Marcel Proust’s aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Jules Amiot, lived at No. 4 rue du Saint-Esprit (subsequently renamed rue du Dr. Proust after Proust’s father) now a museum, in Illiers-Combray (the only town in France to have been renamed after a fictional village). This house was where young Marcel stayed with his family and the one he recreated, with all of its complicated associations, in A la Recherche du temps Perdu.
No visit to Illiers-Combray is complete without first reading George Painter’s masterful biography Marcel Proust,. ’At Illiers’, he writes,
‘…the church and grey street and gardens of Combray are there for all to see; the village spires perform their strange movements, the two ways of rolling plain and narrow river lead for ever in opposite directions, and nevertheless meet. In the real topography of Illiers the mysterious significance of the symbolical landscape of Combray was already latent.’
With Painter’s help the motivated Literary Tourist can find the streets, houses, gardens and walks which constitute such an integral part of the Proustian maize. He or she can even eat madeleines, which for centuries have been made here in the shape of scallop shells, because Illiers was on the route to the shrine of St. James of Compostella in Spain, and the pilgrims wore shells on their hats.
The young Proust came frequently to Illiers, visiting regularly until he reached his teens, at which point education and bad health took him elsewhere, often for long stays by the sea, in Beg-Meil and Cabourg. In 1902 he returned on his own to look at the church of St. Jacques through the eyes of John Ruskin, whose writings on architecture had impressed him deeply.
For information on visiting Combray, check out the Office de Tourism de Combray here.