Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Evening Re-post: My wife edits Proust


For a long time, I’ve had middle-of-the-night insomnia. I quite enjoy it. When I go to bed I fall asleep quickly, soundly, but then about four hours later I wake up, fully alert, and know that I have at least an hour with nothing to do. At the end of that period, which I think of as “halftime”, the need for sleep returns and when I next wake up, it is morning and I am refreshed.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I’d get up during “halftime” and read, or even watch television, then in the morning I was exhausted. It felt like having jet-lag without the benefit of travel. Soon enough, though, I figured out that the problem was bright light. If I simply lay there in darkness, I awoke refreshed, even with the broken sleep.

The only problem was: boredom.

But along came the solution: audiobooks. Over the years during my halftimes I have listened to—hard to say…hundreds?—of audiobooks. My nomination for the best ever audiobook to cure insomnia is Marcel Proust’s beautifully mis-titled Remembrance of Things Past. If I were in charge of marketing his audiobooks, I’d use the slogan, “Nothing puts you to sleep like Proust.” I don’t think he’d mind. He might even be pleased, since he chose to begin that whole seven-volume set with the very sentence I stole and altered to begin this blog.

Our landlady in France knows that my wife loves her tea and tisanes and infusions and what not. One morning this summer she brought over a decorative tin (she’s not going to bring a Zip-Lock bag—she’s French) of flowers from the “tilleul” tree in her mother’s garden in Alsace. Her dictionary translated “tilleul” as “linden tree,” so, okay, now we can add linden tea to the list. No big thrill for me. I observe the six basic drink groups: beer, wine, scotch, coffee, orange juice, cola. Call me limited, but there it is, and even the landlady didn’t expect me to get excited about her “tilleul.” It was for my wife. I was hors de combat, as far as those two were concerned.

But sometime during the day I started to wonder just exactly what Proust’s narrator had drunk in the famous passage when he dips a madeleine into “lime-flower tea” and suddenly his whole past—seven volumes worth—opens before him. So I found a French copy of Swann’s Way and looked for it. Sure enough: tilleul.There it was! The elixir of one of literature’s crowning achievements! In my own kitchen! In a pretty coppery tin, hand-picked by a real little-old-French-lady grandma!

That afternoon I walked to the local patisserie for some madeleine cakes, while my wife set out her tea things in the garden. It was a gorgeous day and we were doing this right. She tasted her tilleul, then a madeleine. Something wasn’t to her taste. She went into the house and came back with some sprigs of mint and a jar of rhubarb jam. While I slathered the cakes with jam, she emptied our cups into the teapot, added the mint, and gave it all a good swirl.

“Ah,” she said, “Much better now.”

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