The French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) ranks as one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. He abandoned plot and traditional dramatic action for the vision of the first-person narrator confronting his world.
Marcel Proust was born to wealthy bourgeois parents on July 10, 1871, in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris. The first son of Dr. Adrien Proust and Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish financier, he was hypersensitive, nervous, and frail. When he was 9 years old, his first attack of asthma, a disease that greatly influenced his life, nearly suffocated him. In 1882 Proust enrolled in the Lycée Condorcet. Only during his last 2 years of study there did he distinguish himself as a student, attracting the interest of his philosophy professor, Marie-Alphonse Daru. After a year of military service, Proust studied law and then philosophy.
In the meantime, Proust was creating a name for himself in high society as a brilliant conversationalist with an ear for speech patterns that enabled him to mimic others with devastating ease and accuracy. His verve, dark features, pale complexion, and elegant taste fascinated the hosts of the smart Parisian set that he eagerly courted. Although he soon earned the reputation of a snob and social climber, Proust's intimate friends saw him as generous, extremely intelligent, capable of serious thinking, and as an excellent intellectual companion. But he irritated through his eagerness to please, his intensity of emotion, and his indecisiveness. Proust was not indecisive, however, about his commitment to writing.
In 1892 and 1893 Proust contributed a number of critical notes and sketches and two short stories to the ephemeral journal Le Banquet and to La Revue blanche. He published his first work in 1896, a collection of short stories, short verse portraits of artists and musicians, and incidental pieces written during the preceding 6 years. Les Plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days) received cursory notice in the press despite its preface by Anatole France. The book did little to dispel the prevalent notion of Proust as an effete dandy. His interest in analysis of rare and exquisite feelings, his preoccupation with high society, and his refined style were all too familiar to allow his readers to see a talented and serious writer groping for eternal truths and a personal style.
In 1895, even before he published Les Plaisirs et les jours, Proust had made a first attempt at a major work. Unable to handle his material satisfactorily, unsure of himself, and unclear about the manner of achieving the goals he had set, Proust abandoned the work in 1899. It appeared, under the title of Jean Santeuil, only in 1952; from thousands of notebook pages, Bernard de Fallois had culled and organized the novel according to a sketchy plan he found among them. As a consequence the novel is uneven; many passages announce, duplicate, or are variations of passages in Proust's masterpiece, and others are incoherent or apparently irrelevant. Some, however, are beautifully lyric or analytic. Jean Santeuil is Proust's first attempt to come to grips with material that later yielded so much in À la recherche du temps perdu. Jean Santeuil is the biography of an imaginary character who struggles with himself, his family, and his environment in order to discover, justify, and affirm his artistic vocation. Through episodes and sketches Proust traced Jean Santeuil's progress toward maturity, touching upon many of the themes he later developed more fully: the impact of nature upon the sensibility; the silent work of the imagination in involuntary memory; memory bridging gaps in time; the effects of events such as the Alfred Dreyfus case upon society; the snobbery of social intercourse; the self-oriented nature of love; and the liberating power of art.
After abandoning Jean Santeuil, Proust returned to his studies. Although he read widely in other literatures, he was limited to translations. During 1899 he became interested in the works of John Ruskin, and after Ruskin's death (Jan. 20, 1900), Proust published an obituary of the English critic in La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité (Jan. 27, 1900) that established him as a Ruskin scholar. Proust's Pélerinages ruskiniens en France appeared in Le Figaro in February and was followed by several more articles on Ruskin in Le Mercure de France and in La Gazette des beaux-arts. With the help of an English-speaking friend, Marie Nordlinger, and his mother, Proust translated Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens (1904) and Sesame and Lilies (1906). Grappling with Ruskin's ideas on art and its relationship to ethics helped him clarify his own esthetic ideas and move beyond the impasse of Jean Santeuil.
In 1903 Proust's father died. His own health, deteriorating since 1899, suffered an even greater shock following the death of his mother in September 1905. These setbacks forced Proust into the sanatorium of Dr. Paul Sollier (in December 1905), where he entertained hopes of curing his asthma. Undoubtedly preferring his illness to any cure, Proust left, "fantastically ill, " in less than 2 months. After more than 2 years of seclusion, he emerged once again into society and into print with a series of articles and pastiches published in Le Figaro during 1907 and 1908. From 1905 to 1908 Proust had been mysteriously working on a novel; he abandoned it, too, in favor of a new one he had begun to plan when he realized the necessity of still another dress rehearsal. He wrote pastiches of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, Charles Sainte-Beuve, and others (February-March 1908), and this activity led Proust inadvertently to problems of literary criticism and to a clearer formulation of a literary work as an art object. By November 1908 Proust was planning his Contre Sainte-Beuve (published in 1954; On Art and Literature), a rebuttal of Sainte-Beuve, the recognized master of historical literary criticism. The true writer expresses a self, Proust felt, that is completely hidden beneath the one manifested "in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we want to try to understand that self, it is only by trying to re-create it deep in ourselves, that we can succeed." By reacting to Sainte-Beuve, Proust formulated, in terms applicable to the artist as well as to the reader, the notion that lies at the heart of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust finished Contre Sainte-Beuve during the summer of 1909 and began almost immediately to compose his great novel.
Remembrance of Things Past
Although Proust had, by 1909, accumulated and reworked most of the material that was to become À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), he still had not fully grasped the focal point that would enable him to structure and to orchestrate his vast material. In January 1909 he had a series of experiences that bore belated fruit during the early summer of that year. The sudden conjunction of flavors in a cup of tea and toast evoked in him sensations that recalled his youth in his grandfather's garden at Auteuil. Although he had had similar experiences in the past and had considered them important, he had not realized that not only were these experiences a key element in an artist's work but also they could serve as the organizing principle of his novel. They revealed the hidden self that Proust had spoken of in Contre Sainte-Beuve, a present self identical to the one in various moments of past time. This process of artistic resurrection and the gradual discovery of its effectiveness, he realized, was the focal point his novel required. À la recherche du temps perdu, like Balzac's La Comédie humaine, depicts the many facets of a whole society in a specific period of history. Political events, such as the Dreyfus case; social transformations, such as the rise of the bourgeoisie and the decline of the nobility; artistic events; evaluations in music, art, and literature; and different social milieus from the working class to bohemian circles—all found their place in Proust's panorama of French life during the decades around the turn of the century. But Proust was primarily concerned with portraying not reality but its perception by his narrator, Marcel, and its capacity to provoke and reveal Marcel's permanent self, normally hidden by habit and social intercourse. From the very first words of his predominantly first-person narrative, Marcel traces his evolution through a multiplicity of recalled experiences to the final realization that these experiences, processed and stored in his memory, reflect his inner life more truly than does his outer life, that their resuscitation in their immediacy destroys spans of elapsed time, that their telling answers his long search for an artistic vocation, and that they form, in fact, the substance of his novel. A key event in the resolution of the novel is the narrator's discovery of the powers of involuntary memory.
Proust began his novel in July 1909, and he worked furiously on it until death interrupted his corrections, revisions, and additions. In 1913, after several rejections, he found in Grasset a publisher who would produce, at the author's expense, the first of three projected volumes (Du Côté de chez Swann, Le Côté de Guermantes, and Le Temps retrouvé; Swann's Way, The Guermantes Way, and Time Regained). After the appearance of the first volume, André Gide, who had earlier rejected Proust's manuscript on behalf of Gallimard, changed his mind and in 1916 obtained the rights to publish the subsequent volumes. Meanwhile, World War I interrupted publication but not Proust's continued expansion of his work. À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (Within a Budding Grove), originally only a chapter title, appeared late in 1918 as the second volume and won the Goncourt Prize the following year. As volumes appeared, Proust continually expanded his material, inserting long sections as close to publication as the galley stage. Le Côté de Guermantes appeared in 1920; Sodome et Gomorrhe (Cities of the Plain), Part 1, appeared in 1921 and the two volumes of Part 2 in 1922. Feeling his end approaching, Proust finished drafting his novel and began revising and correcting proofs, expanding the text as he went along with what he called "supernourishment." Proust had completed revisions of La Prisonnière (The Captive) and had begun reworking Albertine disparue (The Sweet Cheat Gone) when, on Nov. 18, 1922, he died of bronchitis and pneumonia contracted after a series of violent asthma attacks. The final volumes of his novel appeared owing to the interest of his brother, Robert, and to the editorial supervision of Jacques Rivière: La Prisonnière, two volumes, 1923; Albertine disparue, two volumes, 1925; and Le Temps retrouvé, two volumes, 1927.
The major critical biography of Proust is George D. Painter, Proust (2 vols., 1959-1965). There are numerous critical studies of Proust's work in English. The most useful general introduction is Germaine Brée, The World of Marcel Proust (1966), which contains an extensive annotated bibliography. Other valuable studies are J. M. Cocking, Proust (1956); William S. Bell, Proust's Nocturnal Muse (1962); and Roger Shattuck, Proust's Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time and Recognition in "A la recherche du temps perdu" (1963). See also the chapters on Proust in Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study in Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931), and Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (1963). For general and historical background see Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France (2 vols., 1957-1961; 3d ed., 3 vols., 1966-1967), and Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914 (1966). □
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French novelist Marcel Proust was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His books abandoned plot and dramatic action in favor of the narrator's descriptions of his experiences in the world.
Early years and education
Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871, in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, France. His parents, Dr. Adrien Proust and Jeanne Weil, were wealthy. Proust was a nervous and frail child. When he was nine years old, his first attack of asthma (a breathing disorder) nearly killed him. In 1882 Proust enrolled in the Lycée Condorcet. Only during his last two years of study there did he distinguish himself as a student. After a year of military service, Proust studied law and then philosophy (the study of the world and man's place in it). Proust became known as a brilliant conversationalist with the ability to mimic others, although some considered him a snob and social climber.
