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.
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.
Back in town, you can visit the church of Saint-Jacques (Saint-Hilaire in the novel), or buy madeleines -- Proust's "little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe religious folds."
There is a certain competition for the tourist franc among the patisseries: one, for instance, has a sign in the window that says, "The shop where Tante Leonie bought her madeleines," while another claims to have "The real, real, madeleines of Marcel Proust." I had expected as a matter of right that these madeleines would, at the very least, far surpass the small buttery cakes I had enjoyed by the bagful elsewhere in France. Alas, they were dry and a bit gritty; it was hard to imagine their evoking a stronger childhood memory than possibly that of chewing on a sponge. No wonder Tante Leonie chose to dip them in her tisanem , I thought.
The Proust family had two favorite walks -- "so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door according to the way we had chosen." One was toward Mereglise (changed by Proust in his novel to the more graceful Meseglise). This walk led through a garden belonging to his Uncle Amiot, on the outskirts of Combray and a few minutes' walk from the house. Mr. Amiot proudly named this second garden Pre Catalan, after an area of the Bois de Boulogne; it is here that the viewer can find the legendary path of the hawthorns.
Proust used Pre Catalan, now a public park, for Charles Swann's garden in "Swann's Way." About a five-minute drive away is "Tansonville," the home Proust intended for Swann; it's a private residence, but you can see it the way young Marcel probably did, by peering through the gate.
Another walk was toward the church of St. Eman and the little pool next to it -- a not very impressive metal tub filled with weeds which Proust refers to as "the source of the Vivonne."
As you drive through the flat green fields of long grass to St. Eman, you can see the steeples of a church called Marcheville (Martinville in the book). This little road winds for no apparent reason, and the steeples seem to cross and recross each other; while watching this phenomenon as a child, Proust felt one of the first moments of joyous excitement and rapture which he later tried to recapture in "Remembrance of Things Past." It's a pretty drive, and very French, past poplars in almost military rows, and houses with roofs of orange tile.
In his novel, Proust called these two walks Swann's Way and the Guermantes' Way. However, though Illiers corresponds to a surprising extent to Combray, the latter represents Proust's inner landscape, and he has made many changes that are confusing to the well-meaning pilgrim.
For instance, the composer Vinteuil's house, called Montjouvain in the book and situated along the Swann's Way, is actually called Mirougrain and is quite definitely near the way of the Guermantes, (Mirougrain is a private house, therefore not open to the public.)
My visit to Illiers was in May, to join the Society of the Friends of Marcel Proust on its annual outing to see the hawthorns, and a litlte bus took us about; you would need a car to see all the sites mentioned in this article. Though for some dedicated Proustians, to walk from the little station up the road bordered with lime trees, harshly pruned into a sort of candelabra shape, and to take a small section of one of the "ways" as Proust did, on foot, may seem more in keeping with the spirit of the novel.
A young Marcel Proust once made fun of himself in a letter to a friend, writing, "Do you know . . . M.P.? . . . with his perpetual wild enthusiasms, distracted manner, his great loves, and his adjectives . . .." The road that that young man took from Illiers to the famous cork-lined room on the Boulevard Haussmann was a tortuous one; the wild enthusiasms and great loves turned to cynicism and disillusionment.
Through it all, Illiers was to him a symbol of innocence and happiness.A character in the novel, Baron Charlus, might say, "Illiers is just a town like any other." And other Proustian sites -- the Paris Ritz, where he spent so much of his time, or Cabourg, the "Balbec" of the second volume of "Remembrance" -- may claim the pilgrim's attention. Still, it is mostly to Combray that Proust-minded visitors come -- to choke down a madeleine or two, and to wander up the path of the hawthorns, hoping to feel a little of that joy.