A tea tray of Madeleines

In which I discover a wonderful French bakery selling Proustian madeleines, and rediscover the importance of cakes as a way to release the creative subconscious. 

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A glorious Sunday morning, blue-skied and cloudless. I’m reminded of my week in rural France, and ponder again how climate seems to be destiny. How different would my writing be, I wonder, if I lived in a climate that was reliably warm and sunny for eight months of the year? Would it be easier or more difficult to write about dark and depressing themes when the sun was continually shining?

Brunch with Louise, who has laryngitis, which makes for a fun if one-sided conversation. Part of me secretly wishes all my brunch partners had laryngitis – it makes it so much easier to speak without interruption. The cafe, which has become a regular for our Sunday brunches, has great huevos rancheros, a comfortable, 1950s lounge-type feel, and a tiny but formidable manageress in death-defyingly tight skinny jeans. The last time we were here, one of the chefs moved back the table where we are sitting today, pried open a metal key in the floorboards and opened two trap doors, revealing a staircase leading down to the cellar. It felt wonderfully clandestine, like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo, with smuggler’s gold or heretical priests hidden beneath the floor boards. Today’s service is somewhat erratic, but delivered with such sincerity and goodwill by a series of sweet-faced young men that we forgive them everything and leave them a generous tip.

Then it’s off to the gym, which is filled with weightlifters, despite the sunny day. Our friendly neighbourhood porn star is there, solemnly working out on the chest press machine with his boyfriend. He’s a giant of a man – 6 foot 6 and with massive, steroid-inflated muscles – and towers over the gym floor like a sentry. His Japanese yakuza tattoos appear to be growing from when I last saw him. The koi carp and chrysanthemum patterns, which cover the full length of his veiny arms, are now spreading down his legs like an extremely photogenic virus. His physique is impressive, in a strongman at the circus way, but apart from the immediate appeal of size, it all seems too much. As Ruby Wax once said of Pamela Anderson’s breast implants, “It’s like Thanksgiving every day of the week.” I smile at him as I pass him in the changing rooms. He nods gravely in response. He has watery grey-blue eyes that seem devoid of any expression.

I’m dining with Patrick in suburbia tonight, and have offered to bring dessert. Patrick diplomatically suggests that I buy something rather than make it myself – an inspired call, as I’m running out of time this afternoon. I walk to the French cafe at the top of the park, where a beautiful French waiter with curlicued forearm tattoos (today’s theme, it seems) sells me two beautiful little cakes with a raspberry and pistachio topping.

There’s a tea tray of madeleines on the counter, still warm from the oven. Apart from the scalloping around the edges, they are, as custom dictates, undecorated – the French equivalent of a gingernut biscuit to be dunked into a cup of milky tea. They are shockingly plain and austere, especially when sat next to the Rococo magnificence of my little cakes. It seems extraordinary that such an unremarkable teardrop of sponge cake could have inspired one of the most famous childhood memories in world literature – an act of degustory rapture that “made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence… I had ceased to feel I was mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

I peer at them more closely. Proust describes his famous madeleine as “fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating“. There’s certainly something appealing about the shell-like curve of their shape, folding from the pinched edges to the fullness of their middles. I can’t find much more in the way of sensuality – unless perhaps I put at least three in my mouth at once. Proust’s hyper-sensitivity to this kind of stimulation seems charmingly old-world, harking from a more well-behaved age where piano legs were covered up to prevent men from fantasising about the curve of a woman’s ankle.

To the suburbs I head, with my little cakes and one of an endless collection of bottles of Sainsbury’s Prosecco left over from my birthday party. We have dinner in the garden, which is lovely, while Patrick’s neighbours discreetly trim the shrubbery in their back yards. The little cakes are a huge success. Patrick is so excited by the combination of pistachio and raspberry that he licks the remnants off the circular strip of plastic that held his cake in place. “I’m rather pleased you didn’t take my photo while I did that,” he says. I push my plastic strip towards him and excuse myself and go to the bathroom, leaving him to make yummy noises on his own.

After dinner, I read Patrick extracts from the comic short story I worked on last week in France. He laughs away good-naturedly, and describes it as “most promising”. As ever, it’s a galling experience reading one’s own work aloud. All I can hear are my over-long sentences, that trundle along awkwardly when read aloud, like backed-up freight train cars. It needs more work than I thought. Still, it’s nice to circle the wagons and share my work, after what’s been a solitary period of writing.

