In Search of Lost Childhood(s): Proust and French Collective Memory

In the third part of our series ‘The French Thought and the French’ our French Content Editor Sarah Jones takes a look at how Proust’s literature has shaped how the French view their individual and national pasts.

Marcel_Proust_1900-2 (1)

Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

102 years ago the first part of the colossal novel À la recherche du temps perdu was published, and the ubiquity of Marcel Proust was born. It is difficult for Francophones to avoid references to Proust – opinion pieces in high-brow publications are littered with them, and there’s no safer way to ensure social success than inserting a brief allusion to one of the volumes at a sophisticated Parisian soirée. But the Recherche is no ordinary novel – at over 1.2million words Proust’s creation is the Guinness World Record holder for the Longest Novel, making the likes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa or Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables look like something you could finish in a Sunday afternoon. And it’s far from an easy read – sentences last for pages, paragraphs gone on forever and chapters are used sporadically. The third volume, Le Coté de Guermantes, is a sizeable 600 pages, yet boils down to two scenes. How is it possible for the Francophone world to cope with a Leviathan-like text; what does it mean to be Francophone and to have (not) read the Recherche? The answer is simple: truncate and simplify, and make it relevant to modern life. In this way, Proust is the perfect foil for the French to express something that waves the flag of universalism, but is in fact quintessentially French.

The Madeleine

The first volume is by far and away the most-read part of the Recherche: Du côté de chez Swann contains all the major motifs of Proust (or at least all the ones your pretentious friends will quote) and ties it all off with a semi-coherent love-story at the end. The iconic image of the volume, and indeed the entire novel, is of the protagonist biting into a tea-soaked madeleine that recuperates his lost memories of childhood. Before biting into the madeleine, his childhood appears as an edifice that is only partially lit by what he knows he can remember.

In the search to get back the true experience of his past, the protagonist borrows from, but adapts, Celtic animistic beliefs: that the souls of lost loved ones are trapped within other creatures or objects, and are reanimated when we pass by them and rightly recognise them as the beloved souls. However the protagonist declares that ‘[I]l est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui [le thé], mais en moi… Je pose la tasse et me tourne vers mon esprit’, that ‘[I]t is clear that the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me… I put down the cup and turn towards my mind’ (see Carrie’s piece on the difficulty of translating Proust and this scene in particular).[1] The statement that is being made here is that past experience is not originally located within the tea, the madeleine, or the combination of both; but is always stored somewhere within the protagonist. The sensation of tasting the tea-soaked madeleine re-awakens the memory of childhood; childhood is perpetually yet covertly located with the forgetting subject, and only needs re-awakening with the right mixture of good fortune (hasard) and sensory stimuli.


Collective Memories and Imagined Communities

Yet the difference between the protagonist ‘says’ and what Proust’s philosophy may have been is an embittered struggle amongst Prosutian scholars. But what is important to note is that the description of the protagonist’s idiosyncratic recuperation of his lost past serves as the template for how past experience is thought of in the Francophone world. Roland Barthes once lamented that there was ‘rien de proustien dans la photo’,[2] ‘nothing Proustian in photography’ as the medium failed to tangibly reawaken ourselves to the lost memories located within us. Although it is difficult to say if the intention of Proust was to posit a universal theory of memory, the history of the madeleine scene shows us how it has been absorbed and perpetuated by high-brow French culture as the founding myth of French childhood.

Benedict Anderson’s theory of the nation as an imagined community explains how a piece of fiction can embed itself into the mythic past. Firstly, Anderson asserts that the nation itself is a form of ideology: as an imagined political community its members will never meet, yet all have an image of their communion. Secondly, this sense of community is built on the foundational belief in ideas of a shared past and future: both of which are predicated on culture.[3] Proust’s theory of the recapturing of childhood closely resembles the nation’s attempts to recapture an idealised, nostalgic vision of its own past. This ideological jump is facilitated by the unusual narrating voice of the Rercherche: by slipping from the personal ‘je’, ‘I’ of narration that describes idiosyncratic experiences into a depersonalised, philosophising and seemingly authoritative voice that reveals Truth to the reader. In the case of the madeleine this has meant that, in the novel, the scene may relate only to the life of the protagonist; yet in theory and popular culture its ramifications are claimed to be much broader. Proust’s theory of re-finding lost childhood is thus seen as a blueprint for all individuals as well as for the nation, the societal unit to which they belong.

