Autumn Song (My translation of Verlaine’s Chanson D’Automne)

I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth to experience autumn. So embedded is the season in the local psyche that over time I have become an autumn person. Not only do I revel in the glorious hues of changing foliage and savor the textures, sounds and smells of the season, I also experience the melancholy that goes with the time of the year. I slow down to contemplate and see my own fate and the fate of everyone else around me in the transience of leaves. Autumn is after all the season of melancholia and introspection, a mood captured so poignantly by poets.

As I was walking in the woods around my home in southern New Hampshire the other day, I noticed a pile of dead leaves. It was late autumn and the leaves were a sodden mess, withered, bleached of color, and in a state of decay, considerably different from the vibrant palette on the tree tops just a few weeks ago. I was face to face with my mortality as I picked up a ‘feuille morte’ and thought instinctively of the poem “Chanson d’automne” or ”Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine, one of the leading French poets associated with the Symbolist movement.

I had first studied ” Chanson d’automne” in college and I can still recite it by heart. I had always loved the poem but now with the passing of the years the symbolism resonates more than ever and living in New England makes me understand autumn better. The poem is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 and is part of the “Paysages tristes” or ” Sad landscapes” section of the collection. One interesting fact about this poem is that the BBC used a song recording of it to send secret messages to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming invasion of Normandy during World War 2.

” Chanson d’automne” also happens to be one of the most translated poems of all time. Although it is written in simple French, it is difficult to translate it in English as it is a musical poem. “ De la musique avant toute chose’’ or ” Music before everything else” was after all Verlaine’s mantra and to retain the musicality of the poem along with conveying its melancholy is of utmost importance when rendering it from French into another language. But it is also such a brief and simple poem that it is best to keep the translation almost literal. You can see that translating the poem is no mean task. A lot of the translations extant stray too far from the meaning of the original in order to make the poem lyrical but I didn’t want to dilute the impact made by the French poem. I have tried my best to reconcile the two. So here is the original followed by my humble attempt at translation:

Chanson d’Automne

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Autumn Song

The long sobs 
Of autumn violins
Make my heart throb
With chagrin
And a monotonous

All choked up 
And pale, when
The hour sounds,
I remember with a sigh
Days long gone
And I cry.

And I let myself go
With the ill winds that blow
Which carry me
Hither, thither
To a dead leaf. 

( Translated by Jayshree – Literary Gitane) *

My translation is pretty literal but I have made some accommodations to recreate the plodding rhythm of the original which follows the effect of a violin playing slowly with the use of stylistic techniques like rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration and consonance. I could have translated ‘blessent mon coeur’ as ‘hurt my heart’ but I thought rhyming the word ‘violin’ with a word like ‘chagrin’ along with the use of the rhymes ‘long’, ‘sob’ and ‘throb’ would convey the effect of the pulsating sound of a heart beat and the rhythmic sound of a violin that I was looking for to accentuate the monotony and the melancholy of the lines. Similarly in the second verse I added ‘with a sigh’ to rhyme with ‘cry’ and the words ‘long gone’ to create the musicality with the internal rhyme and consonance. Throughout my translation, I have attempted the techniques of consonance and assonance to make the experience of the poem more auditory. In the concluding lines I was playing with ‘to and fro’ to rhyme with ‘blow’ but settled on ‘hither thither’ as I thought these two consonant sounds would best replace the words “Deçà, delà”.

This poem beautifully illustrates how an interior landscape corresponds with the exterior one. It employs the metaphor of autumn to bemoan a past that is irretrievably lost. It is interesting how it starts with the first person but by the end of the poem, the poet/ speaker becomes a dead object, one with the dead leaf, one with the season. “Autumn Dirge” would have been a more apt title to this poem, in my opinion, than “Autumn Song” but perhaps the poet either wished to be ironical or simply to emphasize the paradox of the sorrow triggered by the desolation of the season along with the calm of resignation and acceptance.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my translation. 🙂

  • Translation cannot be used without the permission of the author- Copyright- Literary Gitane

Paternal Love in Le Père Goriot

Father Goriot on his deathbed- From a 19th century lithograph


Honoré de Balzac is renowned for his series of interconnected books written under the title of La Comédie Humaine or The Human Comedy.  In the ‘roman fleuve’ or novel stream format, each novel is complete in itself and the whole of the sprawling magnum opus consisting of over 90 published books along with many unfinished ones, portrays common themes, recurring characters and a panoramic view of early 19th century French society. The work represents a break with romanticism and launches the realist movement in literature, the purpose being to depict life as it is – in a word striving for the quality of verisimilitude. I have read some of the novels during college and graduate school days – Eugénie Grandet and La Cousine Bette to name a few but recently read Le Père Goriot, which would be a good introduction to La Comédie Humaine in general to anyone interested in getting a taste of Balzac but daunted by the colossal collection.

