The madeleine upon which Proust’s seven-volume epic In Search of Lost Time pivots makes its significant appearance after just 18 minutes in the new Radio 4 adaptation — with which, if you’re not obsessed with the Ashes or holed up with the family in some dank seaside cottage, you can while away this bank holiday weekend. It’s always a surprise to realise that the most significant cake ever baked (after Alfred’s burnt tarts) makes its fictional appearance so soon, almost before Proust’s characters, Swann, Gilberte and the Guermantes, have taken shape in your mind. The narrator, now grown up, is offered a cup of tea and a fresh madeleine by his mother and taken back in time to those holidays as a child at his great-aunt Léonie’s house in the French countryside. The madeleine by itself is not the trigger. It’s the combination of scent and taste — the lime herbal tea, those few crumbs of sweet plain scalloped sponge — ‘like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, among the ruins of everything else, and carrying without flinching… the whole edifice of memory’.
The first episode lasted two hours. At first I doubted whether I could continue listening much beyond the madeleine. Two hours is a long time and too much nostalgia can be overwhelming, Proust forcing us to face up to memories we ourselves might prefer to shelter from rather than expose again at the surface of our minds. The Radio 4 title, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, irritates, as if the powers-that-be at Broadcasting House were in fear of sounding off-puttingly highbrow and that no one would now appreciate the significance of In Search of Lost Time without Proust’s name attached.
Then there’s the extraordinary PR that has heralded its bank-holiday position in the schedule (broadcast in ten slots over the weekend), even mentioned as an item on the news a fortnight before broadcast. Long-form drama has been part of Radio 4 for several years now, from Zola to Joyce via Vasily Grossman and Tolstoy, and later made available as ‘a boxed set’ as if on TV. It’s hardly news.
It’s also surprisingly English in tone and feel, Combray as much a Sussex village as anything in France, right down to Swann declaring with relish: ‘How agreeable it would be to have always a little person in whose house one might find that rare thing — a good cup of tea.’ Proust for our times.
But the lusciousness of the production (by Celia de Wolff) is superbly indulgent. The skill by which Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation maintains narrative pace in spite of the compression (boiling down those seven huge books into just ten episodes) is impressive. The sheer pleasure with which Derek Jacobi, Paterson Joseph, Frances Barber, Fenella Woolgar, Susan Brown and company inhabit their characters creates that invisible but tangible connection with the listener. Two hours went by in a flash; time lost but not mourned.
Out there in podcast world, programmes are getting longer and longer, as if time is being stretched. Audible’s new fictional ‘boxed set’, Hag (released on Tuesday), promises ten hours of new storytelling, commissioned from Eimear McBride, Kirsty Logan, Daisy Johnson among others. The stories are retellings of traditional folklore, selkies and lost loves, patriarchal men and abandoned children, given a feminist rebranding. A series of interviews with each of the writers accompanies each tale, chaired by Carolyne Larrington, who teaches Old Norse and medieval English at Oxford University and who gives us the original story and its context.
McBride tells of Kathleen, who is grieving for her boyfriend, lost at sea. She reads beautifully, adding her own voice as narrator, shedding a perspective on this ancient myth of the fallen woman. But it’s still hard to stay focused on a single voice for almost 45 minutes and it’s a relief to turn to the interview in which Carrington gives us a vivid précis of the original story (first collected by Oscar Wilde’s parents).
Daisy Johnson was sent to update the ancient Suffolk tale of the two green babes found on the edge of a wood, speaking no English and with no explanation of where they have come from. The arrival of aliens in a settled community. Each writer has taken a different stance, Johnson writing in the present with herself as a character, trying to relate the story to present concerns. Sharp writing and cleverly done, if perhaps too long.
Meanwhile, every night on Radio 4 we’re experiencing high drama accomplished in just 13 and a half minutes as Ed and Emma’s marriage crumbles overnight with Shakespearean pathos, Jazzer turns into a social worker/detective as he tries to hunt down Jim’s abuser, and Shula attempts to enter the church. Never has life in Ambridge been fraught with so many tales of love lost, hope abandoned and faith misplaced, all happening simultaneously.
Deeply irritating Kate has been recast as light relief now that Joe Grundy can no longer be relied on (the actor playing him died four months ago). The scriptwriters have given her the unenviable task of seducing the dullest character ever to inhabit that Borsetshire village, Jakob, the vet. Who saw that coming?