In 1892 and 1893 Proust wrote criticism, sketches, and short stories for the journal Le Banquet and to La Revue blanche. His first work, Les Plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of short stories and short verse descriptions of artists and musicians, was published in 1896. Proust had made an attempt at a major work in 1895, but he was unsure of himself and abandoned it in 1899. It appeared in 1952 under the title of Jean Santeuil; from thousands of pages, Bernard de Fallois had organized the novel according to a sketchy plan he found among them. Parts of the novel make little sense, and many passages are from Proust's other works. Some, however, are beautifully written. Jean Santeuil is the biography of a made-up character who struggles to follow his artistic calling.
After abandoning Jean Santeuil, Proust returned to his studies, reading widely in other literatures. During 1899 he became interested in the works of the English critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), and after Ruskin's death the next year, Proust published an article that established him as a Ruskin scholar. Proust wrote several more articles on Ruskin, and with the help of an English-speaking friend, Marie Nordlinger, and his mother, Proust translated into French Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens (1904) and Sesame and Lilies (1906). Reading Ruskin's ideas on art helped him form his own ideas and move beyond the problems of Jean Santeuil.
In 1903 Proust's father died. The death of his mother two years later forced Proust into a sanatorium (an institution for rest and recovery), but he stayed less than two months. He emerged once again into society and into print after two years with a series of articles published in Le Figaro during 1907 and 1908. By November 1908 Proust was planning his Contre Sainte-Beuve (published in 1954; On Art and Literature). He finished it during the summer of 1909 and immediately started work on his great novel.
Remembrance of Things Past
Although Proust had by 1909 gathered most of the material that became À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), he still felt unable to structure the material. In January 1909 the combination of flavors in a cup of tea and toast brought him sensations that reminded him of his youth in his grandfather's garden. These feelings revealed the hidden self that Proust had spoken of in Contre Sainte-Beuve, and he felt that the process of artistic rebirth was the theme his novel required. In À la recherche du temps perdu Proust was mainly concerned with describing not real life but his narrator Marcel's view of it. Marcel traces his growth through a number of remembered experiences and realizes that these experiences reflect his inner life more truly than does his outer life.
Proust began his novel in 1909 and worked on it until his death. In 1913 he found a publisher who would produce, at the author's expense, the first of three projected volumes Du Côté de chez Swann (Swann's Way). French writer André Gide (1869–1951) in 1916 obtained the rights to publish the rest of the volumes. À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (Within a Budding Grove), originally a chapter title, appeared in 1918 as the second volume and won the Goncourt Prize. As other volumes appeared, Proust expanded his material, adding long sections just before publication. Feeling his end approaching, Proust finished drafting his novel and began revising and correcting proofs. On November 18, 1922, Proust died of bronchitis and pneumonia (diseases of the lungs) contracted after a series of asthma attacks. The final volumes of his novel appeared under the direction of his brother Robert.
For More Information
Brée, Germaine. The World of Marcel Proust. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1966.
Painter, George D. Proust. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959–1965.
White, Edmund. Marcel Proust. New York: Viking, 1999.
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Marcel Proust (märsĕl´ prōōst), 1871–1922, French novelist, b. Paris. He is one of the great literary figures of the modern age. Born to wealthy bourgeois parents, he suffered delicate health as a child and was carefully ministered to by his mother. As a young man he ambitiously mingled in high Parisian society and wrote his rather unpromising first work, Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896; tr. Pleasures and Regrets, 1948; new tr. Pleasures and Days, 1957). Troubled by asthma and neuroses, as well as by the deaths of his parents, he increasingly withdrew from external life and after 1907 lived mainly in a cork-lined room, working at night on his monumental cyclic novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (16 vol., 1913–27; tr. Remembrance of Things Past, 1922–32, rev. tr. In Search of Lost Time, 1992; new tr. 2002).
The first of the novel cycle, Du côté de chez Swann (1913, tr. Swann's Way, 1928) went unnoticed, but the second, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919, tr. Within a Budding Grove, 1919), was awarded the Goncourt Prize. Proust's semiautobiographical novel cycle is superficially concerned with its hero's development through childhood and through youthful love affairs to the point of commitment to literary endeavor. It is less a story than an interior monologue. Discursive, but alive with brilliant metaphor and sense imagery, the work is rich in psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding. A vital theme is the link between external and internal reality found in time and memory, to which Proust sees humanity's strivings subjugated—time mocks the individual's intelligence and endeavors; memory synthesizes yet distorts past experience. Most experience causes inner pain, and the objects of human desires are the chief causes of their suffering.
In Proust's scheme the individual is isolated, society is false and ruled by snobbery, and artistic endeavor is raised to a religion and is superior to nature. Only through the vision gained in works of art can the individual see beyond his or her subjective experience. Proust's ability to interpret innermost experience in terms of such eternal forces as time and death created a profound and protean world view and his work has influenced generations of novelists and thinkers. His vision and technique have come to be seen as vital to the development of modernism. Most of his correspondence has been published (21 vol., P. Kolb, ed., 1970–93), as has his draft of an early novel, Jean Santeuil (1952, tr. 1955), and Contre Sainte-Beuve (1954, tr. On Art and Literature, 1896–1919, 1958).
See biographies by A. Maurois (1950, repr. 1984), R. H. Barker (1958), G. D. Painter (2 vol., 1959–65), L. Bersani (1965), G. Brée (1966), R. Hayman (1990), J.-Y. Tadié (1996, tr. 2000), E. White (1998), and W. C. Carter (2000); studies by W. S. Bell (1962), P. Quennell (1971), S. L. Wolitz (1971), G. Deleuze (1972), J. M. Cocking (1982), B. J. Bucknall, ed. (1987), A. Compagnon (1992), J. Kristeva (1996), R. Shattuck (2000), and A. Muhlstein (2012).
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PROUST, MARCEL (1871–1922), French novelist. Proust was born in Paris to Adrien Proust, a successful non-Jewish physician, and Jeanne (née Weil), a member of an old Alsatian-Jewish family. Through his mother, Proust was related to the eminent statesman Adolphe *Crémieux and to the wife of Henri *Bergson, whose theories of time and memory were a possible influence on him. By 1893 it became obvious that Proust's delicate health would not allow him to follow any profession, and he thereafter devoted himself to writing and to the pursuit of social advancement. His wealth and personal qualities gave him an entrée into the high society that was to form the background to his literary works. He became a contributor to literary reviews, helped to found the short-lived Le Banquet (1892) and in 1896 published two books – Portraits de peintres, a volume of poems, and Les Plaisirs et les jours, a collection of poems, stories, and sketches. Proust's outstanding work, A la Recherche du temps perdu (15 vols., 1913–27), one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature in its representation of the nature and texture of memory and its evocation of fin de siècle French society, consists of seven parts: Du côté de chez Swann (1913); A l'Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1918); Le Côté de Guermantes (1920); Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921); La Prisonnière (1923); Albertine disparue (1925); and Le Temps retrouvé (1927). Though not strictly autobiographical, the novel cycle contains much material based on personal recollections and encounters. During the last 17 years of his life he was an invalid, and spent most of his time locked up in his Paris apartment, feverishly working on his manuscripts and revising his published work. Raised as a Catholic, Proust alludes to his Jewish ancestry in his writings, describing his mother and maternal grandparents, and mentioning his grandfather's practice of placing a pebble on his parents' grave. In Du côté de chez Swann, his grandfather admits a preference for his Jewish friends and Proust himself remained on the closest terms with Jews such as Léon *Brunschvicg, and the convert Daniel *Halévy. He always retained some Jewish sympathies, and it was he who persuaded Anatole France to intervene in the *Dreyfus Affair. A la recherche du temps perdu contains three major Jewish characters: the actress *Rachel; the aggressive unsympathetic intellectual Albert Bloch; and the assimilated Charles Swann, a member of the exclusive Jockey Club, who has been seen as Proust's own alter ego. The snobbishness of Proust's Jewish characters masks their basic insecurity and, like his creator, Swann finally discovers his identity when he sides with Dreyfus and detaches himself from high society. The contrasting titles of Du Côté de chez Swann ("the Side of Swann") and Le Côté de Guermantes ("the Side of Guermantes") reflect the conflicting Jewish and non-Jewish sides of Proust's own heritage. Other works published after his death include the fragmentary novel, Jean Santeuil (3 vols., 1952), and the critical study Contre Sainte-Beuve (1954).
C.K. Scott Moncrief produced the first English translation of A la recherch du temps perdu in the 1920s under the title Remembrance of Things Past, reworked by Terence Kilmartin and subsequently revised by D.J Enright as In Search of Lost Time. Pléiade published its second, definitive French edition in 1987–89. Correspondance de Marcel Proust appeared in 1970–93 in 21 volumes (ed. Philip Kolb).
A. Spire, Quelques juifs et demi-juifs (1928), 45–61; Quenell, in: H. Bolitho (ed.), Twelve Jews (1934), 177–99; L. Pierre-Quint, Marcel Proust, sa vie, son oeuvre (1936); Moss, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, (1980); Van Praag, in: Revue juive de Genève, 5 (May-July, 1937); A. Maurois, The Quest for Proust (1950); Mesnil, in: E.J. Finbert (ed.), Aspects du Génie d'Israël (1950), 297–300; G. Cattavi, Marcel Proust (Fr., 1958); C. Lehrmann, L'Elément juif dans la littérature française, 2 (1961), 134–41; G.D. Painter, Marcel Proust, a Biography, 2 vols. (1965); C. Mauriac, Proust par lui-même (1953); de Silva Ramos, in: Les cahiers Marcel Proust, 6 (1932), 13–86 (incl. bibl.). add. bibliography: H. Bloom (ed.), Remembrance of Things Past (critical essays; 1992); J.-Y. Tadie, Marcel Proust: A Life (2000); W.C. Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life (2000).
