It all started with a bite into a tea-dunked madeleine. Marcel Proust’s childhood memories came rushing back and he decided to go searching for the lost times of the sweet years of his childhood. He put his memories into words through a certain structure, and after initial bad reviews, produced volume after volume of what is now generally acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of modern literature: À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time.
And what memories they are. Born on July 10, 1871, he lived through incredible times: the onset of electricity; the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the 1898 World’s Fair; the remodeling of the Paris as we now have come to love it, full of honey-hued stately buildings; and the advent of the metro and cars taking over from horse-drawn trams.
When I moved to Paris, I set out to read Proust’s thousands-of-pages-long masterpiece and was swept away immediately. The minute details of his memories, of the never-named main character who could be nothing but the young Proust himself, being able to smell the scent of the hawthorn he loved so much, taste that madeleine and see a new Paris emerging in front of his eyes, learning about the politics of the times, whilst participating in trips to the seaside and the chic salons of Paris high society. So, I set out to search for some lost times myself, to discover Proust’s Paris and relive some of his experiences -come with me, and let’s see what we can find.
It all started in Auteuil, today in Paris’s wealthy 16th arrondissement, then still a village on the outskirts of Paris. He was born in his uncle’s house at 96 Rue Jean la Fontaine; a plaque commemorates the address, but the building is another. He never actually lived here, but visited his uncle, his beloved mother’s brother, and traveled on the Petite Ceinture, a steam train circumnavigating Paris in those days, parts of which are today gentrified and the station he would have used turned into the hip Brasserie Auteuil.
Next stop is the Boulevard Malesherbes, flanked on either end by churches, Église Saint-Augustin, where he attended services, and Madeleine Church designed as a Roman temple. He grew up at number 9, and just opposite still stands the Morris advertising column, the very column on which young Marcel rushed out to see the posters for upcoming plays at the theater, hoping his heroine would be playing: the famous La Berma, inspired by the real-life Sarah Bernhardt, who incidentally lived not far, at 35 Rue Fortuny.
Proust attended the Lycée Condorcet at 8 Rue du Havre, near the grand department stores of Printemps Haussmann and Galeries Lafayette, but preferred to be taken to the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, just a short walk from his home, where he could play with Gilberte, daughter of Charles Swann. The puppet theater and the public conveniences where his grandmother was taken ill are still there, and the park just as inviting as then to watch the world go by.
Having walked around the addresses nestled in Proust’s memory, I felt it was time for a madeleine, and headed to the Hôtel Ritz Paris, for an afternoon tea. The luxury hotel at Place Vendôme was a regular haunt of Proust, who even kept a room there at one time. Today, a suite and the tearoom are named in his honor. Sitting in Salon Proust, dipping a madeleine into my tea and looking at the various editions of Proust’s writings, I am grateful that he was not only a talented author, but also a wealthy man who enjoyed life to the full in Paris, or at least as much as his frail health allowed him to. Having the Ritz Paris as your regular haunt is a nice perk.
Next, to get into the frame of mind of grown-up Proust for the coming day’s explorations, I headed to the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais to see the recreation of Proust’s room as it was when he lived at 102 Boulevard Haussmann and turned into a writing-obsessed recluse, sleeping, resting and writing in the same small cork-lined room, with later only his faithful housekeeper Celeste Albaret in attendance.
For dinner I chose the beautiful Café de la Paix next to Opéra Garnier where Proust dined regularly, and which still draws the well-dressed crowd from the ballet or opera performances across the road. The food is traditionally French and the setting just glorious, not at all changed since Proust’s days.
The following morning, I headed straight to the Ladurée Paris Royale, a favored address of Proust, who obviously not only loved madeleines but also macarons, which go so well with a morning coffee. Then I sauntered past the Madeleine Church up to the literary four-star Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann, named after Proust’s most famous character and dedicated to all things Proust. One of only a handful of literary hotels in France, the hotel, in the heart of Proust’s arrondissement, is filled with his books in several languages, exhibitions of his writings, the walls decorated with watercolors of all the main characters and settings. It is a lovely place to browse and learn more, and as I picked up a map dedicated to Proust addresses in the surroundings, I made a mental note to come back later for one of the drinks and dishes named after Proust and his friends.
I walk down to 102 Boulevard Haussmann to see the building where he wrote the majority of Temps perdu in his cork-lined room. Today it is a bank. At number 158 on the same boulevard lies the Musée Jacquemart-André, where Proust was rumored to have been invited by wealthy banker Édouard André and his artist wife Nélie Jacquemart, and which is representative of the type of building he himself would have frequented, such as the house of Oriane de Guermantes, whom the young narrator was obsessed with.
I walk up to Parc Monceau past 45 Rue de Courcelles, where his family lived around the turn of the century, before turning back to the sumptuous Hotel Peninsula Paris, which used to be the Majestic Hotel in Proust’s days, and another favorite place to dine and meet friends. The man had taste, I give him that.
Alas, all stories must end, and Proust’s ended in 1922. I feel that a visit to Père Lachaise cemetery is only right. Here, not far from the completely spectacular grave of Oscar Wilde, whom he reportedly met only once, lies Marcel Proust in the second row, under a plain black marble cover. In seclusion, but stylish as always.