What Kafkaesque times we live in
With Franz Kafka's birthday looming, never have his works been so relevant ...
From Woody Allen's 1980 film, Stardust Memories:
Dorrie [Charlotte Rampling]: That aftershave, it just made my whole childhood come back with a sudden Proustian rush.
Sandy [Woody Allen]: Yeah? That's 'cause I'm wearing Proustian Rush by Chanel. It's reduced; I got a vat of it.
Proust, then, author of A la recherche du temps perdu (translated either as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) has a derivative of his name not only in the dictionary but in a Woody Allen punchline.
(Stardust Memories, incidentally, in case you haven't seen it, is well worth watching. There are some clever ideas and decent gags, but it's very different in terms of tone and ambition from the more mainstream work that made his reputation - hence the running joke in which Allen's character, a film director suffering an existential crisis, is constantly told by people that they prefer 'your early, funny films'. Art imitating life due to life irritating artist).
He was born 145 years ago this Sunday, July 10th (Proust, that is, not Allen, he's still only 117) which makes this as good a time as any to reflect on a book that many critics bracket amongst the most important 'modern' novels - novels, in fact, that helped invent the very idea of modern novel, based not solely on plot, but on ideas, emotions, an inner life as much as the outside world.
It was originally published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. Yep, that's 14 years and not a typo. These were very much pre-Kindle times. When it reached Virginia Wolf, one of Britain's most brilliant and important modernist authors, she apparently sighed, 'Oh if I could write like that...'
Oh, and whilst it is a very serious and very important book, it's probably worth pointing out that the most famous character is a small cake. Well, the most famous character is probably the unnamed narrator. But the key 'character' is definitely made mainly of flour, sugar, eggs and almonds and is known in France as a madeleine.
The narrator tastes it in the final volume and is instantly, viscerally transported to a happy childhood memory. There are other examples of sensory experiences triggering vivid but involuntary memories throughout the work but it is the madeleine episode that scholars cite as the prime example of a 'Proustian' rush - a universal experience that can be simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Or, in the right hands, just a good punchline.
If nothing else, we hope we've given you the taste for a nice slice of cake. Go on, treat yourself. See you next week!