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Proust's Way

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They may be pardoned who, having read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," feel that the little town of Combray, with its mansions fringed with hawthorns, its alarmingly evocative madeleines, its asparagus and waterlilies, has something not quite real about it. So symbolic, so enchanted, is this little town where the narrator of Proust's masterpiece spends the May vacations of his childhood, that a real town of Combray -- with a population of so many thousands, several schools, a railway station, and a modest Gothic church of some architectural interest -- would not, somehow, be the same place at all.

But there ism a real Combray, fairly easily reachable by half-hour train ride from the cathedral town of Chartres. And the reader who has pounded down the labyrinthine corridors of Proust's work -- even if he has simply read the first book, "Swann's Way," which focuses on Combray -- will find much here that is familiar ground.

Too, those whose interest in Proust has been piqued by the new translation by Terence Kilmartin, issued in April (by Random House), might find that a trip here provides just the impetus needed to actually polish off all 3,000-odd pages.

When Marcel Proust came here with his parents to visit his paternal aunt, Elisabeth Amiot (Tante Leonie), the town was called Illiers; the name was changed to Illiers-Combray in 1971 in honor of Proust's novel. Mrs. Amiot's house is now a museum and the headquarters of the Society of the Friends of Marcel Proust. It is open from 2 to 5 p.m. -- except Tuesdays, like any self-respecting French museum; here you can get directions to all the other points of interest.

The Amiot house is stucco in front, but years of dust have given its original off-white color a sort off-black look. You enter through a shallow central hall; light streams through the far end from a window looking onto the little garden. (To any Proustian, this will immediately suggest the spot where the maid "Francoise," of the spun-sugar coif and smile of anticipatory gratitude, waited for her yearly tip from the visiting Prousts.) To the left is brownish dining room, to the right, a pretty salon where pamphlets on the author can be purchased.

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