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BORN: 1871, Auteuil, France
DIED: 1922, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927)
Marcel Proust is known primarily for his multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past, regarded as one of the most important works of twentieth-century literature. A philosophical meditation on the nature of time and consciousness, Proust's masterpiece offers profound psychological insights into the complicated human soul. In addition, the novel provides a social chronicle of turn-of-the-century Parisian society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Family and Early Life Marcel Proust was born July 10, 1871, in Auteuil, France, to Adrien, a prominent medical doctor, and Jeanne Weil Proust. His mother was Jewish and later converted to Christianity. Proust attended L'École libre des sciences politiques, graduating in 1890, and the Sorbonne, University of Paris, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1895. Although he suffered severely from asthma, he completed a year of military service in 1889–1890.
Proust was homosexual at a time when it was not spoken of openly, and he sought to hide this part of himself from public view. Before World War I, he was emotionally involved with Alfred Agostinelli, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1914. The extent of his relationships with other men is unknown.
Early Work In the mid-1890s, Proust was chiefly known as a contributor of short prose to various Paris reviews. In an important work of criticism published posthumously, By Way of Sainte-Beuve (1954), Proust presented his conception of literature. Charles Saint-Beuve was a major critic who viewed literature as an expression of the author's life experiences. On the contrary, Proust argued that the author transcends the historical and biographical in the process of writing. He called on writers to create a new literature of impressions by which they convey their subjective selves. These impressions were to be based on involuntary memories, such as those springing from taste and sound.
In 1895 he was appointed to the library of the Institut de France. He seldom performed his duties, annually asked for leave on the pretext of bad health, and was finally dismissed in 1900. Proust's real interest during all of this time was society, which he would examine in his literary masterpiece.
On September 26, 1905, his mother died. While Proust had previously published one novel and abandoned work on another, one of the debts that he felt he owed his mother was to write a great work of literature.
Remembrance of Things Past Started in 1909, Remembrance of Things Past originally appeared in seven volumes, three of which were not published until after Proust's death. He never finished revising these final volumes. Swann's Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, was published in 1913. Like the other volumes in the series, it is a complete novel in itself. It introduces the many themes and motifs—such as memory, jealous love, social ambition, homosexuality, and the importance of art—that are developed in later volumes. It was greeted with hostility because of the complexity of Proust's style.
The second volume, Within a Budding Grove, was published in 1919. Volume three, The Guermantes Way (1920), won a national literary prize and brought Proust international recognition. Cities of the Plain (1922) explores the themes of homosexuality and corruption.
For most of his last fifteen years, Proust lived as an invalid. He died of a lung infection on November 18, 1922, in Paris.
Three more volumes of Remembrance of Things Past were published after his death. The Captive (1923) and The Sweet Cheat Gone (1925), the fifth and sixth volumes of the series, were not included in Proust's original plan for Remembrance of Things Past, and some critics believe that events in Proust's personal life led him to expand his novel to include the themes of jealous love and deception.
Time Regained (1927), the final volume, successfully ties together all of the novel's recurrent themes and motifs. In Time Regained, the narrator realizes that memory is the key to the meaning of the past that he has been seeking and that art has the ability to redeem experience from disillusionment, deception, and the decay of time.
Works in Literary Context
Remembrance of Things Past continues the traditions both of the great seventeenth-century classical writers such as Madame de La Fayette, the Duc de Saint-Simon, and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, and of the nineteenth-century realists such as Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert. At the same time, it is highly innovative in technique and content.
Marcel Proust was influenced by the British critic and writer John Ruskin who used complicated sentence structures to capture the impressions and experiences furnished by art and nature. Proust translated several of Ruskin's works, although he objected to the writer's moralizing on works of art.
In Time Regained, the final novel of Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator rejects realism and acknowledges his literary ancestors: founder of French Romanticism Chateaubriand, the Romantic French poet Gerard de Nerval, and the poet Charles Baudelaire, famous for his Flowers of Evil.
The Importance of Memory One of the most important elements throughout the entire series of novels is memory and its necessity in the creation of art. The translation of the series' title in French, In Search of Lost Time, reflects the author's close association of time and memory, with memories being the tangible legacy of past times and experiences. This is shown most dramatically when Marcel eats a madeleine, a sensory experience that draws him into a world of memory.
Works in Critical Context
In 1936, Proust scholar Leon Pierre-Quint claimed that the fashion for Remembrance of Things Past had ended and that Marcel Proust was destined to interest only thesis writers at the Sorbonne. He could not have been more mistaken, for Proust today is almost universally revered as the greatest French author of the twentieth century.
Criticism from the 1970s and 1980s, in addition to a wealth of biographical and critical material from previous decades, attests to the multiple approaches one can take to Proust's work. While textual scholarship is still being pursued, the most recent critical examinations have tended to emphasize either narrative technique or psychological content.
Proust as Narrative Innovator Proust is seen as a great narrative innovator; his manipulations of narrative time and voice, for example, are an early instance of techniques later used by certain New Novelists, as Gérard Genette showed in Narrative Discourse: An Essay on Method, and Proustian technique contributed to creating a new conception of story line and narrator. Other critics view Proust as one of the most creative psychologists of the self; Serge Doubrovsky, in Writing and Fantasy in Proust, has shown how Proust used language and metaphor to conceal and reveal at once the most intimate obsessions of his psyche.
One of the most important issues in Proust criticism is the role of the character Marcel as protagonist and narrator of Remembrance of Things Past and his relationship to Proust himself. There is strong evidence for both identifying Proust with Marcel and for separating the two, and some interpretations of the novel are more autobiographical than others. Perhaps the firmest ground for likening Proust with Marcel is their mutual struggle to realize themselves as artists, with each making art the highest value in their lives. For both, the search for lost time ends in the disillusioned abandonment of life and in the affirmative re-creation of life as a work of art.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Proust's famous contemporaries include:
Colette (1873–1954): A French writer who scandalized the public with her affairs with both men and women. Her novels included semiautobiographical elements.
Émile Zola (1840–1902): French novelist who was influential in the school of naturalism, which sought to portray life realistically.
Responses to Literature
- Charles Saint-Beuve argued that literature is “an expression of the author's life experiences.” What does that mean? Write an essay analyzing the meaning of that statement and arguing for or against that point of view.
- Think about memory as a key to the meaning of the past. Write two or three paragraphs about a significant event in your life. Then rewrite it from someone else's point of view. How does what you choose to reveal in each version influence the reader's perception of what happened?
- In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator famously eats a madeleine, a type of cookie, that transports him to his past. Listen to some music that was important to you several years ago. Write two or three paragraphs describing your memory of listening to it before. Be specific—what clothes were you wearing, where were you, who were you with?
- Marcel Proust argued that people could re-create their lives as works of art. Using the Internet and your library's resources, research other artists who have attempted similar projects—such as Andy Warhol, the New York artist. Write an essay discussing how Warhol or another artist tried to make his or her own life into a work of art.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In Marcel Proust's masterpiece, memory becomes a means of transcending change and death; involuntary memory can transport individuals through time. He finds affirmation in the recreation of life as a work of art. Here are some other works that deal with similar themes:
House of Incest (1936), a novella by Anaϊs Nin. “Incest” here is a metaphor for loving only one's own qualities in another; this surrealistic novel investigates reality by delving into the subconscious.
The Lost World (1965), poetry by Randall Jarrell. This volume of poetry, published posthumously, was inspired by letters Jarrell wrote to his mother as a child and reshapes his childhood memories.
Native Guard (2007), poetry by Natasha Tretheway. These poems examine the author's heritage as a multiracial southerner; the ten sonnets of the title poem tell the story of a Civil War soldier in an all-black regiment and reveal the circularity of life.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), a novel by James Joyce. This semiautobiographical novel follows the young Stephen Dedalus as he questions his religious upbringing and leaves his native Ireland to become an artist.
The Waves (1931), a novel by Virginia Woolf. This novel, following six friends through their lives, is freed from narrative time and explores change and metamorphosis.
Aciman, Andre. The Proust Project. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.
Albaret, Celeste. Monsieur Proust. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Botton, Alain de. How Proust Can Change Your Life; Not a Novel. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
Bowie, Malcolm. Proust among the Stars. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Fraser, Robert. Proust and the Victorians: The Lamp of Memory. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.
Henry, Anne. Marcel Proust: Théories pour une esthétique. Paris: Klincksieck, 1981.
Nalbantian, Suzanne. Aesthetic Autobiography: From Life to Art in Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Anaïs Nin. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.
Paganini-Ambord, Maria. Reading Proust: In Search of the Wolf-Fish. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994.
Shattuck, Roger. Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time. New York: Norton, 2000.
Ortega y Gasset, José. “Time, Distance, and Form in Proust.” Hudson Review 11 (Winter 1958/1959): 504–13.
Bender, Marilyn. Paris: Proust's Time Regained. Retrieved May 27, 2008, from http://www.nysoclib.org/travels/proust.html. Last updated on July 15, 1997.
Calkins, Mark. A la recherche du “Temps Perdu.”. (In English) Retrieved May 27, 2008, from http://www.tempsperdu.com. Last updated on June 7, 2007.
Ford, Daniel. Reading Proust. Retrieved May 27, 2008, from http://www.readingproust.com. Last updated June 2008.