(French) Childhood

To prove that Proust’s vision of childhood is relevant to modern France, we must first look at what constitutes French childhood. First and foremost this is importantly a question of generation: my childhood of the early noughties contained very different technological experiences than did that of my grandparents. In spite of the differences in details, however, the air of nostalgia remains the same. The past was simpler, more wholesome than today. This notion is often accompanied with motifs that somehow transcend technological change. Today’s food is fast and processed, but in my childhood I baked at home (albeit with an electric whisk my grandmother wouldn’t have recognised during her own childhood). The same goes for madeleines: in the protagonist’s childhood they would have been faites à la maison (either the actual home, or in a boulangerie), but certainly not from a Bonne Maman packet.[4] Either way, however, madeleines are still important food stuffs in France, and the company name ‘Bonne Maman’ makes explicit reference to the nostalgic experience that consuming certain foods is supposed to be. Indeed madeleines are one part of the jigsaw of French childhood: they hold a privileged place on the plate in the family kitchen, in the house of the ancestral village far from Paris.

But here is the crucial slippage between Proust and common versions of Proust: Proust talks about memory and experience, but the commercialised version is closer to nostalgia. Nonetheless the dividing line is fine and easily crossed. ‘Memory’ bespeaks of something that it posits as true; ‘nostalgia’ admits to its constant wearing of rose-tinted glasses. This is the case with the madeleine scene. No one in their right-thinking mind would protest that the childhood evoked by the protagonist would resemble that of most people alive today: yet it is important that the tangible signifiers, such as the madeleine, are kept hold of. It is not just that the Proustian era profoundly shaped how we view Europe today; but it is also that life, and in this case memory, mimics art. Proust is a useful tool for the French to conceive of their own experiences of memory, in addition to the memories of the nation.

To conclude, the experience of the individual (my madeleine, my memories) must be related to the experience of the imagined community. The very concept that the French madeleine is symbolic of all childhood is fundamentally misplaced. Firstly the madeleine speaks only to a French background (and in this respect a middle-class landscape devoid of regional markers) – after all, it was a madeleine and not a scone, a Welsh Cake or an oatcake. Secondly, and much more importantly, the madeleine does not relate to cultures outside the tradition of la France profonde  (‘Deep France’). Proust’s madeleine is heralded as being iconic of how we can access our past, whether as individuals or as nations, yet we must stop and question who is this ‘we’ and what past are we accessing? Inevitably this ‘we’ does not represent the other cultures, communities and beliefs that make up much of France’s population today (and indeed were also prevalent in the early twentieth-century, although are erased from the study of the period’s literature). The conflict over the significance of Proust’s madeleine goes along the same lines as French Classicism’s privileging of French over other languages: the French way best expresses what is universal to all. But this is not genuine universalism; it is a form of cultural imperialism that has France at its heart. The Recherche may be beautiful, poignant or even life-changing, but it is worth remembering the context from which it sprung, in addition to the context into which it leaps.


madeleine 2

[1] Marcel Proust, Du côte de chez Swann (Gallimard, 1988) pp.45-8

[2] Roland Barthes, La chambre claire: Note sur la photogrpahie (Gallimard, 1980)

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Commnities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso books, 2006) pp.5-7

[4] See ‘The Moomins on the Riveria’


If you’re interested in contributing to our series ‘French Thought and the French’, contact Sarah at


Photo credit:, Kate Foster

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