Marcel Proust

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Marcel-Valentin-Louis-Eugène-Georges Proust (July 10, 1871November 18, 1922) was a French intellectual, novelist, essayist and critic, best known as the author of In Search of Lost Time (in French À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated previously as Remembrance of Things Past), a monumental work of twentieth-century fiction published in seven volumes over 14 years.

Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust

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The son of well-to-do bourgeois parents, Proust was born in Auteuil (the southern sector of Paris's then-rustic 16th arrondissment) at the home of his mother's uncle, exactly two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. His birth took place during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and corresponds with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of In Search of Lost Time concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic and the fin de siècle.

Proust's father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a famous doctor and epidemiologist, responsible for studying and attempting to remedy the causes and movements of cholera through Europe and Asia. He was the author of about 20 books on topics throughout medicine and hygiene, as well as countless articles; as such, he was a model to Marcel. Jeanne Clémence Weil, Proust's mother and the daughter of a rich and cultured Jewish family, was highly literate and well-read. Her letters demonstrate a well-developed sense of humor, and her command of English was sufficient for her to provide the necessary impetus to her son's later attempts to translate John Ruskin (Tadié).

By the age of nine Proust had had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter was considered by himself, his family and his friends a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers which became the model, when combined with aspects of the time he spent at his great-Uncle's house in Autueil, for the fictional town of "Combray," where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations).

Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889-90) as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Caserne in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes Way, volume three of his novel. As a young man Proust was a dilettante, and a successful social climber, whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of application to work. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an aesthete, contributed to his later troubles getting Swann's Way, the first volume of his huge novel, published.

Proust was quite close with his mother, despite her wishes that he apply himself to some sort of useful work. In order to appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at the Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he immediately obtained a sick leave which was to extend for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at his job, and he didn't move from his parents' apartment until after both were dead (Tadié).

Proust's life and family circle changed considerably in the first five years of the twentieth century. In February of 1903 Proust's brother Robert married and left the family apartment. His father died in September of the same year. Finally, and most crushingly, Proust's beloved mother died in September of 1905. In addition to the grief that attended his mother's death, Proust's life changed due to a very large inheritance (in today's terms, a principal of about $6 million, with a monthly income of about $15,000). His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate.

Proust spent the last three years of his life largely confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died in 1922 and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Early Writing

Proust was involved in writing and publishing from an early age. In addition to the literary magazines with which he was associated, and in which he published, while in school, La revue vert and La Revue lilas, from 1890-1891 Proust published a regular society column in the journal Le Mensuel.(Tadie) In 1892 he was involved in founding a literary review called Le Banquet (also the French title of Plato's Symposium), and throughout the next several years Proust published small pieces regularly in this journal and in the prestigious La Revue Blanche.

In 1896 Les Plaisirs et les Jours, a compendium of many of these early pieces, was published. The book included a foreword by Anatole France, drawings by Mme. Lemaire, and was so sumptuously produced that it cost twice the normal price of a book its size. It was reviewed anemically.

That year Proust also began working on a novel which was eventually published in 1954 and titled Jean Santeuil by his posthumous editors. Many of the themes later developed in In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in this unfinished work, including the enigma of memory and the necessity of reflection; several sections of In Search of Lost Time can be read in first draft in Jean Santeuil. The portrait of the parents in Jean Santeuil is quite harsh, in marked contrast to the adoration with which the parents are painted in Proust's masterpiece. Following the poor reception of Les Plaisirs et les Jours, and internal troubles with resolving the plot, Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil in 1897 and stopped work on it entirely by 1899.

Beginning in 1895 Proust spent several years reading Carlyle, Emerson and John Ruskin. Through this reading Proust began to refine his own theories of art and the role of the artist in society. The artist's responsiblity is to confront the appearance of nature, deduce its essence and retell or explain that essence in the work of art. Ruskin's view of artistic production was central to this conception, and Ruskin's work was so important to Proust that he claimed to know "by heart" several of Ruskin's books, including The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Bible of Amiens, and Praeterita (Tadié 350). Despite his poor command of English, Proust set out to translate two of Ruskin's works into French.

Proust's plans to translate Ruskin were hampered by his lack of a firm command of English. In order to compensate for this his translations were a group affair: sketched out by his mother, the drafts were first revised by Proust, then by Marie Nordlinger, the English cousin of his lover Reynaldo Hahn, and then finally polished by Proust again. When confronted by an editor about his method, Proust responded, "I don't claim to know English; I claim to know Ruskin" (Tadié). The translated The Bible of Amiens was published in 1904, with Proust's extended introduction. Both the translation and the introduction were very well reviewed; Henri Bergson called Proust's introduction, "an important contribution to the psychology of Ruskin," and had similar praise for the translation (Tadié 433). At the time of this publication, Proust was already at work on translating Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, which he completed in June 1905, just prior to his mother's death, and published in 1906.

