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Marcel Proust

July 10, 1871, witnessed the birth of novelist Marcel Proust.  He was born in Paris, the son of a prominent doctor, Adrien Proust, and his wife, the witty and vivacious Jeanne Weil, who came from a well-to-do Alsatian Jewish family.  Proust's father wrote several best-selling books about healthy living, which was ironic, since Proust grew up in poor health.  As a child, he suffered from severe bouts of asthma, which remained with him for the rest of his life.

As an author, Proust distinguished himself by writing an autobiographical novel that is more than three thousand pages long.  It has been translated into English so many times that people now call it by two different English titles: Remembrance of Things Past and the more literal In Search of Lost Time.

Proust grew up in Paris near the Champs-Elysées.  From 1882 to 1889, he attended the Lycée Condorcet.  He seldom ventured far from the City of Lights except for childhood holidays with relatives at Illiers, near Chartres, and later for holidays at the Normandy seaside.

After one year of military service, Proust returned home and began receiving a small allowance from his parents.  He supplemented that income by writing satirical pieces for various magazines.  In 1896, he published his first work, an elegantly presented collection of short stories called Pleasures and Regrets (Les Plaisirs et les Jours).  He also founded Le Banquet in 1892.

Charming people with his wit and wealth, he quickly gained access to salon society, which he was to use as a setting for his novels.  Well into his thirties, he lived a life of indulgent snobbery, the perfect social climber in the Parisian salons, although he also worked for a short time as a lawyer and was active in the Dreyfuss affair.  He spent years trying to write a novel that he never published and finally abandoned.  As his asthma grew worse, his frequent attacks at bedtime resulted in insomnia and declining health.  In his exhaustion, he began spending more time in bed, where he did all of his reading, writing, and eating.  He kept his windows and curtains closed, and he lined his walls with cork to soften the noises from the street. 

After both of his parents died--his father in 1903 and his mother two years later--Proust was financially independent and free to start on his great novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), which was influenced by the autobiographies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and François Chateaubriand.  He found writing to be lonely work, which suited him fine, as he had gradually withdrawn from all but the most necessary contact with the outside world.  The flat he had moved into in 1919, 102 Boulevard Haussmann, was virtually soundproof, the perfect cell where Proust could spend his time writing and searching his own soul.

The narrator of Proust's novel, not coincidentally named Marcel, explains that the idea for the book came to him one day when he tasted a small pastry called a madeleine that had been dipped in tea.  It was a flavor that he associated with his childhood.  He wrote, "As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in the decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me…immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and with the house the town…the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings...sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."

The novel is greatly stream-of-consciousness, where seemingly
insignificant details prove to be the most important.  The first part of the work focuses on Marcel's childhood in Combray and follows the lives of three families: his own, the aristocratic de Guermantes, and the family of the Jewish Bohemian dilettante Swann.  Among the central characters are the faithless Odette, whom Swann marries, homosexual Baron de Charlus (modeled in part on Count Robert de Montesquiou-Ferensac), Dutchess Mme. de Villeparisis, Robert Saint-Loup, and Marcel's great love, Albertine, who may be lesbian and who dies in a riding accident.

When he submitted the first volume of his novel for publication, one publisher said, "I may be dense, but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep."  Other editors agreed, and Proust was forced to publish the first volume himself in 1913.  Few of his socialite friends expected the book to amount to anything, so they were all surprised when it was hailed as a masterpiece.

In trying to finish the book over the course of his lifetime, Proust nearly drove his editors mad.  His continuous changes and additions cost them dearly.  Whenever they sent him proofs of the novel for review, he inserted extra sentences and paragraphs, sometimes pasting entirely new sheets of paper onto the margins of existing galley proofs.  The result was a book filled with endless parenthetical digressions about the most minute details and with sentences that are some of the longest in the history of literature.  The longest one in the book, printed in average type and arranged in a single line, measures more than thirteen feet in length.

Proust died in 1922 while he was still revising the last volumes of the novel, and a definitive version of the complete seven-volume book wasn't published in France until the 1950s.  For most of the second half of the twentieth century, he fell out of favor with readers who thought his work was too long winded and antiquated.  Then, in the late 1990s, at the height of the memoir boom, Proust suddenly came back into fashion.  Author Alain de Botton published How Proust Can Change Your Life, in which he used Proust's ideas to illustrate simple life lessons, and writer Phyllis Rose published a book called A Year of Reading Proust about her experience doing just that. 

Several new biographies of Proust were also published, and a comic book based on the first volume of Proust's novel appeared in France, selling more than 12,000 copies in the first three months of its release.  In the year 2000, more than eighty years after its first publication, In Search of Lost Time made the bestseller list for the first time.

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