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||Marcel (Valentin-Louis-George-Eugene) Proust (1871-1922)|
French novelist, best known for À la recherche du temps perdu
(Remembrance of Things Past), his autobiographical novel told mostly in
a stream-of-consciousness style. The work collected pieces from
Proust's childhood, observations of aristocratic life-style, gossip,
recollections of the closed world, where the author never found his
place. The key scene is when a madeleine cake (a small, rich
cookie-like pastry) enables the narrator to experience the past
completely as a simultaneous part of his present existence:
"And suddenly the memory revealed itself: The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane." (from Remembrance of Things Past)
Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, near Paris, the son of an eminent doctor, Adrien Proust, and his wife, Jeanne Weil, who was from a well-to-do Alsatian Jewish family. The village of Auteuil, where Proust spent his holidays as a child, was described in an 1855 guidebook as "out of a comic opera." Later Auteuil and Illiers became the Combray of Remembrance of Things Past. Proust was baptized as Catholic, but he never practiced the religion. From 1882 to 1889 Proust attended the Lycée Condorcet, where he felt isolated and misunderstood. "We were rough with him," recalled one of his classmates. In spite of his severe asthma, from which he had suffered since childhood, Proust did his one year military service at Orléans.
Proust studied law at the famous Sorbonne at the École des Sciences Politiques. He contributed to Symbolist magazines and frequented the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the wealthy and aristocratic area of Paris. During the late summer of 1895 he started to write Jean Santeuil, which he later abandoned. In 1896 his first books appeared: Portraits de peintres and Les plaisirs et les jours, with drawings by Madeleine Lemaire. Proust's unpublished texts from this period, Jean Santeuil and Contre Sainte-Beuve, an attack on the biographical criticism of Sainte-Beuve, were discovered in the 1950s.
"It seems that the taste for books grows with intelligence, a little below it but on the same stem, as every passion is accomplished by a predilection for that which surrounds its object, which has an affinity for it, which in its absence still speaks of it. So, the great writers, during those hours when they are not in direct communication with their thought, delight in the society of books. Besides, is it not chiefly for them that they have been written; do they not disclose to them a thousand beauties, which remain hidden to the masses?" (Proust in Reading in Bed, selected and edited by Steven Gilbar, 1995)
From 1895 to 1899 Proust worked on an autobiographical novel that remained unfinished. In 1899 he started to translate the English art critic John Ruskin, without knowing much English. His earliest love affairs, which had been heterosexual, changed later into homosexual affairs. Among them was Alfred Agostelli, who was married and was killed in an air accident.
According to some sources, Proust frequented Le Cuziat's male brothel, but although these details have fascinated his biographers, they have shed little light on his on his literary accomplishments. To the age of 35 Proust lived the life of a snob and social climber in the salons. For a short time he worked as a lawyer and was active in the Dreyfuss affair, like Émile Zola and other artists and intellectuals.
"A great part – perhaps the greatest – of Proust's writing is intended to show the havoc wrought in and round us by Time; and he succeeded amazingly not only in suggesting to the reader, but in making him actually feel, the universal decay invincibly creeping over everything and everybody with a kind of epic and horrible power." (Georges Lemaitre in Four French Novelists, 1938)
Throughout his life Proust suffered from asthma. He was looked after by his Jewish mother, to whom the writer was – neurotically – attached. After the death of his father in 1903 and mother in 1905, Proust withdrew gradually from high-society circles. Until 1919 Proust lived in a soundproof flat, at the 102 Boulevard Haussmann, where he devoted himself to writing and introspection. When James Joyce met Proust at a midnight supper in the fashionable Majestic Hotel in May 1922, the two great innovative writers did not speak more than a few words with each other. "Of course the situation was impossible," Joyce recalled later. "Proust's day was just beginning. Mine was at an end."
Proust was financially independent and free to start on his great novel, Remembrance of Things Past, which was influenced by the autobiographies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and François Chateaubriand. From 1910 he spent much time in his bedroom, often sleeping in the day and working at night. "For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep. And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V."
In 1912 Proust produced the first volume of his seven-part major work, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). The massive story of 3 000 pages occupied the last decade of his life. As a half Jew, he knew what it is to be an outsider, the observed. As an onlooker in society, he turned his wordly experiences into inner experience. Being a Jew and a homosexual at the same time, Proust was involved in both of the most fashionable "vices" of the contemporary French society, which he, "the greatest witness of dejudaized Judaism" interconnected in the "darkest comparison which ever has been made on behalf of Western Judaism." ('Marcel Proust, Temoin du Judaisme dejudaize,' by J. E. van Praag, in Revue Juive de Geneve, 1937).
