Mme Proust And The Kosher Kitchen

Paperback | December 2, 2003

byKate Taylor

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Stretching between turn-of-the-century Paris and contemporary Canada, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is the story of three women whose lives intersect across time to reveal the intrinsic bonds of our collective and personal histories. It is a rich and compassionate debut, a novel that encourages us to explore the depths of love and memory, of life and of art.

Unable to escape the pain of her unrequited love for Max Segal, Marie Prévost travels to Paris in order to study the writing of her other great amour: the novelist Marcel Proust. Marie is bilingual and works as a simultaneous translator in Montreal, and believes that reading Proust’s original papers will give her insights into love and loss that just may mend her broken heart. But when Marie arrives in Paris, Marcel remains as elusive as Max: the strict officials at the Bibliotèque Nationale only allow her access to the peripheral papers of File 263 -- a much ignored and poorly catalogued collection of the diaries kept by Jeanne Proust, Marcel’s mother. Despite the head librarian’s opinion that they contain only the “natterings of a housewife,” Marie begins to translate them, and discovers that Jean Proust’s diary is as illuminating for what is not said as what is there.

Entwined with Marie’s story are the diary entries that she has translated: Jeanne Proust’s records of day-to-day life in her Paris household, which make up the second strand of this novel. Jeanne’s diary includes all aspects of life at 9 Boulevard Malesherbes, everything from the difficulties of cutting rich desserts from the dinner menu to the latest Parisian headlines to her fears for the health and literary ambitions of Marcel. She’s a worrier, Madame Proust, but also ferociously protective and supportive of her frail son, and the trials of her small world come across as powerfully as the goings-on outside her doors. Madame Proust’s diary entries, particularly those from the height of the Dreyfus Affair, also convey her experiences as a Jewish woman within a prominent Catholic family and a privileged social class. And it is this thread that makes Marie recognize the difficulties of finding the woman’s true voice, given the atrocities to come during the Second World War.

As she continues her work, Marie increasingly explores the devastation of the Holocaust and wonders about our collective responsibility to remembering -- and recording -- it’s truths. Her explorations of Paris, first limited to the Proustian tour, begin to include memorial sites such as the one at Drancy, a transit camp on the route to Auschwitz. During her travels she comes across references to Max’s mother’s family, the Bensimons, and begins to make connections between the overbearing mother Max so often complains about and Madame Proust. She also starts to recognize the horrible burden Sarah Segal must carry.

Sarah’s story is the third strand of this novel. Sarah Segal -- née Bensimon, then Simon -- was sent to Canada from France at age twelve, just as the Nazis were beginning to round up Parisian Jews. Growing up with her foster family in Toronto, she is never able to escape the loss of her parents, and as a young woman she travels back to Paris to discover that they did, in fact, die at Auschwitz. But despite -- and perhaps due to -- finding out what happened to them, Sarah is unable to fully adjust to her life in Canada. She doesn’t know how to communicate with her son or her husband, and finds even the most mundane domestic events overwhelming. It is only when she retreats to her kitchen, determined to fuse her French and Jewish histories by mastering a kosher version of classic French cuisine, that she begins to face her sorrow head on.

Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is Kate Taylor’s first novel, and has been highly praised by reviewers. Most comment on Taylor’s wonderful ability to weave together three distinct stories in such a way that the larger truths emerge from among their combined details, and on the subtle way she is able to meld history and fiction. As one literary critic has stated, “Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen marks the stunning emergence of a writer from whom we can expect much in the future.”

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From the Publisher

Stretching between turn-of-the-century Paris and contemporary Canada, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is the story of three women whose lives intersect across time to reveal the intrinsic bonds of our collective and personal histories. It is a rich and compassionate debut, a novel that encourages us to explore the depths of love and ...

