One way to find a meaningful souvenir while traveling is also an excellent way to uncover the soul of a city–figure out something you love to do, and then track down the little shops that might stock something relevant to that passion. Or something you will use in daily life, passion or not. Cooking-related stuff is good that way–most people cook and everybody eats, and it’s nice to think of vacation while using the oven mitts from this place or opening the wine with the corkscrew from that vineyard visit or serving a meal with a beautiful dish from some beloved destination. Sometimes clothes can work, too, especially if they’re classic and well made, like the leather coat I bought in Rome about 25 years ago and still wear (though I did just replace the lining). Every time I wear that coat, I think of Rome. Every time I put food in the handmade bowl painted by a Palestinian family, I think of my trip to Jerusalem. Every time I serve coffee with the tiny, so-French coffee spoons with grape bunches at the ends, I think of the weekend in Bordeaux. They are like Proust’s madeleine, making memories–souvenirs in French–flood back.

My Easter Egg hunt in Avignon centered on a book. Actually seven books: the entire set of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), by Marcel Proust. The madeleine origin story.

I had already read the entire work, but in English. I have the translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, who gave the title as Remembrance of Things Past. Even then, it took me three years. Proust doesn’t write page turners. Sometimes a single sentence covers an entire page, an intricate web of dependent phrases, parenthetical asides (themselves full of dependent phrases) and compound-complex structures layered upon each other like une pièce montée–a wedding cake–and just as beautiful and delicious. It is to be savored, not rushed. Quite French, actually.

Back in the late 1990s, I discovered the travel agency Nouvelles Frontières and decided to do a hiking trip in Morocco, in the Jebel Sahgro Mountains. It wasn’t the sort of thing that was prudent to do solo, so this group trek was a good opportunity. Everybody else on the trip was French. They teased me that while they were doing adventure tourism, I was doing adventure AND language. I was able to one-up them, though, because I was the only one of the group to have actually read Proust. The whole thing. (He did write other works, but I’m talking about his masterpiece.) Also: there’s nothing like a week of immersion to improve one’s language skills.

I have been working (which is not the mot juste at all, because it’s 100% pleasure) my way through the works of another Marcel–Pagnol–who, interestingly, wrote about the same time period, more or less. I have a thing for la Belle Époque, whether it’s literature, music (Debussy, Satie) or architecture (Art Nouveau! Guimard! Horta! Gaudí!). I want to read Proust again, this time in French. Will it take me three years again? It took Proust 17 years to write.

Purchased for a pittance about 30 years ago from somebody selling books laid out on a table on the sidewalk in front of New York University.

I have been hunting for the complete set for months, mostly on Le Bon Coin, France’s version of Craigslist. I love Le Bon Coin. Not only do you find amazing stuff for cheap, but when the seller is nearby, you get to peek inside their home, and I have ogled everything from utterly cringey to worthy of Architectural Digest. However, nobody nearby has À la recherche for sale, and I just couldn’t decide on the pluses and minuses of the various sets that were available with delivery. So many editions!

So while wandering in Avignon, I went into Librairie Pagani Michel Près de la Fontaine at 32 rue des Trois Faucons. The owner reminded me of the character of Raymond Dufayel, or l’Homme de verre (Glass Man), the elderly painter and neighbor in the 2001 movie “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.” (And if you loved that movie and want to see a very witty reinterpretation, just six minutes long, by the filmmaker, click here.) Our bookseller, however, was much better dressed than the Glass Man, though not ostentatious. He wore a tweedy jacket over a layered shirt and sweater–the shop wasn’t heated. Yet it felt like such a warm, welcoming place, a cozy cocoon of cloth- and leather-bound tomes in earthy shades. After I had looked around for a while, perhaps too intently, he asked whether there was anything specific I wanted. Actually, yes. I wanted a 1938 edition of Larousse Gastronomique, but this bookstore didn’t carry cookbooks, and I wanted the complete set of À la recherche du temps perdu.

