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Proust, Marcel

Category: Writer

 

Marcel Proust,  (born July 10, 1871, Auteuil, near Paris, France—died Nov. 18, 1922, Paris), was a French novelist and writer and the author of À la recherche du temps perdu 1913–27; (In Search of Lost Time), a seven-volume novel based on Proust’s life.

In his twenties, Proust became a conspicuous society figure, frequenting the most fashionable Paris salons of the day. 

After 1899, however, his suffering from chronic asthma, the death of his parents and his growing disillusionment with humanity caused him to lead an increasingly secluded almost hermit like life.  He slept by day and worked by night, writing letters and devoting himself to the completion of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Early Life

George Duncan Painter – Encyclopedia Britannica

 

Marcel was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent physician of provincial French Catholic descent, and his wife, Jeanne, née Weil, of a wealthy Jewish family.

After a first attack in 1880, [aged 9] he suffered from asthma throughout his life. His childhood holidays were spent at Illiers and Auteuil (which together became the Combray of his novel) or at seaside resorts in Normandy with his maternal grandmother.

At the Lycée Condorcet (1882–89) he wrote for class magazines, fell in love with a little girl named Marie de Benardaky in the Champs-Élysées, made friends whose mothers were society hostesses, and was influenced by his philosophy master Alphonse Darlu. He enjoyed the discipline and comradeship of military service at Orléans (1889–90) and studied at the School of Political Sciences, taking licences in law (1893) and in literature (1895).

During these student days his thought was influenced by the philosophers Henri Bergson (his cousin by marriage) and Paul Desjardins and by the historian Albert Sorel. Meanwhile, via the bourgeois salons of Madames Straus, Arman de Caillavet, Aubernon, and Madeleine Lemaire, he became an observant habitué of the most exclusive drawing rooms of the nobility. In 1896 he published Les Plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of short stories at once precious and profound, most of which had appeared during 1892–93 in the magazines Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. From 1895 to 1899 he wrote Jean Santeuil, an autobiographical novel that, though unfinished and ill-constructed, showed awakening genius and foreshadowed À la recherche.

A gradual disengagement from social life coincided with growing ill health ….Proust’s discovery of John Ruskin’s art criticism in 1899 caused him to abandon Jean Santeuil and to seek a new revelation in the beauty of nature and in Gothic architecture, considered as symbols of man confronted with eternity: “Suddenly,” he wrote, “the universe regained in my eyes an immeasurable value.” On this quest he visited Venice (with his mother in May 1900) and the churches of France and translated Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies, with prefaces in which the note of his mature prose is first heard.

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

 

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu  [Remembrance of Things Past], is Proust’s magnus opus.  In this work, Proust synthesized the novel and the memoir; he used his own actual experiences to weave a story.  Thus from this vast collection of thoughts and recollections, we are seeing the unfolding of Proust’s own life.

The death of Proust’s father in 1903 and of his mother in 1905 left him grief stricken and alone, but financially independent and free to attempt his great novel. At least one early version was written in 1905–06.

George Duncan Painter – Encyclopedia Britannica
During the war he revised the remainder of his novel, enriching and deepening its feeling, texture, and construction, increasing the realistic and satirical elements, and tripling its length. In this majestic process he transformed a work that in its earlier state was still below the level of his highest powers into one of the greatest achievements of the modern novel.

He finished the first draft in September 1912. The first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), was refused by the best-selling publishers Fasquelle and Ollendorff and even by the intellectual La Nouvelle Revue Française, under the direction of the novelist André Gide, but was finally issued at the author’s expense in November 1913 by the progressive young publisher Bernard Grasset and met with some success.

Proust then planned only two further volumes, the premature appearance of which was fortunately thwarted by his anguish at the flight and death of his secretary Alfred Agostinelli and by the outbreak of World War I.

 

In June 1919 À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove) was published simultaneously with a reprint of Swann. In December 1919, through Léon Daudet’s recommendation, À l’ombre received the Prix Goncourt, and Proust suddenly became world famous.

Three more installments appeared in his lifetime, with the benefit of his final revision, comprising Le Côté de Guermantes (1920–21; The Guermantes Way) and Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921–22; Sodom and Gomorrah).

He died in Paris of pneumonia, succumbing to a weakness of the lungs that many had mistaken for a form of hypochondria and struggling to the last with the revision of La Prisonnière (The Captive).