"Proust, Marcel." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proust-marcel
"Proust, Marcel." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proust-marcel
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Marcel Proust (1871–1922) is the author of the sixteen-volume À la recherche du temps perdu (known in English as Remembrance of Things Past [1922–1931]). The first volume was published in 1913, and the last after the writer's death. These novels reveal not only Proust's expert knowledge of dress—he researched very precise details of garment construction—but also the way in which his appreciation of fashion has far wider implications, both within his work and beyond.
Proust the Dandy
When Jacques-Émile Blanche completed his portrait of the young writer Proust in 1892, he captured on canvas Proust's image of himself, which has become our own. Possibly, he was first thought of as a dandy, a socialite, and a darling of the duchesses—moving between the different worlds of fin-de-siècle Paris with infinite ease—and last as a novelist. He was, in fact, born to wealthy middle-class parents. His father, a Catholic, was a surgeon, and his Jewish mother was the daughter of a stockbroker. Proust's entrée into society and his literary career began when he was still a schoolboy. At the Lycée Condorcet (1891–1893), his friends included the children of literary and artistic families, who invited him into their world and their salons; he and his friends edited and published two literary magazines.
By 1906, when Proust began to devote all his energies to his masterwork—after his legal studies at the École libre des Sciences-Politiques, a prestigious school which formed part of the Sorbonne, and the publication of various juvenilia, pastiches, gossip columns, and translations—he was less inclined to haunt the salons. He had been keenly affected by the "Dreyfus affair": In 1897 a Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was accused and convicted of passing government secrets to the Germans and was sentenced to deportation to Devil's Island. The controversy played out over the course of a decade, until a court of appeals exonerated Dreyfus and he was pardoned. As a Jew and a man of conscience, Proust was active and passionate in his defense of Dreyfus, while most of his former grand hostesses sided with the government and army. The deaths of both Proust's parents soon afterward and the increasing problems caused by his ill health strengthened his belief that he was wasting his time.
By 1913 his appearance had changed so radically that a young visitor to his flat, who glimpsed the Blanche portrait, did not recognize the slender young man pictured with a gray cravat and an orchid in his buttonhole. But that young man, who had gone to Cabourg, the "Balbec" of the novels, "armed with Liberty ties in all shades," as he wrote to a friend in 1894 (Painter, p. 174) had not entirely disappeared. The huge coat that Proust always wore in later years was lined with fur, and he was never without a hat, gloves, and a cane.
Proust and His Circle
Proust's socializing began in the artistic salons of the late 1880s, but his desire to scale the heights of the Faubourg Saint-Germain—the wealthy and aristocratic section of Paris—to meet duchesses as well as the grandes cocottes ("great courtesans") of the Belle Epoque was strong and speedily gratified. The models for his later characters were found in these different settings. The character
Baron de Charlus, for example, was based on Robert de Montesquieu, aristocrat and would-be poet, whom Proust first met in 1893. In the portrait of Montesquieu by the society painter Giovanni Boldini, the baron is raising his ebony cane like a rapier; the blue porcelain handle matches his large cuff links. His long-waisted jacket with wide lapels edged with broad ribbon and his white shirt with high, soft collar and dark cravat are part of the recognizable dress code of the fin-de-siècle dandy. His unusually high-coiffed hair, handlebar moustache, and small imperial-style beard, along with his arresting and extraordinary pose, created the kind of extreme image that Proust feared most, given its perceived links to homosexuality and to the writer Oscar Wilde, whom Proust had met and whose trial for homosexual conduct was thoroughly covered in the French press. Yet the young Proust himself was photographed with two close friends in a similar, though muted, mode of self-presentation.
Elisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, one of the models for Duchesse de Guermantes, was a friend and cousin of Montesquieu. She posed for an unknown photographer at about the same time as Montesquieu sat for Boldini. She stands arranging flowers in a tall Greek vase, showing off the unusual back detailing of her dress, with its large white collar appliquéd with flowers and its pattern of light-colored flowers flowing down the dark dress, spreading out and underlining the shape of the skirt. Comtesse de Chevigné, another model for the duchess, wore cornflowers in her hat to emphasize her bright blue eyes, just like the Duchesse de Guermantes in the novel. She chose to be depicted, by another unknown photographer, in far more somber attire, as if to emphasize her intellectual credentials. This yoking of art and high society, which so fascinated Proust, caused André Gide, as a young publisher, to reject the first volume of the novel. In his later years Proust did not forgo the company of artists nor did he eschew high society completely. He became friendly with the writer Jean Cocteau and dined with the ballet producer Sergey Diaghilev and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, but his work took priority.
Fashion within the Novels
We are told, toward the end of Swann's Way, that the young narrator is glad of his Charvet tie and patent boots as he waits for the former courtesan Odette de Crécy in the Bois de Boulogne. She is now married to the rich and respectable Charles Swann. Earlier in the volume she has been described as one of the most stylish women in Paris, with "rich garb such as no other woman wore." Her toilettes are always depicted in great detail, and the narrator is fascinated by the Japanese-style gowns that she wears at home. She has an inordinate number in different fabrics—silk, crepe de chine, chiffon—and the colors vary from old rose and mauve to Tiepolo pink and gold, all described carefully and frequently in Within a Budding Grove. An intense focus on sensuous detail is one way in which dress operates within the novel's sequence.
Fashion is also vital as the way in which an individual constructs his or her personal identity while remaining mindful of the rules of social caste. Odette's outdoor clothes show small details in their trimmings or patterns, which hark back to her heyday as Second Empire courtesan. The craftsmanship and the overall design of her garments are stressed. The narrator follows Odette, enchanted, through the Bois de Boulogne, and Proust records the details of the linings of her jackets and the collars of her blouses, likening them to Gothic carvings. Such details may never be noticed by a casual observer but they are nevertheless vital.
The woman to whom Proust awards the accolade of the very best-dressed woman in Paris is also one of the most socially elevated—Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes, who is always spectacular and distinctive in her toilette. In The Guermantes Way, the narrator tells us of her appearance at the opera with a single egret feather in her hair and a white spangled dress, designed to make her companion and cousin, the Princess, seem over-dressed. It is she, as well as Odette, to whom the narrator turns in The Captive when he wants help with the selection of clothes for his mistress, Albertine. Indeed, it is Oriane's Fortuny gowns that Albertine is seen to covet.
Male elegance, too, is described—particularly that of Swann, whose leather-lined hat, in Within a Budding Grove, the Duchess of Guermantes notes, just as Swann comments on the tiny coral balls frosted with diamonds that she wears in her hair at the soirée described toward the end of Swann's Way, likening them to rose hips dusted with ice. Dress, fabric, texture, and detail are seen as vital factors in the evocation of memory so germane to the novel. In the very last pages the narrator speaks of discerning the different threads woven together in a fabric of which he can now perceive the overall design.
Although other writers have been fascinated by fashion, Proust is among the first to mention designers by name and to award them equal stature with painters and composers. Perhaps no author before him described an outfit, jewels, or accessories in such careful, minute detail. More significant, perhaps, is his roman-à-clef technique; celebrities are thinly disguised and their valorization permeates his work. In the twenty-first century's celebrity-dominated culture, this seems peculiarly pertinent.
Adams, William Howard. A Proust Souvenir. New York: Vendome Press, 1984.
Bowie, Malcolm. Proust among the Stars. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Painter, George D. Marcel Proust: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1989.
Pringue, Gabriel-Louis. Trente ans de dîners en ville. Paris: Revue Adam, 1948.
Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. Rev. ed. New York: Berg, 1998.
White, Edmund. Marcel Proust. London: Viking, 1999.
Pamela Church Gibson
"Proust, Marcel." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proust-marcel
"Proust, Marcel." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proust-marcel
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Born July 10, 1871, in Auteuil, France; died of pulmonary infection, November 18, 1922, in Paris, France; buried at Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France; son of Adrien (a medical doctor and professor) and Jeanne (Weil) Proust. Education: Attended École Libre des Sciences Politiques, 1890; Sorbonne, University of Paris, licence en lettres, 1895.
Writer. Mazarine Library of Institute of France, Paris, France, librarian, 1895-1900. Co-founder of Le Banquet, 1892. Military service: French Army, 1889-90; served in infantry.
Prix Goncourt, 1919, for Within a Budding Grove; named to French Legion of Honor, 1920.
À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU (REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST)
Du côté de chez Swann (two volumes; also see below), Grasset (Paris, France), 1913, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as Swann's Way, Holt (New York, NY), 1922, revised translation by Terence Kilmartin, Vintage (New York, NY), 1981, revised translation by D. J. Enright, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1992, revised translation by Lydia Davis, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (title means "In the Shade of Young Girls in Flower"), three volumes, Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1919, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as Within a Budding Grove, T. Seltzer (New York, NY), 1924, revised translation by D. J. Enright, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1992, revised translation by James Grieve published as In the Shade of Young Girls in Flower, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Un amour de Swann (chapter from Du côté de chez Swann), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1919, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as Un amour de Swann, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1965, revised translation by Terence Kilmartin published as Swann in Love, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
Le côté de Guermantes (two volumes; second volume includes first portion of Sodome et Gomorrhe; also see below), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1920-1921, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as The Guermantes Way, T. Seltzer (New York, NY), 1925, revised translation by D. J. Enright, Random House (New York, NY), 1993, revised translation by Mark Treharne, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Sodome et Gomorrhe (title means "Sodom and Gomorrah"; first volume contains second portion of Le côté de Guermantes), four volumes, Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1922, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as Cities of the Plain, A. & C. Boni (New York, NY), 1927, revised translation by John Sturrock published as Sodom and Gomorrah, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
La prisonnière (two volumes), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1923, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as The Captive, A.&C. Boni (New York, NY), 1929, revised by Terence Kilmartin, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1993.