1908 was an important year for Proust's development as a writer. During the first part of the year he wrote, and had published in various journals, pastiches of other writers. These exercises in imitation allowed Proust to solidify his own style by exorcising the styles of writers he admired. In addition, in the spring and summer of the year Proust began work on several different fragments of writing that would later coalesce under the working title of Contre Saint-Beuve. Proust described what he was working on in a letter to a friend: "I have in progress: a study on the nobility, a Parisian novel, an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert, an essay on Women, and essay on Pederasty (not easy to publish), a study on stained-glass windows, a study on tombstones, a study on the novel" (Tadié 513).

From these disparate fragments Proust began to shape a novel on which he worked continuously during this period. The rough outline of the work was centered around a first-person narrator, unable to sleep, who during the night remembers incidents from childhood as he waits for his mother to come to him in the morning. The novel was to have ended with a critical examination of Sainte-Beuve, and a refutation of his theory that biography was the most important tool for understanding an artist's work. Present in the unfinished manuscript notebooks are many elements that correspond to parts of the Recherche, in particular, to the "Combray" and "Swann in Love" sections of Volume 1, and to the final section of Volume 7. Trouble with finding a publisher, as well as a gradually changing conception of his novel, led Proust to shift work to a substantially different project that still contained many of the same themes and elements. By 1910 he was at work on À la recherche du temps perdu.

À la recherche du temps perdu

Begun in 1909 and finished just before his death, In Search of Lost Time consists of seven volumes, spanning some 3,200 pages in English translation, and teeming with more than 2,000 characters. Graham Greene called Proust the "greatest novelist of the 20th century," and Somerset Maugham called the novel the "greatest fiction to date." Proust died before he was able to complete his revision of the drafts and proofs of the last volumes, the last three of which were published posthumously and edited by his brother, Robert.

Proust's multifaceted vision is generally considered by critics and readers alike to be enthralling. He was a satirist of the aristocracy, a theorist of the various aspects of love, and an intense analyst of introspective consciousness. He was the creator of more than forty unforgettable characters who continue to resonate in the world's literary consciousness. Above all, Proust's central message is the affirmation of life. Contrary to the opinion voiced by some of his contemporaries and critics, Proust's great work teaches that life's "purpose" is not to be sought in artistic artifacts: life is not fulfilled when a painting or a novel is completed, but when it is transmuted, in the very course of quotidian living, into something "artistic" or spiritually mature and wise.

Proust's work shows a heavy influence from Tolstoy, evidenced in the views he gives on art, some of the ways in which he models psychology and social interaction, and in certain episodes such as the trip to Venice (cf. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina). In turn, Proust is often compared with German writer Thomas Mann. He claimed, also, that In Search of Lost Time was his attempt at writing a French incarnation of The Thousand and One Nights.

Homosexuality is a major theme in the novel, especially in The Guermantes Way and subsequent volumes. Proust himself was homosexual, and is supposed to have had a long-running affair with pianist and composer Reynaldo Hahn. In 1949 the critic Justin O'Brien published an article in the PMLA called "Albertine the Ambiguous: Notes on Proust's Transposition of Sexes" which proposed that some female characters are best understood as actually referring to young men. Strip off the feminine ending of the names of the Narrator's loves--Albertine, Gilberte, Andrée--and one has their masculine counterpart. This theory has become known as the "transposition of sexes theory" in Proust criticism, which in turn has been challenged in Epistemology of the Closet (1991) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

In 1995, Penguin undertook a fresh translation of In Search of Lost Time by editor Christopher Prendergast and seven translators in three countries, based on the latest and most authoritative French text. Its six volumes were published in Britain under the Allen Lane imprint in 2002. The first four (those which under American copyright law are in the public domain) have since been published in the U.S. under the Viking imprint and in paperback under the Penguin Classics imprint.


  • 1896 Les plaisirs et les jours
  • 1904 La Bible D'Amiens; a translation of Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens.
  • 1906 Sésame et les lys; a translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies.
  • 1913-1927 À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time
    • 1913 Du côté de chez Swann (translated as Swann's Way or The Way by Swann's)
    • 1918 À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (Within a Budding Grove or In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)
    • 1920 Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way)
    • 1922 Sodome et Gomorrhe (Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah)
    • 1923 La prisonnière (The Captive or The Prisoner)
    • 1925 Albertine disparue (original title: La fugitive) (The Sweet Cheat Gone or The Fugitive)
    • 1927 Le temps retrouvé (The Past Recaptured, Time Regained, or Finding Time Again)
  • 1919 Pastiches et mélanges
  • 1954 Contre Sainte-Beuve
  • 1954 Jean Santeuil (unfinished)


  • Tadié, J-Y. (Euan Cameron, trans.) 2000. Marcel Proust: A life. New York: Penguin Putnam.

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