One of my favourite moments in Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu occurs during the Overture, when Marcel is remembering the time he was sent to bed early while his parents hosted a dinner party downstairs. As it happens, he recalls that ‘for a long time I used to go to bed early’. The adult Marcel remembers the young Marcel stealing out of the bedroom in the hope that his mother will kiss him goodnight, just as his father suddenly looms into view on the wellvarnished wooden staircase. His father suggests that maybe Marcel's mother should in future sleep in the child's room:
I stood there, not daring to move; he was still in front of us – an immense figure in his white nightshirt, crowned with the pink and violet scarf of Indian cashmere which, since he had begun to suffer from neuralgia, he used to wrap around his head, standing like Abraham in the engraving after Benozzo Gozzoli which M. Swann had given me, telling Sarah she must tear herself away from Isaac. Many years have passed since that night. The wall of the staircase, up which I had watched the light of his candle gradually climb, has long since been demolished. And in myself, too, many things have perished which I imagined would last forever and new ones have arisen … just as now the old are difficult to understand.
It is one of the many involuntary flashes of memory, usually triggered by everyday objects in their intimate surroundings or by stimuli to the senses, which bind the complex narrative together. The wooden staircase, the smell of varnish, the white night shirt, the cashmere scarf which recalls an engraving on an Old Testament scene, the effect of candlelight. As Peter Lloyd Jones has written of Proust and design, much of the novel can be read as being about the ways in which time and memory are embodied or encoded in our perception of everyday things – particularly important to Proust at a time of rising urban consumerism