The Weasel

Having digested Proust, I tucked into a madeleine. The cake was most toothsome, but produced little in the way of time travel
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The Independent Culture
JUST FOR once, I have completed my Christmas reading project. Usually, this annual endeavour gets bogged down after the first chapter or so. Bleak House got no further than the foundations and I have scant hope of ever completing Great Expectations. But this year I pulled off the big one. I lapped up A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in a single sitting. Of course (Weasel gives casual shrug), I read it in French. Somehow, even the finest translations miss the subtle nuances of le maitre, don't you agree? Admittedly, it was only the first two sections of Proust's masterpiece. OK, maybe I didn't read every word. However, I can say hand on heart that I looked at every single picture.

Sorry, didn't I mention that it was the new comic-strip version of A la Recherche (Delcourt, pounds 10.95) that I breezed through? Though Stephane Heuet's graphic adaptation prompted a few Gallic gripes (Le Figaro called it "catastrophic", "blasphemous" and "prodigiously inane"), it was well received by the French public, with the first edition of 12,000 copies selling out in three weeks. In the London Review of Books, the Proust scholar Michael Wood has praised the "moments of genuine lyricism" and "diligent textual fidelity" of Heuet's version. However, amid the prodigiously wordy captions and bulbous speech bubbles, there appears to be one significant addition. No one in the original novel ever said "Tiens! une madeleine?"

This ejaculation emerges from the sad-eyed narrator, who bears a strong resemblance to Marcel P. himself. By munching the bun, he is transported back to his childhood in the provincial town of Combray. In order to appreciate the magical properties of this confection, I prodded Mrs Weasel into baking a batch of madeleines. After I brushed aside her trifling objections (my next expense claim will include "one madeleine tin: pounds 6.95"), madame set to work. An hour or so later, I was dunking a fragment of the shell-shaped sponge in a teaspoon of tea - the somewhat prissy technique adopted by the cartoon hero. Needless to say, nothing happened. The cake was most toothsome, but produced little in the way of time travel.

I am not alone in my desire to consume fiction's most illustrious item of patisserie. A recent feature in the New Yorker revealed that 2,000 madeleines per month are sold to Proust worshippers in Illiers-Comray, the author's home town near Chartres. (The community was merely Illiers until 1971, when its fictional counterpart was added by hyphenation.) However, Anne Borrel, the curator of the town's Proust Museum, holds the trenchant view that "the cult of the madeleine is blasphemy". Crumbs! Apparently, the great Marcel was not so obsessed by these cakes as most people think. In earlier drafts of his magnum opus, it appears that the role of the madeleine was taken by melba toast.

Of course, the truth is that we each have our own madeleine - a sensation that instantly whizzes us back across the decades. In my case, it is the pungent scent of Kalamata olives. This is not because I had a sun-drenched childhood in the Peloponnese. Far from it. My early years were passed in the less-than-exotic location of the West Riding. However, the smell of Kalamata olives is exactly the same as the curing vats in the wire factory where my father worked. One whiff of a Greek salad and I'm back there, aged nine.

A NATION rejoices at the news of the royal nuptials. I was particularly pleased to learn that Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones intend to continue with their day jobs after tying the knot. The reason is that I was a great fan of the recent TV documentary series presented by His Royal Highness and produced by his company, which is somewhat inappropriately called Ardent. Quite what the series was about, I can't recall. It might have been the Thames, it might have been royal palaces. Possibly both.

Anyway, it was unusually uplifting viewing for late-night ITV. I'm sure that the decision to show such impeccably worthy material, reminiscent of the old "Look at Life" fillers which they used to show at the Odeon years ago, was completely unconnected with the royal association. I very much hope that a second, equally informative series will soon be commissioned from Ardent. As a relaxing soporific, Prince Edward beats Horlicks hands down.

"I ARRIVE somewhere and head straight for market or the fish docks," writes my hero Rick Stein in his Seafood Odyssey (BBC, pounds 18.99). As Mrs W knows to her cost, such a fragrant expedition is always my first move in foreign parts. Mr Stein began his new TV series among the fish stalls of Naples. Incited by the cameras, a local show-off chomped a chunk from a live octopus. "You can't do that!" Cornwall's culinary king expostulated. Quite right too. Brightest of all invertebrates, the octopus has an intelligence comparable to that of a dog. The Neapolitan goon might as well have bitten the paw off a puppy.

Mr Stein writes that "the main reason" for his trip to Naples was pasta puttanesca, my favourite of all pasta sauces. His version took all of 10 minutes and looked wonderful on TV. But surely Mr Stein was excessively fastidious when he remarked that the English translation of this dish was too racy for home consumption. "Would anyone order prostitute sauce?" he mused. "I doubt it." Why on earth not? Lots of people have jam tarts.

MRS W is thrilled to bits with her new chandelier. Ordered with some difficulty from Habitat (there was a long waiting list), it consists of nine halogen bulbs, each equipped with a small plastic shade and supported by a long malleable wire. God knows how much it cost. (Mrs W hid the bill and that's always a bad sign.) Once in place, you tangle up the wires and that's it. I must say the result looks better than it sounds. However, since the light draws attention to the fact that our ceiling is in severe need of re-decoration, it has rarely been illuminated. This leads me to the view that we might just as well have erected a tangle of wire coat-hangers and achieved much the same effect.

This new source of illumination makes it impractical for me to adopt a lighting idea I came across in Whitby Museum over Christmas. It is an embalmed human hand cut from a hanged felon. It seems that the mitt was used as a holder for a candle prepared with fat rendered from the dead man's body. The "Hand of Glory" was supposed to put sleepers into a trance. "It was thus a useful piece of equipment for burglars," notes a fact sheet issued by the museum. I freely offer this exciting design concept to the young Turks of BBC-2's Changing Rooms.