“I hope I won’t upset you if I tell you I did have a complete set, very beautiful, and I sold it yesterday,” he said in the kind of soft, sweet voice I associate with pediatricians or with Amélie’s Glass Man. “But I can make it up to you.”

He gave detailed directions to another bookstore, Mémoires, at 18 Place de la Principale (and not to be confused with another bookstore, Mémoires du Monde). What a treasure! Not only were there several complete sets, but I spent over an hour chatting with the woman minding the shop. She was a font of information, delivered in a spellbinding, storytelling way. She should be shaping the young minds at some university rather than being limited to the occasional book browser.

Not to judge a book by its cover, but she looked very cool. Maybe 50-something, maybe more (very hard to tell!), she had jet black hair in the kind of sleek cut that I think of as favored by architects, psychoanalysts and gallery owners. Her glasses were oversized–the statement kind. She was swathed in a big knitted scarf (that she made herself). And she was passionate about books. I regretted not living in Avignon, so that we could be friends.

She pointed out the sets of Proust–different sizes. Even without opening it, I was skeptical of a set that was in three volumes. Very heavy, and the type is tiny. I didn’t need to tell her (maybe my own big glasses gave away how near-sighted I am?), because she suggested a set published by Gallimard, with sage green and gold leather covers and legible type. “They aren’t too heavy to hold in bed,” she said. Exactly!

My new old treasure.

She explained that there isn’t one definitive edition of any book, especially not a great work like Proust’s. Papers get found, handwriting deciphered, and changes may be made to later editions. Sometimes there are footnotes to explain the changes or the references. “Sometimes the footnotes take up most of a page,” she said. “That puts off some people.”

The edition I bought doesn’t have footnotes. It was printed in 1968, using the text of the 1954 Pléiade edition, “reviewed and established based on autograph manuscripts by Pierre Clarac and André Ferré.” One library says that this edition corrected many errors of the original, but “a host of discoveries have been made since its publication with significant bearing on the structure and shape of the text.” The Pléiade imprint, named after the constellation of stars as well as a group of 16th century poets, is known for publishing the greats of French literature.

Then our bookseller started to talk about works about the work, enthusiastically citing Michel Butor, who wrote Les Sept Femmes de Gilbert le Mauvais (The Seven Wives of Gilbert the Bad). This is where things go a little meta. Gilbert the Bad is the fictional ancestor of Oriane de Guermantes, whom the narrator is obsessed with. Proust’s narrator sees Gilbert the Bad in the stained-glass windows at the church at Combray, where he spends his childhood. Butor writes an essay about Proust’s references, linking them to The Thousand and One Nights, where Sheherazade is the seventh wife whose storytelling saves her life. (In the top photo, that’s a three-volume set of Les Milles et une nuits published by Ernest Bourdin in 1838. More TBR.)

In a radio interview, Butor said: “Well, every writer is Sheherazade, every writer has in himself a death threat…. I mean it, I say ‘in himself’ and in him and around him. This threat that is around him nibbles at him, in a way, from inside. It’s against this sword of Damocles that the writer speaks. The writer, by speaking, will indefinitely raise the death threat which weighs over himself, and, naturally, weighs also on all the development of society.” (My translation.)

The erudite bookseller also recommended Butor’s Essais sur les “essais” (Essays on the “Essays”), which are essays about Michel de Montaigne’s famous Essays, written in the late 1500s. She described them as being like jewel boxes full of wonders. Things like Butor’s essays and analyses (and footnotes in books!) help reveal the craftsmanship that goes into writing a literary classic. Proust didn’t just knock out a long story. He created back stories (Gilbert the Bad). He lifted, twisted and reused details from other works and from real life. As for Butor, he was prolific, writing his own fiction and even more literary commentary. How did he have time to read all this stuff? How did I never hear of him before?