Du côté de chez Swann (Swann's Way) was printed at Proust's own expense in 1913, after Andre Gide advised the Gallimard publishing house to reject it. Swann's Way gained a modest success. Gide made later an offer to publish the subsequent volumes. Another famous writer, E.M. Forster, had his doubts about the whole work: "The book is chaotic, ill constructed, it has and will have no external shape; and yet it hangs together because it is stitched internally, because it contains rhythm." (from Aspects of the Novel, 1927) The second volume, which was delayed by the WW I, appeared in 1919, but the next parts made Proust finally internationally famous. He was still correcting the typescript on his deathbed, but did not manage to finish the final volumes before his death on November 18, 1922.
Remembrance of Things Past does not have a clear and continuous plot line. The first two sections can be – and often are – read separately. Marcel, the narrator is not Proust but resembles him in many ways. Marcel is initially ignorant – only slowly does he begin to grasp the essence of the hidden reality. Through a series of loves and disillusionments he finds his true vocation in life. At the end he is preparing to write a novel which is like the one just presented to the reader. Marcel's childhood memories start to flow when he tastes a madeleine cake dipped in linden tea such as he was given as a child.
"And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine."
Memory takes the central role in the novel and apparently insignificant details prove to be the most important. The first part focuses on Marcel's childhood in Combray. Proust follows the lives of three families, Marcel's own, the aristocratic de Guermantes, and the family of the Jewish Bohemian dilettante Swann. Among the central characters are the faithless cocotte Odette, whom Swann marries, homosexual Baron de Charlus, partly modelled on Count Robert de Montesquiou-Ferensac (1855-1921), an art critic, poet, and essayist, Dutchess, Mme de Villeparisis, Robert Saint-Loup, and Marcel's great love Albertine, who is perhaps lesbian and who dies in a riding accident. The character was partly based on Alfred Agostinelli, Proust's chauffeur, secretary and live-in companion. Proust gradually deepens the portraits of his characters – Vinteuil, a modest piano teacher, turns out to be a great composer. In the climax of the novel the narrator fails to recognize many of his friends because they have changed so much physically during the years. Marcel realizes that his vocation as an artist is to capture the past still alive within us. And being was for Proust the complete past, "that past which already extended so far down and which I was bearing so painfully within me." In the narration past and present merge, reality appears in half-forgotten experiences, and parts of the past are felt differently at different times.
Proust is generally considered a pioneer of the modern novel. He made a clear distinction between man and work. The writer is a man of intuition. "A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices," Proust wrote in his answer to the French critic Sainte-Beuve, who tried to understand writers by investigating their private life and environment.
Proust's work widely influenced authors in different countries, among them Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. His style of long sentences, some of which extend to several pages in length, paved the way for Claude Simon's narrative inventions. Proust later said that he had from the beginning a fixed structure for the whole novel. In the construction he used photographs; the author himself had a penchant for being photographed in uniform. One biographer mentions that Proust liked tight underwear.
Proust's literary criticism did not attract wide attention until 1954, when Contre Sainte-Beuve came out. He admired Vigny, Hugo, and Leconte de Lisle, but Baudelaire was for him the greatest poet of the nineteenth century. Proust denied Henri Bergson's influence on his work, although they both were much occupied with time and memory, emphasizing duration – time lived every day rather than clock time. The most famous of Proust's essays is that on Flaubert's style, in which he compares Flaubert's grammatical use of tenses to Kant's revolution in philosophy. A prolific writer, Proust also was an avid letter writer.
For further reading: Marcel Proust by S. Beckett (1931); Four French Novelists by Georges Lemaitre (1938); The Mind of Marcel Proust by F.C. Green (1949); Proust's Way by F. Mauriac (1950); Proust A. Maurois (1950); Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust by M.L. Miller (1956); Proust and Literature by Walter A. Strauss (1957); Marcel Proust by R.H. Baker (1958); A Reading of Proust by W. Fowlie (1964); Proust's Narrative Technique by B.G. Rogers (1965); Marcel Proust: Critique littéraire by René de Chantal (1967); A Readers Handbook to Proust by P.A. Spalding (1975); Marcel Proust by G. Painter (1978, 2 vols.); A Readers Guide to Remembrance of Things Past by T. Kilmartin (1983); Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, ed. by Harold Bloom (1987); Proust: Philosophie du roman by Vincent Descombes (1992); Le Temps sensible by Julia Kristeva (1994, as Time and Sense in 1966); Marcel Proust: A Life by Jean-Yves Tadie (2000); Marcel Proust: A Life by William C. Carter (2000); Proust: In the power of photography by Brassai (2001); A Night at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines (2006) - See: Colette, Isaiah Berlin, André Maurois's The Quest for Proust. See also: Henri Bergson, whom Proust called "the first great metaphysician since Leibniz." Proust and Bergson knew each other socially. Proust's cousin on his mother's side, Louise Neuberger, married Bergson in 1892. Films: Célèste (1981), dir. by Percy Adlon, Eva Mattes, Jürgen Arndt, Norbert Wartha, based on the novel Monsieur Proust (1973) by Céleste Albaret, Proust's housekeeper.