Le Père Goriot is set in a shabby Parisian boarding house run by a certain Mme.Vauquer. The lodging, is in effect, a small scale model of Parisian society with its social hierarchies. One of its inhabitants and the main protagonist, Eugène Rastignac, is a country boy recently planted into the city to attend law school. After visiting his aristocratic cousin, Mme de Beauséant, he gets a taste for Parisian life and tries to get an entrance into haute society through liaisons with upper class women. Also a resident of the boarding house, is the titular character, Père or Father Goriot who is the butt of ridicule among the pensionnaires. After being rebuffed by Father Goriot’s elder daughter, Rastignac eventually falls in love with the younger one and that is how their stories intersect.

To add to the colorful mix is the unscrupulous fellow boarder, Vautrin, an escaped convict who tries to lure Rastignac into a diabolical scheme involving a duel and death, ostensibly to help the latter advance in his ambitions, but in reality, to promote his own mercenary interests. For money is the driving force behind the action of each and every character. The novel highlights the deleterious impacts of social mobility and capitalism with the restoration of the Bourbons in the post Napoleonic era. Rastignac neglects his studies and falls into a lifestyle of debauchery.  His transformation from a naïve idealistic person to a cynic is the main plot of the novel which one can classify as a bildungsroman.

As fascinating as Rastignac’s story is, I was more intrigued by the story of Father Goriot. The role of the father or the father figure is central to many of the books of La Comédie Humaine. This story of paternal love immediately brings to mind the story of King Lear and his daughters but here we have no devoted Cordelia.

Father Goriot is a retired vermicelli maker who has squandered his fortune on his selfish daughters, the Comtesse Anastasie de Restaud and the Baronne Delphine de Nucingen, both married into the upper echelons of Parisian society. He paid for their excellent education, their massive dowries and elevated their social status by marrying them into rich families. He lives in penury so he can continue to support his daughters who would not even deign to visit him or to welcome him into their homes. He is not acknowledged by them in public either as they are ashamed to be seen with him.

He is rejected by the two and their husbands but is still involved in their lives as an observer, on the outside. He admires them in their carriages from afar. He funds their extravagant lifestyles and lives vicariously through them as he deprives himself of food, coffee and firewood. In his little room, there are no curtains, the walls are damp, the wall paper is peeling and even his blanket is made of Mme Vauquer’s old dresses. The contrast between his room and the luxury his daughters enjoy is staggering. His physical transition from a better area of the boarding house to an inferior one is symbolic of the old man moving from one level of self-sacrifice to another. He bankrupts himself in order to support his girls going as far as pawning his gold and silver to pay off their debts and their lovers’ debts too. The only link he has to them is to support their lavish lifestyles. Otherwise he would be disowned completely.

He is a paragon of fatherly virtue and I was heartbroken by his plight. When I read this passage where he explains his love for his daughters to Rastignac, I was moved to tears:

My very life resides in my two girls. As long as they are enjoying themselves and are happy, as long as they are well dressed and walk on carpets, what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lie down to sleep? I am not cold as long as they are warm, I am not bored if they are laughing. I have no sorrows but theirs. When you become a father, and when on hearing the babble of your children’s voices, you say to yourself, ‘That has come from me!’,you will feel that those little ones are every drop of blood in your veins, that they are the delicate flower that issues forth, for that’s what they are; you will feel you are attached to them so closely that it will seem you feel every movement that they make. I hear their voices everywhere. A sad look from them congeals my blood. Some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in their happiness than in your own. I cannot explain it to you, it is something within that sends a feeling of warmth all through you. In short, I live my life three times over. Shall I tell you something funny? Well, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God. He is everywhere and all around us, because the whole world comes from Him. And, Sir, it is just the same with my daughters. Only, I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not as beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.

( The translation is mine)

Halfway through the book, I realized that he becomes more and more of a martyr in order to support his daughters which made me wonder if in fulfilling his duties as a father, he considers himself morally superior. Is he duplicitous too like the other characters in the novel? After all, he stands to gain from Rastignac’s relationship with Delphine and encourages their illicit liasion.

He is neglected in death as he was in life. The indifference of the two girls when he is in the throes of agony is appalling and one could even accuse them of parricide as their quarrel with each other brings on his stroke. Delphine would rather go to a ball to elevate her social status than visit her dying father. Reluctant at first, Anastasie arrives  eventually but a little too late. Rastignac takes on the role of a son by taking care of the ailing man. He attends to the bureaucratic formalities and pays for the funeral expenses and shows more filial piety towards the old man than the two girls ever did.

Father Goriot could never find fault with his daughters. But all his suppressed feelings come to the surface on his deathbed in the form of a melodramatic monologue full of gibberish and exaggerations where he shifts rapidly between extremes of hate and love. He calls his daughters criminals and accuses them of murdering him. He imagines himself to be a ghost cursing them at night but quickly withdraws his curse. In his delirium, he asks for the police, the government and the public prosecutor to force them to come.