Albertine disparue (two volumes; title means "Albertine Missing"), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1925, translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff published as The Sweet Cheat Gone, A. & C. Boni (New York, NY), 1930, revised translation by Terence Kilmartin published as The Fugitive, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1993.
Le temps retrouve (two volumes), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1927, translation by Frederick A. Blossom published as The Past Recaptured, Random House (New York, NY), 1934, translation by Andreas Mayer published as Time Regained, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1970.
The English translations by Frederick A. Blossom and À la recherche du temps perdu (thirteen volumes) by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff were published as the multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-31, and reprinted in two volumes, Random House (New York, NY), 1960; the Scott-Moncrieff and Andreas Mayer translation was revised by Terence Kilmartin and published in three volumes, Random House (New York, NY), 1981; the revised translation by D. J. Enright was published as In Search of Lost Time, Random House (New York, NY), 1992; new English translation, Penguin (London, England), 2002.
TRANSLATOR AND COMMENTATOR
John Ruskin, La Bible d'Amiens (translation of The Bible of Amiens), Mercúre de France (Paris, France), 1904.
John Ruskin, Sesame et les lys (translation of Sesame and Lilies), Mercúre de France (Paris, France), 1906, introduction translated by William Burford and published as On Reading Ruskin, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
On Reading Ruskin: Prefaces to "La Bible d'Amiens" and "Sesame et les Lys" with Selections from Notes to the Translated Texts, translated and edited by Jean Autret, William Burford, and Phillip J. Wolfe, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1987.
Comment debut à Marcel Proust: Lettres inédites, Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1925.
Lettres inedites, Bagneres-de-Bigorre, 1926.
Forty-seven Unpublished Letters from Marcel Proust to Walter Berry, edited and translated by Caresse Crosby and Harry Crosby, Black Sun Press (Paris, France), 1930.
Correspondance generale de Marcel Proust, six volumes, Plon (Paris, France), 1930-36.
Lettres à la N.R.F., Gallimard (Paris, France), 1932.
Lettres à un ami, recueil de quarante-et-une lettres inedites addresses a Marie Nordlinger, 1889-1908, Editions du Calame, 1942.
Lettres à Madame C., J. B. Janin (Paris, France), 1946.
À un ami: Correspondance inedite, 1903-1922, Amiot-Dumont (Paris, France), 1948, translation by Alexander Henderson and Elizabeth Henderson published as Letters to a Friend, Falcon Press (London, England), 1949.
Letters of Marcel Proust, translated and edited by Mina Curiss, introduction by Harry Levin, Random House (New York, NY), 1948.
Lettres à André Gide, Neuchatel (Paris, France), 1949.
Lettres de Marcel Proust à Bibesco, Guilde du Livre (Lausanne, Switzerland), 1949.
Marcel Proust: Correspondance avec sa mere, edited by Philip Kolb, Plon (Paris, France), 1953, translation by George D. Painter published as Marcel Proust: Letters to His Mother, Rider, 1956, Citadel Press (Secaucus, NJ), 1958.
Marcel Proust et Jacques Riviere: Correspondance, 1914-1922, edited by Philip Kolb, Plon (Paris, France), 1954.
Lettres à Reynaldo Hahn, edited by Philip Kolb, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1956.
Choix de lettres, edited by Philip Kolb, Plon (Paris, France), 1965.
Lettres retrouvees, edited by Philip Kolb, Plon (Paris, France), 1966.
Comment debut à Marcel Proust, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1969.
Correspondance de Marcel Proust, edited by Philip Kolb, twenty-one volumes, Plon (Paris, France), 1970-1992.
Correspondance Proust-Copeau, edited by Michael Raimond, University of Ottawa (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1976.
Correspondance Marcel Proust-Jacques Riviere (1914-1922), edited by Philip Kolb, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1976.
Selected Letters, edited by Philip Kolb, Volume 1: 1880-1903, translation by Ralph Mannheim, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1983, Volume 2: 1904-1909, translation by Terence Kilmartin, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Correspondance, 1912-1922, edited by Pascal Fouché, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1989.
Mon cher petit: letters à Lucien Daudet, 1895-1897, 1904, 1907, 1908, edited by Michel Bonduelle, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1991.
Correspondance avec Daniel Halevy, edited by Anne Borrel and Jean-Pierre Halevy, Editions de Fallois (Paris, France), 1992.
Letters à Madame Scheikevitch, preface by René Gillouin, Sauret (Monaco), 1993.
Les plaisirs et les jours (prose and poetry), preface by Anatole France, Calmann Levy (Paris, France), 1896, translation of prose by Louise Varese published as Pleasures and Regrets, Crown (New York, NY), 1948, translated by Louise Varese, preface by Anatole France, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1997.
Pastiches et melanges (articles; also see below), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1919.
Chroniques (articles; also see below), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1927.
Oeuvres completes de Marcel Proust (ten volumes; title means "Complete Works of Marcel Proust"), Nouvelle Revue Français (Paris, France), 1929-36.
Marcel Proust: A Selection from His Miscellaneous Writings (contains material from Pastiches et melanges and Chroniques), edited and translated by Gerard Hopkins, A. Wingate (London, England), 1948.
The Maxims of Marcel Proust (contains material from À la recherche du temps perdu), edited and translated by Justin O'Brien, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1948, published as Aphorisms and Epigrams from "Remembrance of Things Past," McGraw (New York, NY), 1964.
Jean Santeuil (three volumes), preface by André Maurois, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1952, translation by Gerard Hopkins published as Jean Santeuil, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1956.
Contre Sainte-Beuve (essays), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1954, translation by Sylvia Townsend Warner published as Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, Meridian Books (New York, NY), 1958, published as By Way of Sainte-Beuve, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1958, 2nd edition, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1997, published as
Against Sainte-Beuve and Other Essays, translation by John Sturrock, Penguin (New York, NY), 1988..
Pleasures and Days (includes material from Pleasures and Regrets), translated by Louise Varese, Gerard Hopkins, and Barbara Dupee, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, Fertig (New York, NY), 1978.
Sur Baudelaire, Flaubert et Morand, Editions Complexe (Brussels, Belgium), 1987.
Le Musee Retrouvé de Marcel Proust (quotations and maxims), edited by Yann Le Pichon and Anne Borrel, introduction by François Mitterand, Stock (Paris, France), 1990.
The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, foreword by Roger Shattuck, Cooper Square Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of Portraits de peintre (poetry), 1896, and of prefaces to other volumes. Contributor, sometimes under pseudonyms Marc Antoine, Dominique, Echo, and Horatio, to periodicals, including Le Banquet and Figaro.
Most of Proust's manuscripts are at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France. The University of Illinois library and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, have some manuscripts and numerous letters.
"Swann in Love," a chapter from Swann's Way, was adapted by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Marie-Helene Estienne for the film "Swann in Love," directed by Volkor Schloendorff, 1984; Remembrance of Things Past has been adapted as a series of graphic novels by Stephane Heuet, 1998—; Le temps retrouve was adapted for film as Time Regained, directed by Raul Ruiz, Kino International, 1999; La prisonnière was adapted for film as La Captive, directed by Chantal Akerman, Gémini Films, 2000; the "Albertine" section of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past was adapted as the musical My Life with Albertine by Richard Nelson and Ricky Ian Gordon and was produced in New York by Playwright Horizons, 2003; several of Proust's works have been adapted as audiobooks.
Marcel Proust is generally considered the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century. His reputation, which derives almost exclusively from the importance of his multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past (also translated as In Search of Lost Time) is that of a dazzling stylist, analytical thinker, and social observer. His novel is founded on his powers of meticulous recollection and his ability to shape those memories into a compelling—some might even say exhausting—account of one man's search for his past. This search leads the narrator, and reader, into a world of charm and deceit, virtue and perversion. E. M. Forster, in his Abinger Harvest, called Proust's novel "an epic of curiosity and despair," while Edmund Wilson wrote in Axel's Castle that Remembrance of Things Past was "one of the gloomiest books ever written." But André Maurois, in his biography Proust: Portrait of a Genius, reconciled Proust's seemingly unending inquisitiveness with his profound melancholy by noting that the former constitutes Proust's salvation from the latter. "Proust, like Shakespeare, had plumbed the extremes of human misery," wrote Maurois, "but, like Shakespeare, found . . . serenity in Time Regained."
Proust was born in 1871 of bourgeois parents. His father was a noted physician who had distinguished himself in his efforts to combat the spread of cholera from Persia, and Proust's mother was a highly educated Jewish woman known for her charm and humor. As a child Proust enjoyed significant attention and affection from his mother, and more than one biographer has remarked on their seeming inseparability. Aside from sharing similar interests such as reading and taking walks, Proust and his mother were bound by consideration for his tenuous health. He continually suffered indigestion, and at age nine he experienced the first of innumerable asthma attacks. The sources of these attacks seemed countless: anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia, as well as more familiar causes such as dust, dampness, and smoke. Young Proust, moody and obsessive, learned to manipulate his parents, particularly his mother, with his health problems, exploiting their reluctance to administer punishment for tantrums or defiant behavior.
Once in school Proust distinguished himself with honors despite his often poor health. In his early school years he was frequently mocked by classmates for his feminine features and delicacy, but he eventually won the admiration of some of these same students for his literary precocity. He graduated from the Lycee Condorcet in 1889 with distinctions in composition and classical languages. Among his closest friends there were Daniel Halevy and Jacques Bizet, the latter the son of the famed composer Georges Bizet. In 1888 Proust and his two friends collaborated on the journals La Revue verte and La Revue lilas, with Proust serving as contributor as well as scathing copyeditor for his less talented friends. His own contributions to the journals, which included an autobiographical account of contemplation, revealed an early penchant for ornamentation and inquisitive thinking. His interest in the latter continued during his final school year when he studied idealists such as Immanuel Kant. For Proust, Kant proved inspirational, prompting speculations on metaphysics and human behavior. Biographer Richard H. Barker has even suggested in Marcel Proust that during this time the impressionable Proust "formed mental habits that were to remain with him for the rest of his life."
