of mock courtesy and handed me something which, gazing into her eyes, I had taken from her without knowing or caring what it was. Was she, then, the object of the memory I had been struggling to recall, the memory invoked by my feelings on seeing the stylish young woman sitting near me in the salon? I recalled the slight dizziness I had felt in her presence as I looked at the exquisite shape of her lips and the movement of her mouth as she spoke, too dazed or perhaps too distant to hear her words. Now, even as I reflected on the questions emerging from my own consciousness, I recalled how Juliette had turned and walked away to resume her duties as a waitress at my aunt’s garden party, leaving her young admirer holding, as though it was a love letter, a plate of petite madeleines. Again the memory had faded, the warmth and fragrance of the garden giving way to the hum of conversation and the tinkling of fine tableware.
Suddenly, I had realised that what I sought, what I struggled to recall, dwelt not in heavenly infusions or confectioneries but within myself. The white-hooded elixir and the soft shell-like ambrosia were my guides down to the underworld, and would assist me in shaking free the anchor that kept these elusive memories so firmly held in the depths of my consciousness. Closing my eyes, I had leant back in my chair and breathed deeply, sinking into a state of torpor, suddenly exhausted by the effort of searching for the source of feelings experienced long ago and of desires still lying dormant in the depths of my being.
When I awoke, I was lying in my bed in Combray, my mother gently shaking my shoulder to wake me. At the touch of her hand I looked up. ”I’m sorry, Monsieur, but would you mind moving to a smaller table?” I found myself staring into the eyes of a young waitress and realised that my squash opponent had left the coffee shop to which we had come after our match. My empty mug, complete with spent tea bag, sat on the low table in front of me together with the cellophane wrapper from a brownie. A group of young mothers with perambulators waited in the doorway looking expectantly towards me.
I stood, picked up my squash bag, and walked out onto the busy Parisian boulevard.
Thanks to Patrick McGuinness, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford for his Daily Telegraph article “Who’s Afraid of Marcel Proust?” which celebrates the publication, one hundred years ago (in 1913), of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume of Proust’s great novel “In Search of Lost Time.”
Thanks also to Mark Crick whose recipé for tiramisu (written in the style of Proust) was a major influence in writing the above story. You can find the recipe in Mark’s book “Kafka’s Soup.” I’ve used the structure of Mark’s recipé (he’s a chef) in this story.
The above story includes a short passage of text taken from “Swann’s Way” describing what is often referred to as the narrator’s famous “tea-and-cake epiphany” or “madeleine moment.”
Part comedy of manners (the book is often very funny), part quest (for love, for self, for identity), and part anatomy of desire and sexual awakening, “In Search of Lost Time” captures a world that is both universally recognisable and unique to its historical moment.