A Franco-Russian Christmas Tale

snowtreesPapa Panov’s Special Christmas is an endearing and heartwarming tale written by Tolstoy that captures the essence of Christmas by reminding us that being kindhearted and giving selflessly to those in need is what the holiday is all about. It’s a timeless story but particularly apt for our times when the true meaning of Christmas seems to be lost in materialistic wants and the frenzy of shopping. It’s perfect as a bedtime story for children or for the whole family to read aloud together.

A village shoemaker called Papa Panov is expecting Jesus to pay a visit to his humble home on Christmas Day. His wish is to give him the finest pair of shoes he has ever made. On the night of Christmas Eve, he was promised in a dream that his wish will come true but that he should look carefully as he may not be able to recognize his visitor. Will his much awaited guest arrive? You can read the translation of the story here:


Anyone familiar with the Bible will know that the story is an illustration of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which is an exhortation to care for the poor and the needy:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. ( Matthew 25: 35 to 40- King James Version)

This story was written during Tolstoy’s twilight years after his return to Christianity. Tolstoy was raised in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith but he was against organized religion and rejected the authority of the State and the Church. After going through an anguishing spiritual and existential crisis, he decided to give the religion a second chance as he was touched by the faith of the simple peasants around him. He sought solace in the Bible and was particularly moved by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and responding to evil not by resisting or retaliating but with love and forgiveness. He was a Christian anarchist (although he himself did not use the term) who felt the church had betrayed the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ by choosing to focus instead on superstitions, miracles and rituals. He was eventually excommunicated by the Church for his apostasy.

As interesting, if not more, is the story about the story. Tolstoy’s story is a retelling of a French tale entitled Le Père Martin, originally written by Ruben Saillens, a French pastor and author, in 1883, and eventually published in his book of fables and allegories ( Récits Et Allégories).* The English translation of the fable made its way to Russia and was unintentionally plagiarized by Tolstoy who rewrote the story in Russian with just a few minor changes. The story traveled all the way to Russia only to return to France as a Russian story translated in French. Understandably, Saillens was perturbed by the discovery of his own story being passed off as a Russian one and broached the subject, not once but twice in separate letters to Tolstoy. Tolstoy did reply with apologies on both occasions. In the first letter, he explained that he came across an anonymous English translation of the story in a journal and retold the story in Russian adding a Russian setting. In the second letter, Tolstoy assured him that he had attributed the source in all the subsequent Russian editions of the story but the translated versions in the US and other parts of the world were beyond his control as he had relinquished all copyrights to his work. **

The title of my blog post credits the story to its rightful source as in my own little way I hope to clear up this widespread literary misconception. I have the utmost respect for the creator of Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the story is a virtual copy of the French one. Imagine what a furor such an act of plagiarism would have caused in our contemporary literary milieu! In any case, this is probably a folktale with many variants transmitted down generations via oral tradition and probably penned initially by Saillens.

A Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate and whether we believe or not, may we, like Papa Panov, find moments everywhere in our everyday lives to help those who are less fortunate than us!



* You can read the story in French and the preface to the story here:  Le Père Martin

** For more on the two letters, click on the following links:

A Wrong Attribution.




Soumission (Submission) by Michel Houellebecq is a somewhat plausible account of France transforming into an Islamic State in the near future. It was coincidentally published on January 7th, 2015, the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack. To make matters worse, Houellebecq himself, “the enfant terrible” of French literature, appeared as a caricature on the front page of the week’s issue. The timing could not have been better or worse depending on how you view it. It undoubtedly gave a lot of publicity to the author but also incurred the wrath of many Muslims who already viewed him as a provocateur for his many unflattering comments about Islam. So what is the brouhaha about? Is it an Islamaphobic work of fiction or does it depict the reality of a changing Europe under the guise of satire? It was an engaging read that I read in less than two days in the original French. In my opinion, the book is much more than an anti-Islam polemic. The main premise of the novel is that secularization of the western world has resulted in a moral crisis and has left a vacuum providing the perfect opportunity for a traditional religion like Islam to fill the void.

The story is told through the eyes of François, a cynical and disillusioned middle-aged professor who teaches nineteenth century literature at the Sorbonne. He has no friends and lives a lonely and empty life filled with alcohol, microwave dinners, pornography downloads and sexual exploits with students half his age. He is starting to worry about his waning sexual prowess. There seems to be a pattern in his dating life. The girls he dates eventually lose interest in him and find someone else. His girlfriend Miriam walks out on him when he talks about the benefits of patriarchy. He is estranged from his parents and has no interest in politics. The only constant presence in his life is a deceased figure from the past. François is an expert on the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans, a naturalist turned decadent author who was also the subject of his PhD dissertation and his academic work. He waxes poetic about the ability of literature to connect us with others. Though the fine arts can move you and leave you with wonder, it is only literature, he avers, that can give you the sensation of contact with another human being, with his strengths and weaknesses, his beliefs and ideas. François has spent so much time researching Huysmans that he considers him a trusted friend. In fact, there are many uncanny parallels between the two lives.