Patrick expresses interest in coming to the Book Club – especially if I promise to bring along madeleines. Cake really does make the world go round.

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Le Writing Life

In which I go to rural France for a week-long writer’s retreat, and join a Proustian book club in London.

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I’m almost at the end of a week-long writing retreat at Circle of Missé, a writers’ colony and cooking school run by my friends Wayne and Aaron from their farmhouse in Missé, a sleepy little village in the Loire Valley, an hour or so south of Tours. It’s my fourth time here, and to me it’s become a second home (though Échalote, their moody, over-indulged spaniel, might disagree) and a creative powerhouse where I happily churn out work.

The farmhouse is late 19th century, in the grounds of a ruined abbey, and redecorated by Aaron and Wayne in what I like to call French Country Ghetto-Fabulous. (There’s a feather boa hanging rakishly from the curtain rail in the living room that looks like an old Shirley Bassey cast-off). My room, decorated in shades of soft green, faces north and looks out over wheat fields. It’s a perfect writer’s room – I wake up to sunrise every morning, and then it’s cool and quiet during the hot afternoons. The lawn and vegetable gardens were looking lush and overgrown, and we had most of our meals outside under the arbor in the front garden.

The house is set up to be as sociable or as reclusive as you need to be – breakfast pastries and coffee are laid out in the morning, and lunch is served in an adorable wooden lidded box, so you can eat in your room if you wish. In the evenings, we come together for dinner, and we talk about the day’s work, what books we’re reading, and reference the outside world, even though it feels a long way away.

The food, prepared by Aaron and the wonderful Alison and their disciples from the cookery course, is delicious and in constant supply. Most of the ingredients are grown in the garden and locally sourced, and as we’re in the middle of the Loire, the wine flows freely. The combination of glorious food, great company and stimulating conversation puts me in mind of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, describing a wonderful meal she attended at Cambridge: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Perhaps she should have added, “one cannot write well if one has not dined well”.

For me, it’s the perfect atmosphere in which to write. As much as I love writing, I find it lonely work, and I get a contact high from seeing and talking to people and getting feedback on my work. A writing retreat (which, in Missé terms, is French for “a week’s holiday in a small luxury hotel”) is the perfect combination of separate togetherness – peace and quiet during the day, and company when you need it.

For a country boy, it’s lovely to be out in the fields again. The summer weather was mostly hot and sunny, with occasional storms and humidity (with some bitchin’ thunder and lightning displays) that felt very Gone With the Wind. I took a walk each morning and evening through the wheat fields, and found what became my “Sense and Sensibility” view. I loved the cleanness of the lines between earth and sky, and the striking simplicity of the colour palette: the yellow of the wheat fields, the cornflower blue of the sky and the deep browns of the earth.

This week, I worked on short stories for what I hope will be a collection I can tout to agents and publishers. I finished good first drafts of two new stories, and did substantial rewrites of two existing stories that I started last winter. It was great to stretch my imagination and work on two new projects, writing in a mostly uninterrupted stream of thought, and with sufficient time to do some more careful editing later in the week. As I’ve found on past retreats, an extended period of time in which to write helps build confidence. By the end of the week, I was taking risks – cutting flabby sections of text, experimenting with different endings – that you can only do after a sustained period of work.

I love it so much here that it begs begs the question as to why I don’t live in rural France with a boyfriend and a spaniel. Until that happy day comes, I’ve decided to work on building a network of writers and readers in London, to try and sustain the momentum of all my good work here this week.

By happy coincidence, my Facebook feed throws up an advert for a book club in London dedicated to reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I make contact with the organiser, Michael, who seems smart and funny. He’s also a writer, and a gay boy, and claims to have read In Search of Lost Time before – which seems appropriate if he’s going to be facilitating. The timing feels delicious – a project I’ve been wanting to start for years finally becomes more doable due to my reducing my hours, and then a group of like-minded hipsters manifests to discuss it with me. Things are looking up.

A Year of Proust

In which I embark on a grand project, to read and blog about Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in its entirety over the course of a year. 

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Today is my 39th birthday. What finer a moment to first dip into a volume of Proust?

In the spirit of wild over-optimism that often besets people on their birthdays, I’ve made (or, more accurately, exhumed) a few resolutions – mostly to do with reading more, writing more, exercising more, eating more healthily, and spending more time dating and less time trawling through internet chat rooms. Like new year’s resolutions, I’m unsure whether many or any of them will be kept – though as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, no doubt in between a round of martinis, “To travel hopefully is better to arrive”.