Upon graduating from the Lycée Condorcet, Proust decided to pursue a career as a writer. But first he had to fulfill his military obligations. Laws at the time stipulated five years of service for eligible Frenchmen, but exceptions were made for educated citizens willing to purchase their own equipment. For citizens such as these, the required period was reduced to one year, and it was for such a term that Proust enlisted in 1889. In the French Army Proust's poor physical health proved only a slight liability, and he avoided certain rigors by ingratiating himself with his commanding officer. During his service, however, Proust did suffer bouts of depression, including a particularly traumatic period following the death of his grandmother. But his health was generally favorable. And although he was stationed in Orleans, Proust indulged his interest in high society by occasionally accompanying a new friend, Gaston de Caillavet, to receptions and parties in Paris.
Proust continued to patronize Parisian society after leaving the French Army in 1890. Through Gaston de Caillavet's mother, Madame Arman de Caillavet, Proust met author Anatole France, who was the principal guest in her salon. At this time Proust also frequented the circle gathered by Genevieve Straus, mother of his old schoolmate Bizet. Straus's husband was a wealthy lawyer who installed her among antique furnishings in a vast apartment on Paris's Boulevard Haussmann. Proust greatly admired Madame Straus, who was known for her cutting wit, and biographers such as Barker and George D. Painter have speculated that young Proust even entertained notions of a sexual relationship with his acerbic hostess. Other prominent Parisians visited by Proust were Madame Aubemon de Nerville, whose own salon had earlier featured Anatole France, and Laure Hayman, formerly mistress to one of Proust's great-uncles. Despite having only a modest allowance, Proust lavished gifts on Hayman, and some biographers acknowledge that his interest in her was sexual as well as social. "It would not have been the first nor the last time that Proust's relations with women were physical," Painter noted in his biography Marcel Proust. Still another romantic interest of Proust's was Jeanne Pouquet, fiancée of his friend Gaston de Caillavet. His flirtatious, excessively complimentary manner—defined as "Proustifying" by his friends—sometimes angered de Caillavet. But by 1893, when his two friends married, Proust had lost interest in other women and had shifted his romantic concerns, as Painter observed, to other men.
Begins Career as a Writer
During this initial period of extensive socializing Proust published his first writings in a modest magazine, Le Banquet, which he founded with Bizet, Halevy, and a few other friends. Proust's early writings are mostly anecdotes or short reviews focusing on Paris society, and they often reveal his intentions as an effusive social climber. His collaborators at Le Banquet sometimes protested Proust's use of the publication for overt pandering to hostesses such as Countess Adheume de Chevigne, whom he flatteringly portrayed in hopes of an introduction to the aristocracy. One such trite piece by Proust eventually prompted action from Le Banquet's Femand Gregh, who published a brief notice disassociating the staff from Proust's comments.
While writing for Le Banquet, Proust placated his concerned parents by studying law at the Sorbonne. After completing his studies, though, he avoided entering the field and began studying philosophy. At this time Proust also wrote several fictional pieces for La Revue blanche, which had acquired Le Banquet's staff. Proust's new writings—sensitive character studies with vaguely erotic overtones—showed a marked improvement over his earlier society reports. But he followed these writings with an article on the flamboyant Count Robert de Montesquiou, whose mediocre poetry was apparently prized by Proust. The article on Montesquiou was intended as the first in a series, but various editors rejected Proust's excessively flattering portrait, and he consequently abandoned the series.
Proust began collecting his contributions to Le Banquet and La Revue blanche, and in 1896 he published these writings, along with additional stories, as Les Plaisirs et les jours. Despite a laudatory preface credited to Anatole France—it was actually written by Arman de Caillavet—the book's sales were minimal and even failed to return the cost of publication. Reviews were generally bland or negative, dismissing Proust's style as precious and his all-enveloping sentence structure as convoluted and confusing. But in retrospect, Les Plaisirs et les jours, which was published in English as Pleasures and Regrets, is considered prophetic of Proust's later masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. In his biography Barker concedes that Les Plaisirs is "not entirely successful" but added that it contains "the raw material for a work of art," and Milton Hindus, in his Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust, was particularly attentive to themes of jealousy and sexual transgression in the stories of Les Plaisirs. These themes, dominant in Remembrance of Things Past, were first explored by Proust in tales such as "A Young Girl's Confession," which concerns envy and sexual indiscretion, and "Violante," which details the foul repercussions of high-society life and sexual indulgence.
After publishing Les Plaisirs and an insignificant verse collection, Proust resumed work on a more ambitious literary project: a vast, autobiographical novel elaborating the themes of his earlier work. For the next few years Proust devoted himself to this work, ultimately writing more than one thousand pages. This novel, published only posthumously as Jean Santeuil, lacked coherence but provided an indication of the skill and talent that Proust would later use in producing his masterpiece. Themes such as obsessive jealousy and ostensibly perverse sexuality are readily evident in Jean Santeuil, and whole episodes of Remembrance of Things Past are introduced in the earlier novel in a manner almost entirely duplicated in the later work. More importantly, as Barker indicated, Jean Santeuil served as Proust's forum for developing and refining a writing style "so completely transparent that it would reveal with absolute accuracy the most minute observations." This style, justifiably complex in its ornate detail, would become a hallmark of Remembrance of Things Past.
Proust socialized extensively in the late 1890s. An affair with Reynaldo Hahn, a musician, had ended tempestuously in 1897, but Proust apparently found other lovers, and he remained a frequent visitor to the salons of de Caillavet and other newfound aristocratic acquaintances. But his activities were increasingly undermined by poor health and related problems. He suffered from asthma attacks, usually as he prepared for sleep. The ensuing insomnia prompted him to experiment with allegedly sleep-inducing drugs. But some of these drugs were addictive, and their frequent use led to prolonged melancholy. Proust's mother cautioned him against dependence on these drugs, and as an alterative she took him on seaside vacations. When circumstances dictated occasional separation, Proust and his mother corresponded daily. Her letters posed queries about his health, while his missives detailed his various ailments.
The Dreyfus Affair
These discomforts did not prevent Proust's involvement in the Dreyfus scandal that shook France at this time. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish captain in the French army, and in 1895 he was imprisoned on Devil's Island after his conviction for attempting to deliver secret documents to Germany. Few French citizens objected to the original verdict, though Dreyfus's alleged treason caused some embarrassment in the Jewish community. In 1896 new evidence indicated that a Major Esterhazy, and not Dreyfus, was guilty of the treasonous act, and the army was compelled to try the new suspect. Esterhazy's surprising acquittal in 1898 resulted in a public outcry from French intellectuals, who accused the French military of anti-Semitism in keeping Dreyfus on Devil's Island. Proust was among the first members of this protest group—known collectively as Dreyfusards or Revisionists—and he joined such prominent artists as Anatole France and Émile Zola in petitioning for Dreyfus's retrial.
The Dreyfus scandal exerted a powerful effect on Parisian society. Aristocratic circles, largely Christian and nationalist, remained supportive of French authority while bourgeois groups often rallied behind the Dreyfusards. Proust, who frequented salons of both social strata, sought to alleviate tension by inviting supporters of both sides to a party that occurred remarkably free of hostility. He also continued as an active Dreyfusard despite conflicting social ties. The Dreyfusards' efforts were eventually to prove successful, for by 1899 the French Government was largely pro-Dreyfus.
Despite the French Government's newfound support for Dreyfus, the captain was once again found guilty when tried by the French Army. But Proust was now confident that the state would not condone such a verdict. He was correct, for the French president then pardoned Dreyfus, who returned to the French mainland a broken, tragic figure. Barker, in his biography, wrote that for Proust, who was half-Jewish, the Dreyfus scandal would remain a personal memory "of a long and bitter struggle against the forces of anti-Semitism, carried to a successful conclusion."
In the early 1900s Proust's literary interest turned to the works of English critic John Ruskin. Since late 1899 Proust had been reading Ruskin's works in French translation and contributing studies on Ruskin to periodicals such as Le Figaro and Le Mercúre de France. Recognizing that Ruskin's intricate, detailed style resembled his own, Proust resolved to translate Ruskin's work into French. He began with Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens, a discussion of art and architecture in the Amiens region of France. Proust worked on the translation for more than three years, delving into Ruskin's canon and traveling to Amiens and even to Venice to see those artworks referred to by Ruskin in various volumes. But upon publication in 1904, Proust's translation met with little success and was accorded only minimal attention in French publications. A subsequent translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies fared similarly, aside from an unusually praiseworthy account in Le Figaro, which Proust was dismayed to discover had gone unread by his friends. In a letter, he complained that most educated Parisians "are incapable of reading even so much as a newspaper." This comment, cited in Barker's biography, is indicative of Proust's disappointment at the reception given the product of his intense labor.