Kate Taylor was born in France and raised in Ottawa, and now makes Toronto her home. As a teenager, she knew that she would be a writer, though she pursued not fiction but journalism, a passion she discovered in high school. While attending Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa, Taylor wrote for her school’s newspaper, and she continued this work...

interview with the author

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I became interested in journalism, and criticism specifically, while I was still in high school at Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa, where I was intrigued by the idea that a movie or a painting could be analyzed the same way we were taught to analyze poems or plays in English class. I had no particular ambitions to write fiction in those days and apart from a minor bit of dabbling at university I concentrated exclusively on journalism, writing for student papers at the University of Toronto before taking a Masters in journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.

2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
Like a lot of journalists I was looking for the challenge of a book-length project, but I wasn’t finding anything that interested me. It was when the idea for Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen came to me in bed one night in 1995, and just wouldn’t go away, that I decided my book was going to be a novel. A long fan of the French novelist Marcel Proust, I had been reading his biographies, and in his anxious, over-protective mother I saw a figure who reminded me of women I knew. They were women who were teenagers during the Second World War and had immigrated to Canada afterwards, often escaping very difficult experiences in Europe or Asia. They seemed unable to accept the security of the new world, which created a very particular generation gap with their Canadian-born children who had never known violence or deprivation. It was in that parallel between Madame Proust and subsequent generations that I saw the potential for a novel and from the start I hit on the three-part structure: Madame Proust’s diary, Sarah Simon’s wartime and post-war story, and Marie Prévost’s contemporary story bringing the two together.

3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
First of all and most simply, I defined Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen as a novel about mothers who worry too much. A lot of people dismiss these women as silly, but I sympathized with the root of their anxiety and wanted to understand its mechanics.

It’s also a novel about outsiders and what they will do to belong while still trying to remain true to themselves. Proust was homosexual, half-Jewish, isolated by his invalidism and decidedly bourgeois in his origins, but he lusted after heterosexual Catholic aristocrats. He wanted to be like them, yet, at the same time, his status as an outsider was the wellspring of his great artistic sensitivity (and the source for his wicked satire of high society in his novel). The outsider has an intelligence that the insider often lacks. There’s a parallel in Sarah’s life: her kosher kitchen is an attempt to craft an identity for herself by uniting her French and Jewish heritages, but in the end it proves to be false somehow, or perhaps too restrictive, and she destroys it.

Finally, one of Proust’s great themes was memory -- all of childhood recaptured involuntarily through the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea -- but he was talking about personal memories, of a particular church, a country walk, his eccentric aunts and uncles. I was interested in examining how Proust’s life and themes resonated for subsequent generations, but I had to ask whether, in a post-Holocaust world, we can regard memory solely as a personal act. Marie asks herself whether she, a non-Jew born after the war, does not have some obligation to the collective memory of those who were lost. I was originally led into the post-Holocaust material in my novel because of the obvious foreshadowing of the Holocaust that was made possible in the storytelling when the Proust family became divided by the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair (in which a French army officer of Jewish heritage was wrongfully accused of spying).

4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
That is a very difficult question because I think authors sympathize with all their characters -- or at least must attempt to understand them all. I had one interviewer tell me that the ever-anxious Sarah was a particularly brave creation because she wasn’t very likeable, with all her worrying. I saw what he meant, but if I knew she was often annoying, I always understood her, and felt for her.

Still, I guess I would have to say Madame Proust is my favourite, because I created her first, and because it was in rising to the challenge of seeing whether or not I could find her voice -- she was a real historical person, after all -- that I realized the novel was being born.

5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
I think it might be helpful for readers to summarize the three stories for themselves and then look at the links between them. Those are much more importantly links of theme (see number 3, above) than they are links of plot. I think readers looking for very dramatic plot links -- oh, X is Y’s illegitimate child! -- are going to get a bit confused. The final point of the novel is not who is related to whom, but why we write fiction, perhaps as an act of memory or empathy.

Also, you don’t need to have read Proust to enjoy this novel! There is a helpful little precis of everything you need to know quiet early on in the novel, when Marie describes how she discovered Proust.

