Marcel Proust - artwork

by Marcel Proust

click to view bibliographyREGAINING TIME

There's no doubt about it: if you're going to tackle Proust, you need to be in good intellectual shape. The sentences are long, the paragraphs are huge, and at a million and a half words his great novel is one of the longest ever. But it can be done - and the benefits are enormous. Proust delivers gems on every page. He is of course celebrated for his psychological insights. His characters live and breathe in a way which makes you feel they become your personal friends. Don't expect plot, suspense, or even story in a conventional sense. This modern classic is one of characters circling around each other in a way which depicts an entire world of upper-class fin de circle France before and shortly after the First World War.

Proust's father, Adrien, was a Catholic and a university professor of public health and Inspector General of Public Health in France. His mother, Jeanne Weil, was of a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family. Marcel himself was the first of two children, his brother Robert arriving on the scene two years later. Marcel's health was weak, to say the least: he had his first attack of asthma in 1880. Illness and general sickness and unease was to play a role in the rest of his life. Insomnia kept him awake at night, and he slept, or was unavailable, during most days. At some point the family moved to an apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann where for reasons of dust, pollen and noise, Marcel's windows were always kept closed, the drapes pulled, and the walls of his bedroom lined with cork for sound proofing. A neurotic hypochondriac of sorts, over the years he took numerous medicines, including trional, philogyne, veronal, dial, opium, adrenalin, caffeine, morphine, evatmine, cola, and others for his ailments.

Literary criticism has already shown that Proust's earlier writings foreshadowed the masterwork that was to come later. Among these was Jean Santeuil which he started on immediately following the publication of Les Plaisirs et les jours but later abandoned. The first pieces of the first volume of À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU appeared as excerpts in the newspaper Le Figaro in March 1912. Later that year the Nouvelle Revue Française - whose editor was André Gide at the time - rejected the manuscript. Proust submitted the copy to the publisher Ollendorff with a similar result, the editor Humblot turning it down with the now classic remarks:

    ... perhaps I am dense, but I just don't understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he rolls about in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim!

Proust now offered the manuscript to a new firm - Grasset - guarenteeing to cover costs of publication. Grasset accepted it without - it is said - even reading it.

With its appearance, "Swann's Way" (Du côté de chez Swann) attracted admirers, including Gide and in June and July of 1914, excerpts of Le Côté de Guermantes began to appear in the Nouvelle Revue Française. Finally in August - with World War I starting - publication was shifted from Grasset to the NRF. The next volume of À la recherche did not appear until 1919. À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs ("Within a Budding Grove") was published in June 1919, together with a reprint of "Swann's Way". On 10 December 1919, with support from Léon Daudet, À l'ombre was awarded the Prix Goncourt literary prize, making Proust an overnight sensation. In September of 1920 he was awarded the Légion d'honneur.

Two more volumes that were to appear during the rest of Proust's lifetime are: Le Coté de Guermantes (1920-21; "The Guermantes Way), Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921-22; "Cities of the Plain"). In May 1922, the day after the appearance of Sodome et Gomorrhe Proust had a serious accident with the mistaken injection of undiluted adrenalin. While not fatal, it left him shattered in the words of one biographer, and within six months pulmonary infection, allergies, and other torturing ailments lead to his death on 18 November 1922, his physician brother Robert and others unable to save him.

Published posthumously are the last three parts of À la recherche: La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine disparue (1925; "The Sweet Cheat Gone") and Le Temps retrouvé (1927; "Time Regained").

À LA RECHERCHE is a circular novel the full meaning of which only becomes clear with the revelation at its end. Its characters and scenes are largely autobiographical. When he died, Proust's fame was not yet at its zenith. While the passage of time has (unfortunately and undeservedly) tempered his renown, À LA RECHERCHE remains one of the most important literary works of the 20th century, and its author one of its most important literary figures.

The novel itself is founded on Proust's 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 À LA RECHERCHE 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."

How we spend our time, said Proust, is how we "create ourselves!"

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