Fowl Murder and Art in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu

By Áine Larkin

Willem Kalf, Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate, mid-1640s, oil on canvas 104.5 x 80.6 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Willem Kalf, Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate, mid-1640s, oil on canvas,
104.5 x 80.6 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy The Getty Open Content Programme.

Food matters to the protagonist of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927): Jean-Pierre Richard notes that every reader of that novel ‘a ressenti l’extrême importance de la fonction de nutrition dans toute l’étendue de la Recherche. On y mange beaucoup, et partout’.[1] Françoise is the indomitable family cook and arbiter of taste in matters gustatory, sartorial, and moral in the novel. Several of the protagonist’s significant experiences of taste and smell provide him with sensory memories which contribute significantly to the structure and subject matter of the novel as a whole when he recalls them through involuntary memory. The madeleine episode is the most obvious of these, and ‘needs little introduction’;[2] however, since the madeleine was not baked by Françoise, we will not dwell on it here. Within the overarching context of the conception and realisation of the protagonist’s creative literary vocation, his childhood experiences at Combray of observing Françoise as she prepares meals, and tasting the resulting dishes, convey important truths about the transience of life and of much art, the culinary arts in particular. Destined for destruction in the dining room, Françoise’s dishes serve as both example and foil for the protagonist as he tries to become a writer. Françoise’s gradually-developing role of faithful muse to the protagonist towards the end of the novel retrospectively points up the worth of her creative endeavours in the domestic sphere. Her culinary creativity shows the protagonist the fleeting nature of time, the specificity of place and the arduous requirements of creative endeavour – some of the most important themes of À la recherche du temps perdu.

Françoise is a satisfyingly inconsistent and paradoxical character: though hardworking, trustworthy and loyal to her employers, and unstintingly generous to her own family, she is capable of great cruelty, for example to the Combray kitchen-maid, whom she tortures by requiring that she prepare asparagus all summer, even though she knows full well that the girl is allergic to it.[3] Readers are soon made aware of Françoise’s complex personality and the significance of her role in the protagonist’s life, when the narrator describes glimpses at Combray of part of her domain, the scullery, in terms bringing together classical, pagan, and Christian tradition:

On apercevait son dallage rouge et luisant comme du porphyre. Elle avait moins l’air de l’antre de Françoise que d’un petit temple à Vénus. Elle regorgeait des offrandes du crémier, du fruitier, de la marchande de légumes, venus parfois de hameaux assez lointains pour lui dédier les prémices de leurs champs. Et son faîte était toujours couronné du roucoulement d’une colombe.[4]

The superabundance of fruits of the earth, offered in homage to Françoise’s culinary skill, is seen in this passage as spilling in riotous abandon out of the crimson-floored scullery: the ecclesiastic purple of the porphyry is coupled with the reference to Venus, goddess of love in Roman mythology, but also a spirit of kitchen gardens in earlier times, and a potential supernatural source of culinary skill in the protagonist’s mind, as Hollie Markland Harder notes.[5] Repeated allusions in the Combray section to Charles Swann’s generosity in offering the riches of his own garden (and a case of Asti wine) show that the nourishment he offers the protagonist extends beyond the aesthetic influence of his gifts of Italian photographs, and the emotional model of his relationship with Odette de Crécy, to include more fundamental seasonal fare such as peaches, raspberries, and marrons glacés, not to mention recipes for family dinner parties.[6] In Françoise’s overflowing scullery, the presence of the dove, a Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit with strong associations of peace and hope, introduces an avian element to the scene, whose function as indicator of serenity will so soon be viciously and ironically undercut by the chicken’s murder.

The scullery is the liminal point in space where nature meets culture in the act of preparing the excellent meals the child protagonist and his family look forward to with great anticipation, and which are inspired by their presence as tante Léonie’s guests. As mistress of this domain, Françoise serves as mediator between the raw and the cooked. In his examination of South American myths in Le Cru et le cuit (1964), Claude Lévi-Strauss observes that ‘la cuisine est conçue par la pensée indigène comme une médiation’; some indigenous populations ‘voient, dans les opérations culinaires, des activités médiatrices entre le ciel et la terre, la vie et la mort, la nature et la société’.[7] Françoise is responsible for imposing order on the chaotic, anarchic confusion of the products of nature; she is capable of transforming and orchestrating this proliferation, and she uses language – somewhat inaccurately, as Markland Harder states[8] – to control it in announcing the menu of the day to the eager boy:

À cette heure où je descendais apprendre le menu, le dîner était déjà commencé, et Françoise, commandant aux forces de la nature devenues ses aides, comme dans les féeries où les géants se font engager comme cuisiniers, frappait la houille, donnait à la vapeur des pommes de terre à étuver et faisait finir à point par le feu les chefs-d’oeuvres culinaires d’abord préparés dans des récipients de céramistes qui allaient des grandes cuves, marmites, chaudrons et poissonnières, aux terrines pour le gibier, moules à patisserie, et petits pots de crème en passant par une collection complète de casseroles de toutes dimensions.[9] (My italics)

The care taken here to enumerate the number and types of receptacles the cook needs to carry out her mission shows the complexity of the task. Most important perhaps is the phrase ‘finir à point’, which underlines the crucial element of timing which can defeat many an enthusiastic amateur in the kitchen. In Physiologie du goût (1826), Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin notes that ‘le plaisir de la table est particulier à l’espèce humaine; il suppose des soins antécédants pour les apprêts du repas’.[10] The significance of time in the realm of culinary art can be seen at every stage: there is the time nature requires for the ripening of grain, fruit, vegetable and animal; the judicious selection of a particular dish for a certain day;[11] the skilful selection of the elements thereof; their careful assembly and, ultimately, their presentation. Temporal investment in preparing a meal requires withdrawal into the kitchen and scullery, and the suspension of all activity extraneous to the delicately balanced task in hand. The result is a coalescence of the disparate into a unified and coherent dish, whose power to excite and gratify is not infinite, but rather is itself bound by the passage of time. Françoise’s speciality of ‘crème au chocolat’ is ‘fugitive et légère comme une œuvre de circonstance où elle avait mis tout son talent’.[12] The chocolate cream must be eaten immediately and completely (so as not to offend the artist). It holds egg yolk and white in a temporary state of suspension; like an ‘occasional’ piece of music, it is an ephemeral thing, which honours those present while demanding their attentive absorption. Françoise’s awareness of and respect for the ever-fleeting minute ensure her culinary dexterity, which far outstrips her verbal ability to explain how she creates such splendid dishes.[13] Her mastery of time is made manifest in her culinary skill and, aside from her gastronomic tours-de-force, she alone is credited by the protagonist’s mother with the ability to serve coffee and water at the correct temperature.[14] Sensitivity to the raw materials at her disposal, and her timely relinquishing of the finished product, show the transience inherent in her creative work.

Fowl Murder

Among the ‘soins’ Brillat-Savarin mentions, which precede a meal, is the necessity to kill and prepare such flesh as has been chosen to adorn the table. This step has not occurred to the anticipating protagonist, for whom Françoise’s roast chickens at dinner, ‘faisaient prédominer la douceur dans ma conception spéciale de son caractère, l’arôme de cette chair qu’elle savait rendre si onctueuse et si tendre n’étant pour moi que le propre parfum d’une de ses vertus’.[15] His wholly unexpected encounter with another kind of Françoise altogether, one who is discomposed by an aberrant tardiness, shows him the cruelty and violence necessary to her art:

Mais le jour où […] je descendis à la cuisine, […] Françoise, n’étant plus aidée, était en retard. Quand je fus en bas, elle était en train, dans l’arrière-cuisine qui donnait sur la basse-cour, de tuer un poulet qui, par sa résistance désespérée et bien naturelle, mais accompagnée par Françoise hors d’elle, tandis qu’elle cherchait à lui fendre le cou sous l’oreille, des cris de ‘sale bête! sale bête!’, mettait la sainte douceur et l’onction de notre servante un peu moins en lumière qu’il n’eût fait, au dîner du lendemain, par sa peau brodée d’or comme une chasuble et son jus précieux égoutté d’un ciboire. Quand il fut mort, Françoise recueillit le sang qui coulait sans noyer sa rancune, eut encore un sursaut de colère, et regardant le cadavre de son ennemi, dit une dernière fois: ‘Sale bête!’[16] (My italics)