6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
I was booked into a lunch-hour local cable show in Ottawa on which the guest before me was taking a dinner theatre to Afghanistan to entertain Canadian troops, and the guest after me was billed as the world’s strongest man. “Aaaaahhh, Proust and the world’s strongest man???!!!” I thought, but the hosts turned out to be engaging and engaged. Which leads me to number 7…
 
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
… They were the only people to ever ask me to whom the book is dedicated and why.

It is dedicated to “the companions of childhood: Andrew, Sarah, Pegatha, and James.” These are my brothers and sisters. Unlike three of my main characters -- Sarah Simon/Segal, her son Max Segal, and the contemporary narrator Marie Prévost, who are all only children -- I rejoiced in very close relationships with my four siblings, which I think goes a long way to dissipate the feelings of isolation that I was talking about in number 3 (above).

Also, it’s a little bit of a joke: Proust himself had a brother, Robert Proust, but when he came to write his novel he made his narrator Marcel an only child. Some people think that was sibling rivalry; others argue that if you are going to write a novel about the self, a sibling gets in the way by providing that closest mirror to the self, the person who grew up in the same family as you did. So, I wanted to say, siblings may sometimes be an intrusion in literature, but they are very important in life.

8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
None of the reviews or profiles surrounding this book changed my attitudes towards it -- as a critic myself, I have to say that while a critic can give an artist a different perspective, reviews are written for general audiences, not artists, and it would be surprising if a critic told an artist anything particularly new about the work under consideration.
 
Reviews and profiles of other writers have often given me pause to think -- I only wish I could remember a lot of great examples for you. I once read an interview with a novelist who said all novels are autobiographical because they tell you what the author cares about, which I thought was a clever way of replying to that oft-asked question. Also, the Globe and Mail’s recent interview with the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar (the man who wrote the novella that inspired Life of Pi) was very touching. Asked to comment on his move away from magic realism as democracy was established in his country, he said if he had to choose between democracy and the imagination, he would choose the former, even if it wasn’t great for him as a writer.

9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Well, Proust, very obviously. I first read the bit about the madeleine and the tea cup in high school; I read the first volume in university, and then finally read the whole seven-book novel in my twenties, after I graduated.

I have also read a lot of Iris Murdoch over the years -- I am interested in her ideas on fate, free will and goodness.

To write Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, I reread A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, to take a look at how those writers draw the reader in and lead the reader along in novels that also place historical literary figures in the midst of contemporary stories.

10) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
The one other career I ever considered was being a chef or caterer, but I barely seem to have time to cook these days! I guess my interest in food showed up in the novel instead.

11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller -- it is the most brilliant examination of the reader/writer relationship I have ever read.

other books by Kate Taylor

A Man In Uniform
A Man In Uniform

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Serial Monogamy

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The Pink Eraser
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Format:PaperbackPublished:December 2, 2003Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385658354