François seems to be suffering from what he himself refers to as ‘andropause’. France is also going through a similar andropause with its decline in family and spiritual values. The year is 2022 and we witness the growing political clout of Islam in the Presidential elections. The right wing ‘Front National’ led by Marine Le Pen is poised to win but in the run -off election, the Socialists, after negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood ( Fraternité Musulmane), manage to thwart her efforts at victory. François Bayrou, a present day centrist politician, becomes the next Prime Minister of France and Mohammed Ben Abbes, the fictional leader of the Fraternité Musulmane , the next President. The latter dreams of transforming France, Europe and the entire Mediterranean region into a moderate Islamic state and invites Turkey, Morocco, Libya, Egypt and other Northern African countries to join the EU. France is gradually Islamized and women are veiled. These changes are inevitable but the rapidity with which they are adopted seems quite startling and far-fetched.The Sorbonne becomes an elite Islamic institution financed by Saudi money. Non-Muslims are no longer allowed to teach in government funded institutions unless they are willing to convert. François, as a consequence, loses his teaching position. Along with his job, he also loses his Jewish girlfriend Miriam who emigrates with her family to Israel. Under the hegemony of Islam, the economy is booming and unemployment is low as women leave the workforce in droves.

France is going through enormous changes but François is mainly interested in pursuing his hedonistic pleasures. Like Huysmans he moves anchorless through life. Huysmans eventually converted to Catholicism and lived as a Benedictine oblate, faith serving as the antidote to his nihilism. François does some soul searching of his own and follows the same trajectory as the subject of his dissertation. He visits Rocamadour to see the Black Madonna and also goes on a retreat to the same Catholic monastery in Poitiers where Huysmans took monastic vows but unlike Huysmans, he doesn’t find redemption in the Catholic faith. He decides that he would rather smoke cigarettes than lead a spiritual life there. Houellebecq has chosen an interesting name for his main character as François could very well represent his nation’s citizens plagued by ennui and apathy. Along with Islam, modern France is also the butt of the author’s ridicule. The liberal individualism and laïcité of the West have resulted in a decline in the birth rate and the erosion of the family unit. A clumsy aspect in the structure of the novel is how characters are introduced to expound ideas. A spouse of a colleague who had worked for the DGSI enlightens François on the political state of the country and Robert Rediger, the new head of the Sorbonne, who has converted to Islam, tries to persuade him to give up his atheism and return to the University. Rediger has a philosophical discussion with François on the downfall of western civilization. He refers to the historian Toynbee’s idea that civilizations die not by murder but by suicide. Again, we have an interesting choice of name for a character. The French verb ‘rédiger’ means to compose, to write, to direct or to draft.

While reading the book ‘Ten Questions about Islam’ authored by Rediger, François jumps straight to the chapter on polygamy. He is lured by the prospect of converting to Islam. Not only will he regain his position at the Sorbonne with a fat pay check, but also be able to choose three nubile wives from his students. Houellebecq focuses mostly on polygamy as if that were the only salient aspect of the religion. But that is exactly what interests the protagonist. He has no problem embracing the changes as they serve his self-interest. Even before women started wearing burqas, the protagonist treated his women like  objects. The novel portrays the new reality in a comical and ironical way to show how one patriarchal system supplants another. Of course, Houellebecq conveniently forgets that Islam prohibits alcohol when the professor and his colleagues continue drinking excessively.

Islam, in Arabic means submission to the will of God. François submits to the new order just as he submits to Islam and his own submission is motivated by the thought of women submitting to him. Islam taking control over France could turn out well for the middle aged professor who is tempted by the prospect of having many young brides but what about French women? There is no mention of their fate. Here is where the book appears misogynistic and leaves you with a profound sense of malaise. Or maybe therein lies the veiled satire (pun unintended).