Luckily for me, I was driving home, because hard-cover books are heavy. Not the sort of thing you want to put in your luggage, especially when flying. But you don’t have to buy a seven-volume set. A single book can be a souvenir, your Proust madeleine. Books are the ultimate travel tool. As Carl Sagan said:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

“I want to give you something,” the bookseller said. She chose this postcard. “It’s Italian,” she noted. “Everything Italian is beautiful.”

What are you reading?


16 thoughts on “In Search of Lost Time

  1. I love buying cooking utensils when travelling – it’s wonderful to remember trips whilst using the implements!! 🙂 I’ll check out the bookshops when I get to Avignon, although I’m not up for a set of Proust!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Anything you use a lot is even more fun when it’s a reminder of a nice trip. For other readers: wooden utensils (especially those made from olive wood) and knives (Laguiole, Opinel) are great souvenirs. But put the knives in checked luggage!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, there’s the use of traps for hunting, which remains controversial and which I find no excuse for today. And destruction of insects by young boys conducting experiments. But otherwise, I find his stories to be charmingly gentle. And the central cruelty in Jean de Florette is quite premeditated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My hubby gifted me the 3 volume Pléiade edition translated by Moncrieff more than twenty five years ago. I promptly read the first two books in Volume I, but sadly never went back to finish them. You’ve given me the inspiration to finally do it. So many books, so little time.

    A dedicated book pillow is essential for reading those large volumes in bed. I can vividly recall the many times I elbowed my husband in the ribs, “get a look at this sentence…it’s almost two pages long!”

    Enjoy your second reading (in French!). Your seven volume set is indeed a treasure. Those magical booksellers may be your madeleines…long remembered as you savor those books!

    PS, thank you for that delightful reimagining of Amelie.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes to buying useful items to remember my travel. That’s my rule whether it be a ceramic butter dish from Madrid or something simple as a tea towel. Even a pot of hand cream is better as a short term memory than a dust collector that sits there and rarely noticed. Nothing beats the experience of the smell of a book, the feel of the pages between your fingers and I love a hard covered book. I may be a dinosaur but I really don’t enjoy e-books. For me, reading is not just about the words, but the sensations of handling that book and turning those pages.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree! I read all my newspapers and magazines on screens now, and that’s enough.
      Old books are especially appealing. A library smells so much better than a bookstore full of new books. Not to knock new books! There are no bad books!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am actually reading Proust for the first time in conjuction with a
    group that is lead by a Proust scholar. Done via zoom with a worldwide audience. So interesting to hear the various interpertations by everyone. Fun fact ,former Supreme court justice Stephen Breyer learned French by reading À La Recherche.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Everything Italian is beautiful! Yes, I think so.
    The postcard reminds me of a book I enjoyed last year-
    Still Life by Sarah Winman…about war, life, Italy, art, memory and beauty.
    Your post makes me want to search out a copy of Proust’s great work…in English!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Somewhere along the way, I read about Marcel Pagnol, read “My Father’s Glory, My Mother’s Castle,” loved it and him, saw a movie that was vastly different from the book on the way home from France – and have been a fan ever since. (Read Proust in college but fared much better with the English translation. Applaud your skill level and tenacity!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aren’t those books just delicious? There’s the part where young Marcel is struggling to open a letter from his buddy Lili, and then his father takes it and slices it open with a knife, and Marcel is shocked by the surgical efficiency. Such an honest interpretation of what it’s like to be a kid, watching your all-powerful parents.
      A few years ago, I saw a bit of one of these movies (there are 3). It had bits of the first book, with the hunting, etc., and the aged Pagnol character going back to visit the area and reminisce about Lili, who died in WWI–all from the first book, La Gloire de mon père. It also had the girl he gets a crush on in the third book and his mother’s and aunt’s clandestine suffragette meetings. There’s a movie about the third book, Le Temps des secrets, that came out last year, which definitely isn’t the one I saw on TV. I hadn’t read the books when I saw the movie (on TV, and I missed the beginning), so I didn’t know what should have been where. But I didn’t care–I just loved the time travel and the intense feeling of Provence.


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