ISBN - 13:9780385658355

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Read from the Book

Sophie needed some stones, but could not think where she might find any in the midst of the city. She wasn’t looking for a great boulder, but neither would she be satisfied with the few scrapings of gravel she could surreptitiously remove from the tiny, urbanized garden that jutted but a metre onto the pavement in front of the ground-floor flat in the building three doors down from her own. Wondering where she could get more sizable specimens, she remembered now with fondness and regret the tin bucket of pebbles and seashells that the child had kept in her bedroom for many years, souvenirs of their holidays that the little one had gathered on the beach and then refused to part with when it came time to get on the train and return home. And Sophie recalled too their regular walks in the nearby woods where there must surely be some stray rocks lying about beneath the trees. But the child was older and far away now, the tin bucket long since discarded. The family had not taken a trip to the Norman coast since the war began, and although the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne was but ten minutes on foot from the apartment, Sophie was increasingly cautious about venturing any further than the baker’s shop at the corner and did not want to risk an extra outing on top of today’s mission. She would just have to rely on finding stones at her destination.She noted with relief that Philippe had also gone out earlier that morning, so that she did not need to explain her own departure. Communication was increasingly strained between them and she lacked the energy to think of a lie that might cover her as she pulled open the apartment’s heavy oak door. As long as the child was still with them, they had been united in their plans and resolute in their execution. Their daughter was to find safety, even if it cost Sophie and Philippe their life savings. But once word had got back, nine long weeks after the night they had parted, that her group had made it through the checkpoint at Hendaye and safely crossed into Spain, then their focus dissolved and their unity fractured.At first, Philippe had sought Sophie’s permission before he sold anything. From the start they had agreed that the silverware, their wedding gift from her mother, each piece so delicately etched with a tracery of vines, was sacrosanct, and then they had agonized together over what was more dispensable. But now she realized what he took only when she noticed it missing. Sitting reading in the salon, she would look up to the marble mantel to check the time and find that the gilded clock with figures of wood nymphs holding up its white-and-black face was not there. Reaching into the china cupboard for a plate onto which she could arrange a meagre meal of boiled potatoes and white beans, she would sense that it seemed less crowded than before and realize that the Sèvres was gone.These losses were unspoken and Philippe no longer told her of his plans, but she knew that he was probably visiting another dealer that morning. These days that was the only reason he had to leave the apartment. When they first imposed the quotas and he lost his practice, he was out every day, hurrying down to the Cité on the Métro because Maître Richelieu gave him work clerking in his office. But Philippe could no longer take the risk of the daily trip any more than his former colleague could take the risk of hiring him. He spent his days reading the newspaper and sorting uselessly through his old files. Suspended between their former life and some uncertain future, they seemed for the moment to have abandoned time. Increasingly, Sophie longed for something to disrupt this condition and had begun to think that when a knock came on the door, it would be nothing but a relief.She just had this last task to complete. She belted her drab-coloured trench coat firmly around her–she would need its strong, deep pockets to carry any stones she did find–and slipped quietly onto the landing. She peered over the wrought-iron banisters down four floors to the hallway, checking that Mme. Delisle was not about, sweeping the carpet or polishing the brass newel posts. The hall was empty for the moment and Sophie walked swiftly but silently downstairs. She moved without sound down the last flight, glided across the empty hallway like a ghost, and stepped out into the street.She walked towards the Métro quickly, attempting to set a pace that was rapid enough to suggest legitimate business but not so hurried as to hint at flight. The day was pleasant, still hot although it was now mid-October, and despite herself, she warmed to the light on her face. From La Muette, the stop where she had safely and thoughtlessly boarded a train so many times before, she took the Métro eastward, keeping her head down so as not to catch anyone’s eye, anxiously scanning not the faces of the other passengers but their equally revealing footwear. She was fearfully looking for the well-polished leather boots that would belong to either a gendarme or a German officer, but she saw none and forty minutes later arrived without incident at her stop, Père Lachaise.This is the most famous cemetery in Paris. As she entered the gates, Sophie heard herself saying these words in her head like some sort of tour guide, and she realized that she was talking to her daughter. This is the most famous cemetery in Paris, she continued as she started up one of the beaten dirt paths, home to Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust. Look, dear, there is the grave of Alfred de Musset, there with the little willow tree. He’s the man our street is named for, a great writer. Privately, she had always thought the tree was ridiculous. The poet had requested that he be buried beneath a willow, and instead of finding some suitable riverbank, his family had put him in Père Lachaise and planted this pathetic specimen above the grave. But Sophie would not share this criticism with her daughter.This is where France’s great artists are laid to rest, she would continue, the writer Alphonse Daudet is here, so are the painters Géricault and Delacroix, the playwright Beaumarchais, the poetess Anna de Noailles, and Georges Bizet, the composer who created Carmen. This is where the Faubourg