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Proust's Way

By Ellen SteeseTravel editor of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 1981



Illiers-Combray, France

They may be pardoned who, having read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," feel that the little town of Combray, with its mansions fringed with hawthorns, its alarmingly evocative madeleines, its asparagus and waterlilies, has something not quite real about it. So symbolic, so enchanted, is this little town where the narrator of Proust's masterpiece spends the May vacations of his childhood, that a real town of Combray -- with a population of so many thousands, several schools, a railway station, and a modest Gothic church of some architectural interest -- would not, somehow, be the same place at all.

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But there ism a real Combray, fairly easily reachable by half-hour train ride from the cathedral town of Chartres. And the reader who has pounded down the labyrinthine corridors of Proust's work -- even if he has simply read the first book, "Swann's Way," which focuses on Combray -- will find much here that is familiar ground.

Too, those whose interest in Proust has been piqued by the new translation by Terence Kilmartin, issued in April (by Random House), might find that a trip here provides just the impetus needed to actually polish off all 3,000-odd pages.

When Marcel Proust came here with his parents to visit his paternal aunt, Elisabeth Amiot (Tante Leonie), the town was called Illiers; the name was changed to Illiers-Combray in 1971 in honor of Proust's novel. Mrs. Amiot's house is now a museum and the headquarters of the Society of the Friends of Marcel Proust. It is open from 2 to 5 p.m. -- except Tuesdays, like any self-respecting French museum; here you can get directions to all the other points of interest.

The Amiot house is stucco in front, but years of dust have given its original off-white color a sort off-black look. You enter through a shallow central hall; light streams through the far end from a window looking onto the little garden. (To any Proustian, this will immediately suggest the spot where the maid "Francoise," of the spun-sugar coif and smile of anticipatory gratitude, waited for her yearly tip from the visiting Prousts.) To the left is brownish dining room, to the right, a pretty salon where pamphlets on the author can be purchased.

Behind is the kitchen, perhaps double the size of a walk-in closet, where Francoise tormented the unfortunate kitchen maid and created culinary delights. It's a sunny room with tiled walls covered with large, ripple-bottomed copper pans; one whole side looks out into the garden.

Another wing of the house contains old letters and photos of the town as it was in Proust's day: "You know, it doesn't look very different," a lady next to me commented.

Upstairs, only two rooms are available for viewing. Tante Leonie's room, where she "never slept a wink," has faded flowered wallpaper, madeleines, and Vichy water in a glass case. The bed -- any reader of Proust would notice this immediately -- is strategically placed with a view of the street. From this vantage point Mrs. Amiot -- or her fictional counterpart, at least -- would observe and speculate on the doings of passers-by. And at the rare sight of any stranger she would send her maid to the grocer's ("It's not often that Theodore can't tell you who a person is") to find out who this "fabulous monster" might be.

Opposite is Proust's own narrow room, overlooking the back garden. In "Swann's Way" it was from one of the windows of this room that young Proust called to his mother, partying with friends in the garden below, for his usual bedtime kiss, and on these white walls that he would have viewed the magic lantern slides of wicked Golo and Genevieve de Brabant. (One scholar speculates that the bedtime kiss incident, at least, really took place in the family's home , which is no longer in existence, in the Parisian suburb of Auteuil.)

In back, the house is half-timbered; a little garden of wisteria and ferns surrounds a white statuette. A sort of summerhouse now contains photos by Paul Nadar of Proust's family and friends: It is amusing to try to pick out the glamorous duchess of Guermantes, handsome St. Loup, and the fastidious, rather sad face of Swann.

I had expected something more gracious and spacious. All the rooms are very small, and a sweet musty smell -- like old books, dust, and furniture polish -- hangs over all.