Unusual Living Conditions
Proust's health during these years remained unstable, but problems such as asthma and depression were doubtless exacerbated by his increasingly eccentric behavior. In an attempt to ease the breathing difficulties resulting from asthma, he burned medicinal powders, and to stabilize the air in his bedroom he forbade servants from dusting there. Thus the room was often full of smoke and dust, two agents detrimental to asthmatics. For his insomnia Proust ingested trional, which he often misused by taking it in the morning when his surroundings became increasingly lively. This rendered the trional ineffective and plunged Proust into further anxiety. His efforts to sleep in the morning seemed strange to his mother, who tried to conduct household matters as if her son kept usual hours. This allegedly unsympathetic behavior frustrated and angered Proust, who criticized her in letters delivered from his gloomy bedroom. In 1903 Proust was further shaken by the death of his father, a respected physician and professor. For Proust, the death was particularly devastating since he felt guilty over his failure to realize his father's hopes and intentions. After the funeral Proust devoted a long bereavement to completing the first Ruskin translation, which he dedicated to his father.
Following the death of his father, Proust adopted a more conciliatory tone in writing to his mother. He maintained his nocturnal lifestyle but vowed to work toward keeping normal hours. In 1904, continuing with his efforts to regulate his life, Proust sought medical assistance in combating asthma. His physician diagnosed Proust's affliction as anxiety-related and advised him to enter a German clinic, where he would undergo a treatment similar to that used with drug addicts. Proust demurred, then began considering a similar clinic in Switzerland. He decided to pursue treatment in Switzerland after finishing his translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, but in the fall of 1905 his plans were dashed when his mother fell ill with uremia. She died soon afterward, whereupon Proust entered another period of mourning. Toward the end of 1905, however, he decided to take a cure, but in Paris. His treatment consisted, at least in part, of staying in bed and eating as often and as much as possible. After several weeks, Proust abandoned the ludicrous process.
Without his parents to support him Proust needed to seek cheaper living accommodations. Instead, in 1906 he moved into a costly apartment on a busy, tree-lined boulevard that guaranteed noise, dust, and pollen. Despite its entirely unsuitable nature, the apartment appealed to Proust, for it had once been owned by a relative and was thus known by his late mother. The idea of living in an apartment familiar to his mother powerfully appealed to Proust, and so he moved despite the obvious liabilities. Eventually the apartment, located on the Boulevard Haussmann, became notorious for its disheveled, dark, dusty interior and its inconvenient air temperature. The place was disheveled because Proust refused to arrange to clean furniture for fear of stirring dust, and it was dark because he slept during the daytime and thus kept the curtains closed to sunlight. Finally, the air temperature was disturbing to visitors because of Proust's bizarre belief that it was healthier to remain cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Therefore he kept the windows open in the winter and slept under heavy blankets in the summer. For Proust this apartment, particularly its gloomy, filthy bedroom, which he lined with cork to muffle sound, constituted his chief environment for the next thirteen years.
Remembrance of Things Past
In 1907 Proust began reworking the nearly eighty notebooks that composed Jean Santeuil. While organizing this material he also produced an autobiographical/critical volume, Contre Sainte-Beuve, which included long accounts derived from the Jean Santeuil notes. In Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust challenged the aesthetic principles of French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who believed that contemporary literature was best comprehended through an understanding of its writers. Proust argued that literature existed independently—inspired from unfathomable depths within the writer—and that Sainte-Beuve's method was superficial. Aside from its critical passages, though, Contre Sainte-Beuve contained lengthy digressions on memory and love, the two major themes of Remembrance of Things Past, and the earlier work, which was published only posthumously, is now read chiefly as a precursor to the later masterpiece.
While writing Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust was already shaping the Jean Santeuil material into Remembrance. Working constantly, he restructured his narrative around the theme of memory and began writing anew from a first-person perspective. The result was Swann's Way, the first volume of Remembrance. Swann's Way begins with the narrator, Marcel, noting, "For a long time I used to go to bed early." He discusses the effects of dreams, then reveals his desire to retrieve his past. This revelation is followed by a childhood recollection in which Marcel and his parents are visited by a family friend, Charles Swann. Marcel recounts how, during one particular visit from Swann, he was forced by his father to withdraw without receiving a kiss from his mother. Marcel retires sorrowfully to his bedroom. But his father, realizing his son's distress, eventually sends Marcel's mother to his room and even allows her to sleep there. The opening segment, titled "Overture" by translator C. K. Scott-Moncrieff but untitled by Proust, concludes with the famous tea-and-madeleine incident, in which the narrator tastes a pastry dipped in tea and is immediately overwhelmed by memories of his childhood. His subsequent recollections constitute, along with attendant analysis, the remainder of Remembrance of Things Past.
In "Overture" Proust introduces Remembrance's principal themes: memory and possessive love. In Swann's Way's longest single section, "Swann in Love," he depicts the destructive force of such love in recounting Swann's social decline. This decline is precipitated by his love for Odette, a manipulative courtesan who drives Swann to acts of obsessive jealousy, much to the amusement of bourgeois hostess Madame Verdurin. Swann realizes his folly only after dreaming of Odette and the Verdurins, whereupon he acknowledges having wasted his life and his love on a woman with whom he was incompatible. Swann's Way ends with a transitional section leading into Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past.
Upon completing Swann's Way Proust labored to secure a publisher, even venturing from his cork-lined room to press for the book's acceptance. But each publisher rejected the work: some were opposed to the book's length, especially since it was merely part of a larger work; others were nonplussed by Proust's intricate prose and his penchant for detail. One such editor even wrote to Proust's brother. "My dear friend," the editor conveyed, "perhaps I am dense but just don't understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he rolls about in bed before he goes to sleep." After multiple rejections Proust decided to publish Swann's Way at his own expense. This proved a costly gambit when, at the proofreading stage, Proust appended whole pages to the galleys and filled their margins, thus effectively rewriting the entire manuscript.
Proust's personal life at this time was hardly conducive to the demands of writing and revising. Suffering from insomnia, weight loss, and even dental pain, he hired his lover, Alfred Agostinelli, as his live-in secretary. But Agostinelli had a wife, and her constant presence thwarted Proust's creativity and his romantic inclinations. As tensions at Proust's apartment peaked in 1913, he left for a brief vacation. His respite was hardly calming, however, for he traveled with the Agostinellis. Proust eventually convinced Agostinelli to return with him to Paris without Mrs. Agostinelli. But once home Proust again succumbed to his various ailments. Bedridden, he inexplicably contemplated another vacation.
Swann's Way was published in late 1913, but this brought more anguish to Proust. Critics generally agreed that he possessed sensitivity and a keen perception, but they also complained that he lacked artistic judgment—that the sentences rambled interminably, thoughts turned confusing, and the entire work required drastic reduction. For Proust, who had dreamed of winning a literary prize for his work, the reviews were devastating.
Proust suffered further hardship in 1914 when his lover, Agostinelli, fled the gloomy, prison-like confines of the Boulevard Haussmann apartment and began training as an airplane pilot. Proust was crushed by Agostinelli's desertion and begged him to return. But Agostinelli continued his training, and was killed that spring when his plane crashed at sea. Before Proust could recover from his grief, he executed a series of stock maneuvers that ravaged his finances. Later that year the French economy collapsed, and World War I followed.
During the war Proust continued writing Remembrance of Things Past. The second volume, Within a Budding Grove, awaited publication by the Nouvelle Revue Français, and the third volume, The Guermantes Way, approached completion. These two volumes, more chronological than Swann's Way, depict Marcel's early loves and chart his rise in society. In the final section of Swann's Way, Marcel befriends Charles Swann's daughter, Gilberte, and Within a Budding Grove continues with this friendship, noting Marcel's attempts to manipulate her and perpetuate their relationship through lies and various contrivances. This segment of the novel features an obsessive analysis of dying love and is considered one of the finest episodes in all of Remembrance. Two other important characters are introduced in Within a Budding Grove: Robert de Saint-Loup, a military man who provides Marcel with an important introduction into high society, and Baron de Charlus, a flamboyant homosexual—based on Montesquiou—who presumes to serve as Marcel's mentor. The end of the second volume concerns Marcel's budding love for Albertine, one of several girls he meets while vacationing seaside.
In The Guermantes Way emphasis shifts from romance to high society, and much of this volume consists of dinner parties. Here Marcel begins infiltrating Parisian society and meets acquaintances of the revered Guermantes clan. During a long sequence depicting one such party, the Dreyfus affair is discussed in detail, with Baron de Charlus offering a bizarre, somewhat anti-Semitic defense of the convicted Jewish officer. Among the other guests, banal activities are discussed in merciless detail. Allusions are also made to homosexuality, a dominant theme of subsequent volumes. The Guermantes Way ends with a pair of tragedies. Marcel's grandmother suffers a stroke and is subsequently plagued with temporary blindness and deafness. Her inept physician's cures, including leeches and morphine injections, drive her to suicide, at which she fails. And her eventual death, though expected, exerts a devastating effect on Marcel. The other tragedy involves Charles Swann, who reveals to the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes that he is dying of cancer. This is the famous "Red Shoes" episode, in which the Duke de Guermantes dismisses Swann's revelation and expresses greater concern for the shoes his wife is donning for a party.
Proust was surprisingly active during the war. While struggling with asthma, failing vision, and other ailments, he nonetheless managed to venture from seclusion to maintain social ties and visit more recent acquaintances. He also attended symphonic concerts and even frequented all-male brothels. But when the war ended he faced another trauma. His finances were dwindling, and his other resources were few. Then his apartment house was sold and he had to find another home. In 1919, suffering from asthma and distraught from upheaval, he moved into a furnished apartment on the Rue Laurent-Pichat. This place was so noisy that Proust resorted to drugs to temper his anxieties and sustain him as he worked. He lived here less than one year before moving again, this time to an extremely unsatisfactory apartment—too expensive, too dark, too small—where he continued writing and rewriting the final volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.