Saint-Germain comes to a bitter end. That monument holds the bones of the de Guiches. The de Brancovans are here somewhere, the Rothschilds, all the great families. There’s the Comte de Montesquiou, a famous dandy in his day. And look, that’s the grave of Félix Faure, president of the Republic. Died in his mistress’s arms at the height of the Dreyfus affair. Not that you would tell such a thing to a girl not yet twelve, any more than you could explain how the English writer Oscar Wilde came to be buried in Paris, exiled and disgraced.As she spotted the Faure monument, Sophie also noticed a rough patch of clear ground beyond it, where there was space for some future grave. She approached and started kicking through dried leaves and half-dead grass with the toe of her shoe. Soon she found what she was looking for, a round pebble about double the size of a one-franc coin. By dint of more kicking, she amassed half a dozen such stones, putting them in her pockets, before moving up the hill towards the top of the cemetery.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen opens with Sophie Bensimon, Sarah’s mother, visiting her family’s monument in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, reflecting with sadness on the accomplishments of those buried there -- not only the famous artists but the Jewish cultural elite of Paris and her own family -- and fearful of what is to come. Reread the opening scene once you’ve finished the book. Why do you think Taylor begins the novel in this way?2. Which of the three women -- Jeanne, Sarah, Marie -- do you connect with the most? Why? On the other hand, is there a character you felt particularly distant from or did not like?3. In Jeanne Proust’s diary, we learn of the day-to-day details of life in the Proust household. And throughout the novel, there are tender domestic moments (Sarah builds a snowman for Max) and cherished memories (Marie tells us of the cottage summers of her youth). Discuss the significance of domestic life and remembering the small details of one’s past. Also, consider how this relates to telling the “bigger” stories, such as those about the Holocaust.4. The events of this novel take place over more than a century, stretching from Madame Proust’s diary entries of 1890 to Marie’s thoughts just before the end of the 20th century. How did this affect you as a reader? Were you able to make thematic connections between the three main narratives with ease, or was it difficult to do so?5. Why does Sarah destroy her kitchen?6. In her diary, Madame Proust creates a portrait of herself as Marcel’s mother, and often recognizes that her attentions and expectations might be too much for her son. What do you think of Jeanne Proust as a mother? Is she nurturing? Stifling? A little of both?7. Whereas Marie Prévost and Madame Proust come to us in their own words, Sarah’s story is told in the third person. Why do you think Taylor used this approach? Did you find it harder to understand Sarah’s character as a result? Or easier?8. Discuss the role of “outsiders” in Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen.9. At the end of the novel, Marie makes a discovery: “I have found the cure for heartbreak. It is literature.” She also realizes that the time has come to move from translation to writing fiction, as Marcel Proust did. Are there ways in which all great literature must have great emotion at its heart? Consider the importance of writing in this novel -- not only for Marie, but for the other characters as well.10. Sarah’s efforts to adapt French cuisine to the kosher kitchen can be seen as a way of trying to reconcile her French and Jewish heritages. Similarly, Jeanne Proust is Jewish but has married into a Catholic family, and her outsider status becomes particularly apparent when her opinions on the Dreyfus Affair differ from her husband’s. How successful are these women at coming to terms with their ancestries? What parallels and differences do you see between Marie’s work and life in bilingual Montreal and the other women’s experiences?11. Why isn’t Sarah able to accept that Max is gay? Compare her reaction to Jeanne Proust’s view of Marcel’s sexuality and lifestyle. And how do you think Marie feels about Max at the end of the novel, after his visit to Montreal?12. As Marie translates Madame Proust’s diary, she regularly skips entries that she considers uninteresting or less eventful. This is in addition to her work as a translator, which also distances us from Jeanne Proust’s original French entries. Considering that Marie originally wanted to study Marcel Proust’s papers but couldn’t get access, did you ever have the sense that she wasn’t providing an “honest” rendering of his mother’s diary?13. How complete of a character is Jeanne Proust in this novel? Are there aspects of her life that you would like to know more about?14. Discuss the portrayals of the male characters in Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen.15. In weaving together three different narratives, Kate Taylor has used a very fluid style -- voices switch mid-page, and there are no formal chapters, only segments of stories and diary entries. Discuss the overall structure of this novel. How did affect your reading process? Is there one story you would consider to be the “backbone” of the book, or are they inseparable for you?16. Despite the presence of historical figures such as Marcel and Jeanne Proust, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is a work of fiction -- as are the excerpts from Madame Proust’s diary. In interviews and articles, Kate Taylor has addressed the issue of fictionalizing history, and states in her acknowledgements that she “often makes free with historic and geographic fact” (for example, some dates and locations have been moved to fit with her story). What is a novelist’s responsibility to historical accuracy? Is it necessarily true that all historical fiction involves manipulating the available facts -- in order to tell the larger story?17. Taylor opens this novel with a quote from Jean Anouilh: “Life is very nice, but it has no shape. The object of art is actually to give it some…” Discuss how Taylor gives her characters’ lives “shape” in this novel. In a more general sense, how do life and writing interact in your own experience? Have you ever kept a diary, and if so, why?

