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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.