In the ensuing volumes of his masterpiece Proust continued charting the narrator's experiences in high society and portraying romantic love as futile and disappointing. Remembrance's fourth volume, Cities of the Plain, begins with Marcel discovering Baron de Charlus in a homosexual act. The sequence develops into a long, historical/scientific analysis of homosexuality and its implications. The novel also includes episodes devoted to more social gatherings, and portrays two loves: that of the baron for a callous violinist and that of Marcel for his childhood friend Albertine. Baron de Charlus's relationship develops into a pathetic farce; his callous lover manipulates and humiliates him. Marcel's love for Albertine, which provides the key drama in the next two volumes, is similarly hopeless, as Marcel grows increasingly suspicious of Albertine's previous relationships with other women.
Marcel's relentless desire to expose Albertine's lesbianism—behavior that echoes Charles Swann's earlier actions against Odette in Swann's Way—becomes the focal point of The Captive and of the first half of The Sweet Cheat Gone (retitled The Fugitive). In these two volumes Proust exhaustively explores love's more insidious aspects: jealousy and infidelity, manipulation and exploitation. Social intrigue is also represented in the Verdurins' scheme to disrupt Baron de Charlus's relationship with violinist Charles Morel, a member of their circle, and in Marcel's efforts to ingratiate himself with the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes. In The Sweet Cheat Gone Marcel also learns of Albertine's accidental death, whereupon he becomes obsessed with establishing her lesbian past. Other important episodes in this volume include Marcel's visit to Venice, where he meets characters from his past, and his discovery that Robert Saint-Loup, his friend from years earlier, also engages in homosexual practices.
The Past Recaptured, the concluding work in Remembrance of Things Past, unites the characters and themes of preceding volumes. It begins with Marcel visiting his childhood friend Gilberte—daughter of Charles Swann and Odette—and her husband, Robert Saint-Loup. Marcel marvels at the couple's perverted behavior, notably the homosexual husband's flagrant womanizing, which is apparently designed to conceal further his actual preference for men. Marcel also discovers that the Verdurins, once considered vulgar, bourgeois pretenders to high society, are now key social figures. He then withdraws from society and enters a sanatorium to better contend with his tuberculosis. The narrative subsequently turns to Parisian society during World War I and focuses particular attention on Baron de Charlus's experiences at all-male brothels. Following another withdrawal to a sanatorium, Marcel returns to Paris after the war has ended and discovers that the aristocratic Guermantes and the coarse Verdurins have joined through marriage, thus forever compromising French high society. At a costume party, Marcel is stunned to realize the effects of age on the various celebrants, most of whom he can no longer recognize. It is at this party that Marcel's memories are triggered by seemingly insignificant details. Like the tea and madeleine of Swann's Way, these details prompt flooding memories that overwhelm and inspire Marcel. He then reveals his intentions to record his past experiences and sensations in the homage to time that will become, presumably, Remembrance of Things Past.
Summarizing Remembrance of Things Past, as more than one critic has conceded, is impossible. Its riches—vivid characters, astounding insights, and elaborate descriptions that are spread over more than thirty-three hundred pages—indicate that mere plot synopsis must necessarily prove superficial and inadequate to any true appreciation or understanding of the work. Some critics, including biographer George Painter, have even speculated that Proust's masterpiece transcends the novel genre and is more accurately an elaborate memoir. Remembrance of Things Past, according to Painter, was intended by Proust as "the symbolic story of his life" and thus "occupies a place unique among great novels in that it is not, properly speaking, a fiction, but a creative autobiography."
Proust did not live to see his entire work published. He did receive greater acclaim, however, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt for Within a Budding Grove in 1919. But even this honor was not without its attendant controversy, as some critics suggested that Proust, at age forty-nine, was too old for an honor intended for young writers. Other critics rallied to Proust's defense, claiming that Within a Budding Grove, as well as Swann's Way, signified the presence of a great, innovative artist. Even critics objecting to Swann's Way conceded that they had been rash, and affirmed that Within a Budding Grove was in fact a major work. But by 1922, with the final three volumes still to be published, Proust was too weak to take an active interest in his newfound celebrity. Already wracked with numerous complaints, including dizziness, slurred speech, and impaired vision, Proust fell desperately ill after contracting a cold that autumn. A disastrous adrenalin injection only compounded his problems, and by November he was near death. On November 18, 1922, Proust, in delirium, declared that a large, black figure loomed near his bedroom door. A final injection by his brother, a doctor, proved futile, and that evening Proust died.
In the years since Proust's death, Remembrance of Things Past has increased in stature, and it now ranks among the century's greatest works. The English translation, largely rendered by Scott-Moncrieff, is similarly praised as a masterpiece of its kind, and it has exerted considerable influence since its volumes began appearing in the early 1920s. Joseph Conrad, in a letter to Scott-Moncrieff in 1923, concluded that the appeal of Proust's work lies in its "inexplicable character." Conrad wrote: "It appeals to our sense of wonder and gains our homage by its veiled greatness. I don't think there ever has been in the whole of literature such an example of the power of analysis, and I feel pretty safe in saying that there will never be another."
Due in large part to the popularity of Remembrance of Things Past, Proust's other writings have also continued to be reprinted both in French and in new translations. Other works previously unpublished or untranslated have appeared for the first time. These include volumes of the author's voluminous correspondence with the famous (such as André Gide) and not-so-famous, his essays, and aphorisms and maxims drawn from his work. The 1987 volume On Reading Ruskin brings together Proust's introductions to John Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. Reviewing the compilation for New Republic, Frederick Brown dwelt on the similarities between the two writers, concluding: "They yearned for an identity that life could not accommodate. Obsessed by death, each—like Romantics before and since—leapt inconsequently from dreams of self-envelopment to dreams of self-immolation, clearing at one bound or the other all that in the social realm argues human finiteness."
The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, appeared in 2001. This volume includes Proust's first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, first translated into English in 1948 as Pleasures and Regrets, along with six previously untranslated early short stories. Together, they comprise all of the fiction Proust wrote other than Remembrance of Things Past and Jean Santeuil. Taking a positive view of the collection's worth, namely its foreshadowing of Proust's greatness, was James Gardner of National Review. According to Gardner: "Never was the child more father to the man than the author of this book is father to the author of À la recherche du temps perdu. What begins here as a mildly pretentious pose becomes, two decades later, a monumental cultural reality." Noting Proust's "gift for mimicry and . . . sharp eye for social folly," in "Social Ambitions of Bouvard and Pecuchet," and the "lofty scientific dispassion" of "The Melancholy Summer of Madame de Breyves," both qualities that would be more fully realized in later work, Gardner concluded that "this book deserves to be read more for what it portends than for what it achieves."
If you enjoy the works of Marcel Proust
If you enjoy the works of Marcel Proust, you might want to check out the following books:
Honoré Balzac, Eugénia Grandet; or, The Miser's Daughter, 1843.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1915.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927.
Further testimony to an enduring interest in Proust are the books that continue to be published both about the author's life and his writing. In 2000 William C. Carter and Jean Yves-Tadie published critically acclaimed biographies of the author. In 2002 Penguin Books published a complete multi-volume translation of Remembrance of Things Past in Great Britain. Seven different translators, working under the guidance of Christopher Prendergast of Cambridge University, produced the works over a seven-year period. Discussing the ongoing popularity of Proust's work, New York Times Book Review contributor Peter Brooks remarked, "Proust has moved from avant-garde to mainstream, perhaps because he pioneered in the exploration of questions that have come to preoccupy our culture—childhood affect, social deception, sexual obsession, sadomasochism, possessive jealousy, the wiles of memory and the ways in which these all lead to a passionate quest to know. It's not at present Proust the aesthete that engages us so much as Proust the anguished exponent of the drives and frustrations of love."
Biographical and Critical Sources
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Ames, Van Meter, Proust and Santayana: The Aesthetic Way of Life, Russell (New York, NY), 1964.
Andrew, Edward, The Genealogy of Values: The Aesthetic Economy of Nietzsche and Proust, Rowan & Littlefield (Totowa, NJ), 1995.
Bal, Mieke, The Mottled Screen: Reading Proust Visually, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1997.
Barker, Richard H., Marcel Proust, Criterion Press (Torrance, CA), 1958.
Bell, Clive, Proust, Hogarth Press (Honolulu, HI), 1928.
Bell, William Stewart, Proust's Nocturnal Muse, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1962.
Bersani, Jacques, editor, Les Critiques de notre temps et Proust, Garnier (Paris, France), 1971.
Bersani, Leo, Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1965.
Bowie, Malcolm, Proust among the Stars, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Brady, Patrick, Marcel Proust, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1977.
Brée, Germaine, Du temps perdu au temps retrouvé, Belles Lettres (Paris, France), 1950, translated by C. J. Richards and A. D. Truitt as Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1955.
Brée, Germaine, The World of Marcel Proust, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1966.
Bucknall, Barbara J., editor, Critical Essays on Marcel Proust, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1987.
Caws, Mary Ann, Marcel Proust, Overlook Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Cirard, Rene, editor, Proust: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1962.
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Compagnon, Antoine, Proust entre deux siecles, Seuil (Paris, France), 1989.
de Botton, Alain, How Proust Can Change Your Life; Not a Novel, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Deleuze, Gilles, Proust and Signs: The Complete Text, translated by Richard Howard, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 65: French Novelists, 1900-1930, Gale Group (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Doubrovsky, Serge, La Place de la madeleine, Mercúre de France (Paris, France), 1974, translated by Carol Mastrangelo Bové and Paul Bové as Writing and Fantasy in Proust, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1986.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
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Quennel, Peter, editor, Marcel Proust, 1871-1922: A Centenary Volume, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1971.
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Sansom, William, Proust and His World, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1973.
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"Proust, Marcel." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 58. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/proust-marcel
"Proust, Marcel." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 58. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/proust-marcel