For many years, I’ve nurtured a plan to read and blog my way through Proust’s In Search of Lost Time over the course of a year. I first had the idea in 2007, shortly after I turned 32. I bought all six volumes of the new Penguin translation, and set up an earlier version of this blog to track my progress. Though I enjoyed the blogging, I never actually got around to reading Proust – I managed about ten or so pages of Volume 1 The Way By Swann’s before I, unlike the narrator, fell fast asleep.

After a few desultory weeks, I realised that writing a blog about why I wasn’t reading Proust was going to be difficult to sustain and of minimal interest to anyone else, and so abandoned the project. I returned the six volumes of Proust to my bookshelf, where they still glower at me occasionally, taunting me with the reminder of another unfinished project.

Life has changed considerably in the last seven years – I’ve fallen in and out of love, undergone psychoanalysis for six fulfilling years, being mugged on my front doorstep, and embarked, after much if-ing and but-ting, on a regular routine of creative writing. As I approach my fortieth year, the time feels right to finally tackle Proust.

I’m interested in what it would be like to read a very long novel about memory and the recovery of lost memories written in a pre-digital world, viewed through the prism of our own post-Internet age. Unlike Proust, our lives are continually recorded and mediated by technology, and documentary evidence of our past can be summoned instantly on a computer or mobile phone. Our concept of time has been sped up, perhaps irreparably, and monetarised. My life is a continual negotiation with time, as I work to fit myself within pre-ordained time deadlines – hours of employment, train timetables, billing due dates, and work requirements to account for every six minutes of my time. Given the shape and structure of my life, which feels typical of most people living in the developed world, what, if anything, would Proust’s lengthy and contemplative book about time and memory have to say to me? Would it be as the original English translation of Proust had it, a “remembrance of things past”? Or would it prove to be a guidebook for how to go “in search of lost time”, the time that feels ever more fleeting now that I am nearing middle age?

I’m also drawn to Proust because he remains the single biggest hole in my reading. I’ve done an English degree and read a thing or two, but the older I get and the more that I read, the more I realise that he’s one of the major pillars of Western literature. Writers I admire have been inspired by him and refer to him in ways I can’t understand, which prompts me to read him to find out what the fuss is about.

Elsewhere, my reading leads me back again and again to Proust, simply because he writes – with great wit and perception, apparently – about topics that I’m interested in. I have a fetish for Paris, especially in the days of the Belle Époque and the pre- and post-WWI period, when it became the capital of experimental art and culture – a world that Proust was immersed in and writes about extensively.

I’m also interested in how the past informs the present and how the repressed desires and neuroses of a writer can find creative outlet in literary fiction. Proust is one of a loose group of late-19th century/early 20th century gay writers – Oscar Wilde, E M Forster, Henry James, Andre Gide are others – who occupy an intriguing place in the history of gay consciousness. Each of them were, to a greater or lesser degree, sexually repressed, or at least required to be cautious. (Of the group, Wilde was the most daring and risk-averse in his sexuality, an attitude for which he was severely punished when he was imprisoned for homosexual offences).

This need to stay closeted, coupled with their writerly curiosity about their own identities and a wish to write about the truth of their lives, created an ornate kind of literary style that I like to call “Gay Baroque”. The writing is invariably elegant and carefully constructed, the narrative style ironic and detached, and the narration focuses on minute details of (and occasional transgressions of) social behaviours. As Colm Tóibín writes in his study Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar, writers of this period betray conflicting tendencies of concealment and display – perfectly mirroring the confused consciousness of closeted gay men who must signal their desires with a combination of caution and clarity.

Proust stands at the epicentre of this kind of writing. Sedgwick writes in The Epistemology of the Closet that despite the passage of time, In Search of Lost Time “has remained into the present the most vital centre of the energies of gay literary high culture, as well as of many manifestations of high literary modern culture in general.” It’s time for me to explore the inside of Proust’s closet door, and see what hidden treasures and insights he has for understanding gay sensibility.

As usual, I have no idea how I’m going to undertake the project, how successful I’ll be, or whether I’ll need to summon help. Such a large book may benefit from finding some kind of literary community with whom I can read and discuss it.  What’s clear to me now is that this year is the right time. 2014-15 will be My Year of Proust.

For those who like Tweeting, you can follow me at @myyearofproust.