Editorial Reviews

“Usually it is a sufficient accomplishment for an author to set a work of fiction in a single place and time and create characters whose voices and actions resonate with authenticity. It is much more of an achievement for an author to set a novel in three different locales and three distinct periods and still have it emerge with genuine characters whose thoughts, words and actions move and inspire … Language and history, like love itself, lie at the heart of this poignant and multi-textured novel … [an] intelligent and accomplished work of fiction.” -- Winnipeg Free Press“Magnificent.... Like Michael Cunningham in his prizewinning The Hours, Taylor adopts a tripartite structure to show how events in a writer’s life and themes in his work have resonance for subsequent generations. Taylor’s is, however, much the richer, subtler and less deterministic work.... truly inspired.” -- The Times (U.K.)“Take this splendid book to bed with you.... It will be a surprise if Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen doesn’t work its way on to thousands of bedside tables with the same word-of-mouth recommendation that turned Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake into a bestseller.” -- The Globe and Mail“Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen reads like a dream, meticulously crafted and researched, sophisticated in style and structure.” -- National Post “Kate Taylor achieves, with seemingly effortless grace, a remarkable feat: the near-perfect balance between being true to history and writing an engaging and fictional tale... In a harmonious weaving of history and fiction, the author recreates the essence of time past, gently enveloping her characters in their context without ever overwhelming them… Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen marks the stunning emergence of a writer from whom we can expect much in the future.” -- Calgary Herald“The strength of Taylor’s novel is in its evocation of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. The social and family life of the middle-class Prousts feels both accurate and imaginative.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)“This is a remarkable first novel -- thoughtful, versatile and an extremely good read.” -- Penelope Lively“…the parallel portraits of old and new worlds are vividly atmospheric. This well-written, melancholy story contains a lot to admire -- not least Marie's conclusion: ‘I have found the cure for heartbreak. It is literature.’” -- Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)“A work of sensitivity and depth from an author who writes perceptively, with many moments of lyricism.” -- The Vancouver Sun“Taylor’s meticulously crafted novel is an impressive debut.” -- The Daily Mail (U.K.)“Taylor has tackled these ideas with tenderness and subtlety; it is an ambitious project by a promising writer.” -- Times Literary Supplement (U.K.)“Fans of A.S. Byatt will be intrigued by this book.” -- Flare“Moving dextrously between Paris and Canada, Kate Taylor weaves together these disparate strands with great skill, sympathy and frequently arresting prose. She writes most beguilingly about identity, belonging and exile. But above all, these stories issue sharp warnings about the power and limitations of love, especially the parental variety.” -- The Guardian (U.K.)“A moving meditation on Parisian and Toronto history.” -- Maclean’s