This brutal scene is clearly comic in tone, like many where the protagonist’s family pay homage to Françoise’s talents, as James Gilroy notes; however, the cries of ‘sale bête!’ which accompany Françoise’s furious rage underline the chicken’s current status as a distressed living creature struggling for survival, rather than as one harmonious element among many on Françoise’s menu, to be recited to the boy.[17] The culinary artist has yet to subjugate to her will the living raw material for the bill of fare she wishes to produce; instead, she must get her hands dirty.[18] Death does not suffice as a means to accomplish this – to transform the chicken from enemy to succulent flesh fit for human assimilation will require yet more time and much skilled handling. The chicken’s martyrdom and its transubstantiation through cooking are here mockingly suggested through the evocation of the chasuble and the sprinkling of the chicken’s precious juices, qua holy water, from the pyx; collecting its flowing blood hints at the reliquary of some persecuted saint – in Proust: la cuisine retrouvée (1991), Anne Borrel affirms that the liturgical embellishments which metaphorically surrounded the tender roasted flesh of the dead animal attested to this transition from the wild to the ‘cultured’ state.[19] Notable above is the evocation of needlework in Proust’s phrase ‘sa peau brodée d’or’, which introduces Françoise’s skill as a seamstress and is a point to which we shall return.

Through death and culinary artistry, a filthy creature has the potential to become the material vehicle for Françoise to demonstrate her spiritual goodness – this scene does not negate the ‘sainte douceur’ and ‘onction’ which the child had divined while eating her roast chickens; rather the very difficult transition from the natural to the cultured state is underlined in order to emphasise the sheer hard graft needed to create a work of art. The very fact of its being a ‘sale bête’ might be a factor rendering the chicken a worthy adversary for a cook as truly proficient as Françoise. Brillat-Savarin observes with regard to poultry that:

Nous ne nous sommes pas contentés des qualités que la nature avait données aux gallinacées; l’art s’en est emparé, et sous prétexte de les améliorer il en a fait des martyrs. […] La volaille est pour la cuisine ce qu’est la toile pour les peintres […].[20]

As blank canvas, the living chicken thus constitutes a flagrant challenge for Françoise; a challenge to which she consistently rises, as the protagonist quickly acknowledges. His disgust at her actions in the scullery is rapidly overcome by an awareness of just how much she contributes to his well-being: ‘Je remontai tout tremblant; j’aurais voulu qu’on mît Françoise tout de suite à la porte. Mais qui m’eût fait des boules aussi chaudes, du café aussi parfumé, et même… ces poulets?…’.[21] The sadism he witnesses is here taken to be a necessary evil in the production of a work of culinary art, whose description in overtly religious terms humorously points up the sacred ritual of the family dinner – and a very French pragmatism in pursuit of gastronomic excellence. The tone of reverence, however tongue-in-cheek, serves nonetheless to convey the power of good food, as part of a respected ritual, to transcend the purely material requirements of nourishment and bestow a kind of spiritual enrichment upon those who receive it.

Françoise’s devotion to culinary art at Combray, up to and including a messy murder, implies the emotional and temporal investment and the physical withdrawal from social interaction or dilettantism which are involved in the pursuit of excellence in a particular creative sphere. These points are not, perhaps, unique to gastronomy in À la recherche du temps perdu; but it is the distinct importance of the role played by time in culinary art which is shown in this episode, and which impresses the protagonist. Temporal flux and its elusiveness are discernible in Françoise’s engagement with and fulfilment of her creative ambitions in the kitchen and scullery. Given the importance of the theme of time in the Proustian narrative, the protagonist’s early exposure to the example set by Françoise as cook at Combray is significant because of the expert way she contrives to dominate time, precisely by yielding to and exploiting fully its malleability when applied to culinary art.

Witnessing the fowl murder at Combray unveils for the protagonist the essential truth of violence, the ‘tragédies d’arrière-cuisine’ which invest culinary art and perhaps literary art also: violence against the raw material that is to be assimilated into the work as a whole; violence against the creative self, potentially, should the requirements of the work demand acts that the artist finds abhorrent.[22] In Le Temps retrouvé, the narrator speaks of the many kinds of courage required for successful engagement with his literary vocation, and of the horrifying profanation of his memories, not only by the readers of his work but more importantly by himself.[23] Here he conceives of artistic creativity as a kind of religion or belief system, demanding sacrifice in the form of terrible suffering.