The scene is heartrending but it slowly dawned on me that he was not a model of saintly love like I believed him to be initially but an overly protective parent. After his wife’s early death, he became both father and mother to his daughters. He transferred the love he felt for his wife towards them and became obsessed with them. Even after their weddings, he took on their husbands’ role of provider. There is something disturbing about his conduct bordering on the emotionally incestuous. There is a scene where he lies on the floor, kisses Delphine’s feet and rubs his head against her dress. He even says his girls live like mistresses of an old rich man. It is possible that his inappropriate impulses and overindulgence pushed his daughters away from him.

In current times, Father Goriot would be considered a classic example of an helicopter parent who swoops in to rescue his offspring at the first sign of trouble, creating a world for them where they never have to face struggle, conflict or disappointment and leaving them with a sense of entitlement.

In more ways than one, Le Père Goriot is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. The French economist Thomas Piketty who studies economic inequality was fascinated with this work and believes that we are returning to the patrimonial capitalism delineated in the novel. Even the name Rastignac has made its way into the French dictionary referring to a ruthless social climber and an arrivist. Le Père Goriot is also a cautionary tale for cosseting parents about the excesses of overparenting. No wonder then that the author declares on the first page itself: “This drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! All is true–so true, that each one of you may recognise its elements in his own family, perhaps in his own heart.”


What Cyrano de Bergerac Has Taught Me About Love!


A captivating classic which has withstood the test of time, Cyrano de Bergerac is manna for my romantic soul. The play set in Paris in 1640 during the reigns of Louis the 13th and Louis the 14th, but written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand is loosely based on a real person named Cyrano de Bergerac embellished freely in fiction. It has resulted in various adaptations on screen and on stage and it has never failed to tug at my heartstrings in any of its avatars. I recently saw the filmed version of the Comédie Française production which was aired in theaters across the US for just one show on the same day and at the same hour. I also read the original play in French and its translation in English last month and thought that a Valentine’s Day post on this story would be a fitting tribute to its creator for if there’s anything that can warm the most cynical of hearts, it’s this beautiful but heartrending love story.

Gérard Depardieu and Anne Brochet in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 film, “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Cyrano de Bergerac was written in alexandrine verses. The French language lends itself beautifully to the poetic form and it’s difficult to capture the cadence and rhythm in English. If you must read a translation, stay away from the online public domain one which is quite awful. Also, do yourself a favor and watch the opulent 1990 production of Cyrano with Gérard Depardieu who gives a magnificent performance. He was born to play the part. To me Gérard Depardieu IS Cyrano.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a flamboyant, funny, witty, proud, short-tempered, courageous, brash and sentimental cadet of Gascony well versed in music, science, philosophy, literature and warfare. He has a penchant for poetry.  He is a larger than life character- a tad over the top and theatrical with a touch of Romeo and a shade of Don Quixote-the epitome of chivalry vanquishing enemies with ease- in short, a force to be reckoned with. This acclaimed swordsman and ingenious wordsmith sounds perfect, doesn’t he? Not quite for he has an enormous nose which makes him the butt of ridicule and is the bane of his existence. This phenomenally prominent proboscis also prevents him from declaring his love for his cousin Roxanne as he fears her rejection.

The fair Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian de Neuvillette, a cadet in Cyrano’s own regiment who reciprocates her feelings but lacks the eloquence to woo her. So Cyrano becomes Christian’s voice and expresses his ardent love for Roxanne through the letters he pens under his name. The two team up together with their respective qualities of beauty and wit to seduce Roxanne. The balcony scene where Christian serenades Roxanne with Cyrano’s words displays Cyrano’s poetic prowess. Here’s an exquisite description of a kiss:

A kiss, when all said and done, what is it? An oath taken at close quarters, a more precise  promise, a confession that wishes to be confirmed, A rosy circle around the ‘o’ of the verb ‘to love’; It’s a secret which takes the lips for the ear, A moment of infinity buzzing like a bee, A communion with a flowery taste, A way of breathing in a little of the heart and tasting a little of the soul along the edges of the lips.

Un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu’est-ce?
Un serment fait d’un peu plus près, une promesse
Plus précise, un aveu qui veut se confirmer,
Un point rose qu’on met sur l’i du verbe aimer;
C’est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille,
Un instant d’infini qui fait un bruit d’abeille,
Une communion ayant un goût de fleur,
Une façon d’un peu se respirer le coeur,
Et d’un peu se goûter, au bord des lèvres, l’âme!

