Smelling Tante Léonie’s Bedspread
What a coincidence that you should focus on this text since it is the very one which aroused much heat at a recent meeting of the Proust Society. I will try to summarize.
The context is this. Marcel has begun to describe what he remembers about Aunt Léonie; how he anticipated and tasted the smells of her rooms. The smells begin as “appetising” but fade into enigma. Actually, the concluding sentence can be read as bizarre, as totally unappetizing where Marcel wallows in the “central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.” What kind of smell is that? What is he doing, the glutton, wanting to wallow in that bedspread?
Here’s the controversy.
Group A thought that the entire paragraph suggests decay – culminating in that final sentence which they read as corroborating the sense of decay. The aunt is old, sick and dying. We do not know explicitly how the sickness and age smelled; more particularly, how it smelled to the little boy. Was he not afraid or repelled by it? One person went so far as to say that the whole paragraph had the feel of some kind of pastiche from Saint-Beuve – it couldn’t be sincere – the concluding sentence is just too bizarre and paradoxical.
Group B did not see any decay at all in the smell paragraph. Where specifically, they asked, did Group A get that sour notion? They felt the descriptions to be completely sincere, cozy, human and domestic with the sweet aroma of the baking bread. The smells are nourishing and succulent. The enigmatic final sentence is not enigmatic at all – it expresses his love for his aunt.
I propose yet another reading – call it “C.” When Marcel enters the two rooms where bed-ridden Aunt Leonie has confined herself , he is “greedy” to “taste” the bouquet. An eating metaphor is established early on. The fire is baking dough and he has a confessed gluttony to wallow in the glutinous. In this scene, Aunt Leonie is the priest who celebrates the mass. The glutin of the bedspread is the dough of the host. And she is the dying Christ. In subsequent paragraphs we read that the bones of her forehead are a “crown of thorns”, she “performs” her duties to soul and body with her pepsin and vespers. Death hovers. She is concerned lest the people miss the Elevation. Marcel is greedy to take in the bedspread – as one at Mass is greedy with love to take in the body of Christ. Yet that act (eating the host) has death in it (blood and body) just as Aunt Leonie’s bedspread has death in her. Her private apartment is described as made from the same stone that a Gothic sculptor “might have fashioned a calvary or a crib.” Marcel’s attitude to his aunt is characteristically ambiguous. Did he love her at all? Perhaps he did when he was a little boy- he seemed to look forward to the madeleine dipped in lime blossom infusions of tea. But in this remembering he is an adult and his memory is one of unmitigated mockery. In short, as an adult, he didn’t think highly of Aunt Léonie. At her death, Marcel donates her couch to a brothel. (I forget, is that the same couch where he lost his virginity to a distant cousin?)
What do you think? A, B, C or something else?
Here are some responses:
What an interesting passage and what a great topic! I vote for the equal validity of all three interpretations. I tend toward Group A’s (which would take a lot of explaining but, long story short, I’m in love with the idea that Jean Genet was a big Proust fan) …
I agree! [on the equal validity of all 3 interpretations]. What an interesting passage and what a great topic! It’s always worth being on the Proust yahoogroups — but it would have been worth it *solely* for … putting ‘bedspread’ and ‘proust’ into the google search engine has produced some wonderful serendipities and erstwhile ‘unseen gargoyles’ for me.
….It seems to me that the answer is “C”! Remember, Aunt Léonie is the one who originally serves the Hero the madeleines soaked in tea, and the eucharistic aspects of that episode are clear. But think, too, about how the Hero/Narrator uses food imagery and a language of assimilation and/or digestion….One of the chapters of my dissertation argues, in fact, that the predominant metaphor of artistic production in the novel is one of ingestion, digestion, and egestion (not an unfamiliar Modernist metaphor–see Joyce–nor an although unfamiliar traditional image), rather than more familiar organic or birthing metaphors.
The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt I would be kept waiting a moment in the outer room where the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, which was already alight between its two bricks and plastering the whole room with a smell of soot, turning it into one of those great rustic open hearths, or one of those canopied mantelpieces in country houses, beneath which one sits hoping that in the world outside it is raining or snowing, hoping almost for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of being in winter quarters to the comfort of a snug retreat; I would pace to and fro between the prie-dieu and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie, an immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest-of-drawers and the patterned wall-paper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread. [Vol I SW 53-54]