Bœuf à la gelée for M. de Norpois

The scullery as sacred and profane space of food preparation and cooking at tante Léonie’s house is inhabited by a Françoise who is both implacable goddess and priestess in her profession of the cult of gastronomy. Her culinary masterpiece is achieved in Paris rather than Combray, however, and is prompted yet again by a visitor’s presence – this time it is the diplomat Norpois, thanks to whom she draws upon ‘sa manière incomparable de Combray’.[24] Needing to provide a really good dinner is a very welcome challenge for the now aged Françoise, who ‘depuis la veille […] vivait dans l’effervescence de la création […] comme Michel-Ange passant huit mois dans les montagnes de Carrare à choisir les blocs de marbre les plus parfaits pour le monument de Jules II’.[25] Although working towards the creation of a more ephemeral work than that of Michelangelo (whose monument, interestingly, remained unfinished at the end of his life), once again, the crucial element for the exercise of her art is the careful selection of elements to go into the dish of jellied beef which she decides is ‘un dîner enfin semé de difficultés dignes d’elle’.[26] The narrator establishes an explicit parallel at this point between blocks of marble and blocks of jelly: ‘Le boeuf froid aux carottes fit son apparition, couché par le Michel-Ange de notre cuisine sur d’énormes cristaux de gelée pareil à des blocs de quartz transparent’.[27] The enduring hardness of marble is echoed in the description of the wobbly viscosity of animal jelly as resembling transparent quartz. A discerning guest, Norpois lauds how perfectly the flavours of beef and carrots mingle and balance each other, remarking: ‘une daube de boeuf où la gelée ne sente pas la colle, et où le boeuf ait pris parfum des carottes, c’est admirable!’.[28] The jelly holds together the disparate elements of the complex dish, in suspension but also in communion. Richard notes with regard to this ‘maître plat’ of the novel that:

Toute la réussite du mets tient au fait, reconnu par Norpois, d’une intercirculation des succulences […]. Cette interpénétration gustative provient du traitement auquel les deux termes ont été soumis par Françoise: obligés à coexister dans la lenteur d’une même cuisson, et donc à y exprimer, à y résorber réciproquement leurs sucs.[29]

Richard regards the long, slow cooking process as serving to establish a new and happy symbiosis between the elements of the dish, and so to moderate the vices of fragmentation and fleetingness which characterise everyday life in Proust’s novel. Norpois and the narrator describe the sight and taste of Françoise’s ‘boeuf à la gelée’ as the apotheosis of this process of synthesising the disparate into a harmonious whole, whose transience is belied by the comparison with both marble and quartz. Quartz has over marble the superior quality of transparency; therefore, as jelly, it facilitates the simultaneous visual perception of the multiple elements which go to infuse it. Itself an ephemeral entity whose very perfection is a guarantee of its annihilation (indeed, M. de Norpois goes back for a second helping), the dish has a lasting significance for those who observe and partake of it, as its presentation in terms of sculptural art suggests. The nourishment it provides will endure, by providing the would-be writer with sustenance beyond the physical. As one of Françoise’s culinary chefs-d’oeuvres, the dish of jellied beef introduces those who eat it to a previously unknown state of accord between beef and carrots: Norpois’s approving remark about what the dish does not taste like, as well as what it does, shows how far his expectations have been successfully exceeded. Flavours – the essence of individual ingredients – have been retained and transfused throughout the culinary work of art. With regard to art’s capacity to make essences flesh, Gilles Deleuze asks the following question:

Mais précisément, comment l’essence s’incarne-t-elle dans l’œuvre d’art? […] Elle s’incarne dans des matières. […] L’art est une véritable transmutation de la matière. La matière y est spiritualisée, les milieux physiques y sont dématérialisés, pour réfracter l’essence, c’est-à-dire la qualité d’un monde originel.[30]

Deleuze’s choice of words is interesting – why the repeated use of the verb ‘s’incarner’? The notion of making flesh of essence underlines the corporeal source of the impulse to make art and hence how important it is that the body survives and is nourished. The roast chicken and jellied beef episodes both concern animal flesh; it may be that these once living and now life-giving sources of nourishment, assimilated by the would-be writer, his family, and the lucky M. de Norpois in their transmuted state (a word redolent of the alchemical process of changing base metals into gold), bestow through the slow processes by which they are prepared, consumed, and digested, a model for the protagonist’s long-deferred but meticulous engagement with his literary vocation. In Le Temps retrouvé, after savouring a string of involuntary memories and meeting Mlle de Saint-Loup – herself the incarnation of the two seemingly disparate ways of the novel, that is, the Guermantes’ Way and Swann’s Way, since her father Robert de Saint-Loup was a Guermantes, and her mother Gilberte Swann is the daughter of Charles Swann – the protagonist finally resolves to start writing. His need for Françoise is a fundamental prerequisite for the task:

[…] regardé par Françoise […] je travaillerais auprès d’elle, et presque comme elle […]; car, épinglant ici un feuillet supplémentaire, je bâtirais mon livre, je n’ose pas dire ambitieusement comme une cathédrale, mais tout simplement comme une robe.[31]

The faithful, and by now fantastically aged Françoise’s benevolent, critical supervision will safeguard the protagonist against distraction from his writing; and her skill with a needle (which brings us back to the chicken skin, ‘brodée d’or comme une chasuble’) provides a model for the crucial concrete construction of his book – that is, the physical labour essential to the building of it, through the basic ingredients of paper and ink, reflection and determination. The protagonist’s humble book-as-dress is a modest echo of the richly embroidered chasuble that, through Françoise’s ministrations, adorned the luckless fowl at Combray. At this turning point near the end of the novel, the narrator also explicitly evokes her dish of jellied beef, and recognises it as a figure of the literary work of art he has undertaken to create: ‘[…] ne ferais-je pas mon livre de la façon que Françoise faisait ce boeuf mode, apprécié par M. de Norpois, et dont tant de morceaux de viande ajoutés et choisis enrichissaient la gelée?’.[32] Such is his intention at this uncertain moment: to work bravely and ceaselessly with the matter of his life, all the time uncomfortably aware of the inexorable encroachment of weakness, old age and death upon his endeavours. Like the intermittently inspired and daily-labouring Françoise, the protagonist will withdraw to his work-space (the ‘chambre noire’ where his sensory memories will be transmuted into linguistic gold) to devote the rest of his life to perfecting a work of literary art, informed in no small measure by the sight, smell and taste of the works of culinary art which have, in every sense, nourished his latent, raw vocation.

 

Bibliography

Borrel, Anne. Proust : la cuisine retrouvée. Paris: Chêne, 1991.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. Physiologie du goût. Paris: A. Sautelet, 1826.

Deleuze, Gilles. Proust et les signes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964.

Gilroy, James P. ‘Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.’ Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 33, No. 1 (1987): 98-109.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Le Cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon, 1964.

Markland Harder, Hollie. ‘Proust’s Novel Confections: Françoise’s cooking and Marcel’s book.’ Modern Language Studies Vol. 29, No. 1 (1999): 3+5-15.

Proust, Marcel. À la recherche du temps perdu. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1987-89.

Richard, Jean-Pierre. Proust et le monde sensible. Paris: Seuil, 1974.

Notes

[1] Jean-Pierre Richard, Proust et le monde sensible (Paris : Seuil, 1974), 17.

[2] James P. Gilroy, ‘Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (1987), 100.

[3] Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (Paris : Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1987-89), vol. I, 122.

[4] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 71.

[5] Hollie Markland Harder, ‘Proust’s Novel Confections: Françoise’s cooking and Marcel’s book’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1999), 6.

[6] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 16; 17; 22.

[7] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (Paris: Plon, 1964), 73.

[8] Markland Harder, ‘Proust’s Novel Confections,’ 6-7.

[9] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 119.

[10] Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du goût (Paris: A. Sautelet, 1826), 111.

[11] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 70.

[12] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 70.

[13] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 476.

[14] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 53.

[15] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 120.

[16] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 120.

[17] Gilroy, James P., ‘Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), 102.

[18] Markland Harder, ‘Proust’s Novel Confections,’ 11.

[19] Anne Borrel, Proust : la cuisine retrouvée (Paris: Chêne, 1991), 30.

[20] Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du goût, 72-73.

[21] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 120.

[22] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 120-21.

[23] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. IV, 481.

[24] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 450.

[25] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 437.

[26] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 450.

[27] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 449.

[28] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. I, 450.

[29] Richard, Proust et le monde sensible, 40.

[30] Deleuze, Gilles, Proust et les signes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964), 60-61.

[31] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. IV, 610.

[32] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, vol. IV, 612.

Fowl Murder and Art in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perduAlex Bradley