The last three parts of À la recherche were published posthumously, in an advanced but not final stage of revision: La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine disparue (1925; The Fugitive), and Le Temps retrouvé (1927; Time Regained).

George Duncan Painter – Encyclopedia Britannica
Proust’s novel has a circular construction and must be considered in the light of the revelation with which it ends. The author reinstates the extratemporal values of time regained, his subject being salvation. …..In his quest for time lost, Proust invented nothing but altered everything, selecting, fusing, and transmuting the facts so that their underlying unity and universal significance should be revealed, working inward to himself and outward to every aspect of the human condition.

His sources of inspiration

LOVE - Many short biographies of Proust label him simply as ‘homosexual’, but this is not only a gross over simplification, it fails to understand anything of how Proust gained his inspiration.  Proust loved men and women.

Early in his adulthood, Proust had a number of friends/lovers who were also artists, socialites and intellectuals. Many of the characters in RTP are amalgams of the society people, homo- and heterosexual, he knew and associated with.

George Duncan Painter [from the Encyclopedia Britannica]
Proust projected his own homosexuality upon his characters, ….. His insight into women and the love of men for women (which he himself experienced for the many female originals of his heroines) remained unimpaired, and he is among the greatest novelists in the fields of both heterosexual and homosexual love.

 

Jeanne Proust née Weil (1849-1905), mère
de Marcel Proust par Nadar

Proust even thought of marrying “a very young and delightful girl” whom he met at Cabourg, a seaside resort in Normandy, where he spent summer holidays from 1907 to 1914; but, instead, he retired from the world to write his novel.

Proust gained his inspiration via LOVE and it mattered little what sex the loved one was, he loved them for who they were and not for the sexual pleasure they might bring him, thus, if true love resulted in sex, so be it, otherwise love was still love. 

He doted, for example, truly doted on his mother for no other reason than he loved his mother and sex didn’t come into it at all. 

In other words love came first, making love then became an expression of that love if appropriate.

Trying to trump eternal anguish
Through nature, and woman and eyes
And the tenderness of blue’s pallor
Is a lie within the opal
And in the sky and in your eyes

Sensory overload - He was also a great believer in involving all the senses – taste, smell, hearing, touch, into the overall inspirational experience.  He was thus a practitioner of sensory overload as a means of getting inspiration.  We have included a rather spicy poem of his to show that making love was a key part of that sensory overload process, but what is interesting is that his profoundest experiences were obtained by total stillness without the overload.

There is no doubting the general success of this multi-sensory approach to the arts, -  a sort of synthesis of the novel with the other arts—music and painting in particular. In this way, he hoped to use the senses, to access perceptions – pure perception recalled.  That is why the fragment of a melody plays such a pivotal part in the actions and inner life of the character in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It is also why the one scene from the novel that most people know of -  the one in which a madeleine is dunked in tea - stirs up, for the narrator, a flood of perceptions.

Humour and laughing - Last but not least another source of inspiration was laughing – humour, a sort of self-deprecating humour. 

 

Proust is many things, but chief among them, he is a comic novelist, alert to the absurdity of human nature and behaviour, keenly aware of the deceptions we practise on ourselves as well as on others, alive to the discrepancies between appearance and reality. There is comedy in most great novelists – in Scott and Stendhal, Austen, Dickens and Dostoevsky; all had a sense of the absurd; all were capable of taking delight, sometimes scornful delight, in the comedy of hypocrisy.

 

He laughed at himself, he laughed at the pomposity of others, he laughed at the world at large.  Puppets on a stage, one and all.

References

In the observations, we have concentrated on some key events that happened in Proust's life that are related to spiritual experience,  and also selected a few quotes relevant to the concepts and topics we have on the site.

Works

  • Marcel Proust: The Collected Poems - Proust’s poems are not at all what they seem.  The poems are actually a sort of big joke.  Many of the poems were enclosed in letters to various members of his coterie, often pastiches and satires of their characters. These poems, then, weren’t meant for a wider audience. Acrostic  is a good example – see observations.
  • Contre Sainte-Beuve” (published 1954), - attacked the French critic’s view of literature as a pastime of the cultivated intelligence and putting forward his own, in which the artist’s task is to “release from the buried world of unconscious memory the ever-living reality to which habit makes us blind”.
  • Letters - Proust’s enormous correspondence (although thousands of letters have appeared in print, many await publication), is remarkable for its communication of his living presence, as well as for its elegance and nobility of style and thought.  It is also highly significant as the raw material from which he built his fictional world.

 

Observations

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