Soumission is a disturbing but thought-provoking book on declinism, on a civilization on the brink, a civilization whose values of individualism, liberalism and secularism are threatened by Islam. It is much more than a diatribe against Islam. It is also a scathing attack on modern France and the hypocrisy of elite intellectuals. Would we value our values enough to not capitulate to a trending global ideology? It is a brilliant book, as funny as it is dark, reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide. Is it provocative, racist, satirical or is it simply portraying the reality? Is it a dystopian or utopian vision of the future? Do surrender yourself to the pleasure of reading the book ( The title is Submission, after all.) and form your own opinion. It remains to be seen if Houellebecq’s prescient premonition comes to fruition.

*The picture was taken from http://allegralaboratory.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/islam-france1.jpg

Paris Book Fair


The Paris Book Fair or the Salon du Livre de Paris renamed this year as Livre Paris is a cultural event held annually at the Porte de Versailles exhibition hall in Paris that brings together readers, writers, scholars, editors, publishers and booksellers from all over the world. I happened to be in Paris during the time the book fair was held ( March 17th toIMG_2226 March 20th, 2016) and I visited on the last day, literally a few hours before the exhibition closed. I was waiting in line to buy tickets for my family when a lady came up to me and handed me three tickets saying she wasn’t going to use them. The fortuitous encounter saved us many euros and started off our visit on a good note.

We entered a large room with various pavilions with books galore. There were books, books, books, everywhere. Each pavilion represented a different section of interest including books on travel and adventure, cooking, foreign literature, children’s literature , an area for Manga and graphic novels, or a region like books from Normandy or the Aquitaine-Limousin -Poitou- Charentes area. There were booths devoted to Francophone literature from Algeria, Quebec and other regions. Over 50 countries were represented at the event and there was a special station for foreign literature. The fair focuses on the literature of a specific region or country and cities each year and this year South Korea was the guest of honor. Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire in the Republic of the Congo and Constantine in Algeria were the guest cities invited to showcase their literature. “Resistance” was the theme word for 2016. Discussions, readings, book signings and talks were part of the four- day event. Many readers were waiting in line to have their copies signed by their favorite authors. There were four themed areas with round table discussions, demonstrations, tastings, readings and debates: Culinary Square, Children’s Square, Knowledge and Understanding Square and Religions, Culture and Society Square.

IMG_2224An interesting find was a seven-volume translation of the Valmiki Ramayana into French illustrated with reproductions of original miniature paintings from India. Another impressive item on display was the three-volume quasi-original set of The Bible of Saint-Louis or the Toledo Bible composed between 1226 and 1234. This Bible moralisée was made for King Louis IX of France. Each page of the Bible is divided into four vertical columns with two of the columns containing text in Latin and the other two four ornately decorated medallions.

IMG_2273One area of the room had short story dispensers for us to try out. These story vending machines are becoming immensely popular in France for killing time in public areas. Free fiction is available at the touch of a button and can be read in a minute, three minutes or five minutes depending on how much time you have to spare. The story is printed on long paper that looks like a supermarket receipt. At the fair, the paper with the story was rolled up and tied with a pretty orange ribbon.IMG_2228

The book fair kept abreast of the latest technological trends in our increasingly interconnected world. There were sections devoted to e-books and conferences on information technology. At the same time, seeing the massive crowds and the huge room filled with innumerable books from one end to the other restored my faith in the power of the printed word in this digital era. Good old-fashioned reading will never go out of fashion.

La Madeleine de Proust



One of the most famous scenes in literature is in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s monumental masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator experiences an episode of involuntary memory through the simple act of tasting madeleine crumbs soaked in tea. The madeleine serves as a powerful sensory trigger for a memory about eating a similar madeleine dipped in tea with his aunt in his childhood home in Combray and eventually unleashes a deluge of memories resulting in a seven-volume magnum opus of reminiscences. I have a wonderful recipe for Proust’s madeleines, but first, let’s enjoy reading the beautiful passage along with my translation, which, I hope, will double the pleasure of savoring the madeleines and perhaps evoke our own remembrances of things past.

Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et le drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaient avoir été moulées dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse: ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu me venir cette puissante joie ? Je sentais qu’elle était liée au goût du thé et du gâteau, mais qu’elle le dépassait infiniment, ne devait pas être de même nature. D’où venait-elle ? Que signifiait-elle ? Où l’appréhender ? Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. Il est temps que je m’arrête, la vertu du breuvage semble diminuer. Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi.

Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, A la recherche du temps perdu

And here’s my translation:

Many years had gone by already during which nothing of Combray, except for what constituted the theater and drama of my bedtime, existed for me, when one winter day, as I returned home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that I take some tea, which was contrary to my habit. I declined at first and, I don’t know why, changed my mind later. She sent for one of those small and plump cakes called “Petites Madeleines” which looked as though they had been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell of Saint James*. And soon, overwhelmed by the dreary morning and the prospect of a grim morrow, I mechanically brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful mixed with the crumbs of cake touched my palate, I shuddered, attentive to the extraordinary sensation that was passing through me. A delicious pleasure had invaded my senses, it was detached, without any intimation of its origin. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life irrelevant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, in the same way that love works, filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. From where had this powerful joy come to me? I sensed that it was tied to the taste of the tea and the cake, but it transcended it infinitely, it wasn’t of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it signify? How do I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful in which I don’t find anything more than in the first, a third which brings me even a little less than the second. It’s time I stop, the virtue of the beverage seems to be diminishing. It is clear that the truth that I am looking for is not in it, but in me.

*Madeleine cakes were shaped like scallop shells. These shells were the symbol of St. James and were worn or carried by pilgrims in the Middle Ages on their way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

This episode of involuntary memory is followed by a conscious effort on the part of the narrator as he painstakingly tries to recapture the fleeting memories triggered by the cake. In that sense, the madeleine episode is as much about voluntary memory as it is about involuntary memory. Eventually, after repeated attempts, the old grey house with its little pavilion opening on to the garden, the town with its square and streets, the flowers in the garden and in Mr. Swann’s park, the water-lilies on the Vivonne, the village residents and their dwellings, the church and the entire town of Combray and its surroundings spring back into life from his little cup of linden blossom tea.

Long before it acquired its great literary reputation, this humble confection was quite the rage in the eighteenth century in a town named Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France. It is believed that the nuns of the St. Mary Magdalene convent made these sweets and sold the prized recipe to the local bakers when their institution was destroyed. Another popular story is about a young servant girl named Madeleine Paulmier who made the delectable sponge cakes for Stanislas Leczinski, the Duke of Lorraine, for a royal banquet when his pastry chef quit unexpectedly. He was so impressed that he named them after her. His daughter who was the wife of Louis the XV, subsequently introduced them to the court in Versailles. Just as there are many versions and variants of the story of the origin of the madeleine, there are many recipes with countless variations. Julia Child has a recipe for ‘Les Madeleines de Commercy’ with lemon juice and vanilla extract added to the batter. My recipe is based on the instructions on the back of my madeleine pan bought at Williams-Sonoma (Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Paris, by Marlena Spieler) as I believe it results in madeleines that are ‘dodus’ or plump with a dry and crumbly texture as enjoyed by Proust’s narrator. I have modified the recipe to suit my taste by adding more sugar. Yes, I like my madeleines sweet. I’ve also added lemon zest for some zing. I like them spicy too.

Lemon-scented madeleines

Yield- Around 20 madeleines

Specialty equipment- Madeleine pans ( molds with scallop-shaped indentations available in kitchen stores and online at Amazon)


½ cup all-purpose flour

2 eggs at room temperature

½ cup granulated sugar

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

¼ tsp. salt

4 tbsps. ( ½ stick ) of unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature)

1 ½ tbsps. lemon zest finely grated

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)


Melt the butter in a small saucepan and cool to room temperature.

Combine eggs, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Beat on medium high speed in an electric mixer until the mixture turns pale yellow and fluffy and forms a ribbon pattern. This should take around 5-10 minutes.

Add the vanilla extract and the lemon zest.

Sift the flour gradually over the egg mixture and beat on low speed till it is mixed in.

Gradually fold in the melted butter until blended.

Cool the batter for a few hours in a refrigerator if you want the characteristic hump shape on the madeleines. You could also freeze the baking tray for an hour before filling it with the batter for baking. Heat the oven to 375 F. Using a pastry brush, brush the molds of the madeleine pans with softened butter and dust them with flour. Use an ice-cream scoop to put 1 tablespoon of batter in the middle of each mold. It will spread while baking in the indentation of the pan. Bake 8-12 minutes until the madeleines are golden brown and spring back lightly when gently pressed.

Remove the pan from the oven. Gently loosen the madeleines from their molds by rapping the pan against the counter or prying them loose with a butter knife. Let cool for a few minutes and invert on a plate. Dust the madeleines with confectioners’ sugar before serving, if desired. They are best eaten fresh but can be stored for a day or two in an airtight container.


Use orange zest instead of lemon zest.

Almond extract can be substituted for vanilla extract.

Add a teaspoon of ground cardamom for a delicately spiced fragrance and taste.

Melt semi-sweet chocolate chips and dip the tips of the madeleines in the chocolate.

Bake some madeleines, brew some tea or tisane and wait for your olfactory and gustatory senses to help you re-create your own Proustian moment as you embark on the path of nostalgia and recollections! Bon appétit!