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.
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).