There is a third character, Comte de Guiche who is also in love with Roxanne and who tries to thwarts their attempts. In the end, the resourceful Roxanne outwits the Comte and succeeds in marrying Christian. Right after the wedding, Christian has to leave for the front even before their marriage has been consummated. Cyrano promises Roxane that Christian will write to her and he risks his life everyday by crossing enemy lines to deliver the letters he has penned himself under Christian’s name. Roxanne falls in love with the soul of the poet and declares to the troubled Christian that even if he were to turn ugly she would love him for his poetic ingenuity. Christian is willing to give up Roxanne on this discovery but fate has other plans for this love triangle.

What Cyrano de Bergerac has taught me about love:

Love is courage. If you love someone, say it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll be rejected and it won’t be the end of the world. Besides, there is a possibility that the person may reciprocate your feelings. Give love a chance in spite of your feelings of inadequacy and in spite of your flaws, real or perceived. A love that expresses itself so eloquently is also a love that is tongue-tied! Poor Cyrano! When he finally summons the courage to reveal his feelings, fate denies him the opportunity when Christian is killed during the siege of Arras. Why did he remain silent for fourteen years after Christian’s death? Perhaps sometimes the courageous thing to do is to be quiet and love from the shadows. And if Cyrano had confessed his love for Roxanne, then we wouldn’t have had such a tragically beautiful love story and imbibed the other important lessons about love.

Love goes beyond appearances. While Cyrano exemplifies inner beauty, Christian with his dashing looks represents outer beauty. But isn’t Cyrano’s ability to craft words as superficial as Christian’s good looks? It seems that physical attractiveness and intellectual abilities are the traits cherished by the protagonists at the beginning of the play. Roxanne falls initially for Christian purely for his looks. And both men seek her out for her external beauty. Ironically, Cyrano himself who is so self-conscious about his deformity can’t help falling for a charming woman. Roxanne is not only a very beautiful woman but is also a ‘precieuse’ – an intellectual  woman with a refined literary taste. Roxanne falls in love with Christian’s looks and Cyrano’s wit but it’s only towards the end that she has a glimpse into the beautiful soul of the man and realizes that his integrity, honor and adherence to moral standards are what constitute his inner beauty. In fact the story is a reworking of The Beauty and the Beast and Cyrano himself refers to the fairy tale but he points out the painful fact that unlike the tale where the prince’s ugliness evaporates, his remains the same.

Love is loyal. Roxanne’s plight is as pitiable as Cyrano’s. In spite of being one of the most beautiful and sophisticated women in Paris, she loves no other and lives a life of a recluse in a convent, faithful to the memory of her deceased love. As darkness envelops the evening while Cyrano, in the throes of death, reads Christian’s letters out aloud, Roxanne realizes that he is reading from memory and the truth dawns on her. Her true love has always been right under her nose. ( I just couldn’t resist the pun! ) The realization that the mind and soul she was in love with belonged to Cyrano, leads her to this heartrending lament that always makes me dissolve into tears: I have loved but one man in my life and I’ve lost him twice.(“Je n’aimais qu’un seul être et je le perds deux fois!” ) Alas! Love is lost and love is found only to be lost again.

Another scene that never fails to bring a lump in my throat is when Cyrano describes his loneliness at never knowing a woman’s love :

I had never known a woman’s love.
Even my mother did not find me handsome:
I had no sister; and, later as a man,
I feared the mistress who would mock at me.
But at least I have had your friendship–thanks to you
A woman’s charm has crossed my path.

J’ignorais la douceur féminine. Ma mère
Ne m’a pas trouvé beau. Je n’ai pas eu de soeur.
Plus tard, j’ai redouté l’amante à l’oeil moqueur.
Je vous dois d’avoir eu, tout au moins, une amie.
Grâce à vous une robe a passé dans ma vie. 

Love is selfless. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from the play is that true love has no expectations and places no demands. Cyrano’s love for Roxanne is so deep that he is willing to encourage her romance with another man for her happiness. It’s also admirable that he was a good friend to Christian and helped him even after the latter mocked him for his grotesque deformity. His love is so pure and noble that even after Christian dies, he wants to preserve the image Roxanne has of him in her mind, albeit a false one. The closest we come to this ideal is the unconditional love a parent has for a child. It’s far more difficult to be self-sacrificing in a romantic relationship. And that’s definitely something we can learn from Cyrano. If you love someone truly you’ll care more about their happiness than your own. Cyrano has given up a lot but not his integrity. In the end, the swashbuckling poet leaves the world with what has always stayed with him-his panache. (Panache, incidentally, was a word introduced in the English language with the popularity of the play.)

In this modern age of casual encounters and fleeting relationships, one would think that this epic tale would be outdated but it has endured through the ages for Cyrano’s story is one we have all lived. We all hope that someone would love us like Cyrano and there’s also a little bit of Cyrano in all of us, n’est-ce pas, pining from afar for an unattainable love?

* The translations are all mine.







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!