Monday, February 16, 2009

Picnic with Albertine (IV): Misreading Chocolate Cake in Proust

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Actually, I made a mistake in the chocolate cake for Proust’s picnic with the gang of girls. In planning menus, I had forgotten a detail about the chocolate cake. Assuming that on a picnic simplicity would be the choice, I chose the chocolate sponge cake dusted simply with powdered sugar rather than filled or frosted with icing. The detail I had forgotten was that in the text Proust does refer to the baked good as a piece of chocolate cake with gothic architecture of icing (482). Such error does indicate my “misreading” of Proust’s text.

If my simple sugar-dusted cake is to facilitate my own interpretation of a “picnic cake” in which the elaborate icing should not be spread on the cake for the sake of portability, I was wondering how much of Proust’s persistence on a “frosted” cake in this picnic with girls is also out of convenience for interpreting difference by means of extracting a familiar experience from the past. Not to justify my own blunder in failing to apply icing on the cake (at this point, I am thinking that the simple chocolate-coffee butter cream would have been an adequate icing to meet with the narrator’s preference), but I cannot help but wonder if the icing on the cake is truly the solid frosting mainly made of butter, chocolate and coffee (or, maybe cream cheese, chocolate and tons of confectioner’s sugar?) or, more to the point, if the icing is simply the shadow reflected from the narrator’s memory to validate the reality he is facing. Therefore, could the icing, such sweet and sugar-based mixture, be the comfortable, reliable and necessary memory that is applied to “coat” the different reality that is full of the unknown and risks? With such a coating, the uneven or imperfect surface (e.g. crumbs, or the protruding dome top surface of the cake layer due to the interaction between heat, liquid and leaveners, or even a crack due to dryness) of the cake can be covered and smoothed out. It is similar to the necessary memory from the past: harsh reality, which is full of the unpredictable, could be explained; and the vulnerable self, like the body of the cake, could be protected. As such, if icing a cake is to make the pastry appetizing, sophisticated and further keep the cake moist, the memory of Combray and Gilberte is also the necessary “frosting” that the narrator has to apply to the reality—the picnic with girls—over which he has no control.

I also realize that the act of writing can be an act of frosting. If writing down the memory is to fix the uncertainty in the past, the words themselves, then, are like the frosting which covers the untamed memory, affects, perceptions or trauma that might not be adequately re-presented on a piece of paper. Writing, therefore, like frosting, could be some sort of defensive mechanism that assists the self with fitting into reality. Or my lengthy explanation so far is meant, simply, to mend and repair my negligence in making the icing.

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