Last reviewed: June 2018
July 10, 1871
November 18, 1922
The father of Marcel Proust (prewst) was a successful physician, wealthy enough to provide abundantly for his family. His wife, who was Jewish, was a devoted mother to her sons, but because the younger Robert was robust, she gave special attention to the weaker Marcel. Until the age of nine, Proust lived a normal if sheltered life. Then a violent attack of asthma increased his dependence on his mother. A very strong attachment between them grew up and colored the rest of his life. Marcel Proust
In spite of his physical weakness Proust went to school fairly regularly, and in the Lycée Condorcet excelled in philosophy and composition. His schoolmates recognized his ability. The chief contributor to a precocious periodical put out by the most intellectual members of his class, he made enduring friendships among them. At the age of seventeen his formal schooling ended, but even before this time Proust had been visiting the literary salons. He was handsome and witty and became a favorite of the famous. Among the men of letters he met were Alexandre Dumas, fils, Ernest Renan, Élie Halévy, and Anatole France. He wrote short pieces that won for him a kind of reputation as a precious dilettante, and his gift for mimicry assured him a place in the most brilliant salons. This phase of his life was interrupted in 1889 when he was called up for military service. He ranked seventy-third in a company of seventy-four. At the end of his year of service he returned to Paris, quite content to live on a generous allowance from his parents. To please his father, he made some attempt to prepare for a profession, even reading law for a while. Then, by means of an examination, he was appointed honorary attaché at the Mazafine library. He served several years, but his work was nominal, and he frequently took long leaves on the plea that he was engaged in urgent writing. His first book, a slender volume of diverse pieces called Pleasures and Regrets (also translated as Pleasures and Days), appeared in 1896.
Toward the end of the 1890s the Dreyfus affair, with its sinister overtones of anti-Semitism, rocked France. To his credit, and perhaps to some extent because he himself was part Jewish, Proust took an active role in the agitation to clear Dreyfus. In 1903 his father died, and the family was further disrupted by Robert’s marriage. Proust’s health became worse, especially because of severe bouts of asthma, and as a result he went out only infrequently. By 1905 he had recovered sufficiently to accompany his mother on a trip to Evian, but their holiday was cut short by her illness. She died shortly after her return to Paris.
From 1905 until his own death in 1922 Proust lived as an invalid, leaving his bed only at intervals, morbidly conscious of his wasted youth, unable to recover from the loss of his mother. In 1905 he had written one book, translated several of John Ruskin’s works into French, contributed to periodicals, and worked secretly on a novel. Between 1906 and 1913 he finished the plan of what many have called the greatest novel of the century, Remembrance of Things Past, and completed the first part, Swann’s Way, published in 1913; the succeeding six parts (three published posthumously) were written between debilitating asthmatic spells and bronchial attacks.
In view of Proust’s personality and health, his achievement is remarkable. Most of his productive years after 1905 were spent propped up in bed, the air thick with vapors to ease his breathing, the windows closed and shuttered. He always had his linen warmed before putting it on, and he habitually wore a number of woolen waistcoats. He left the house only after sundown on the occasions when he was well enough to get up, muffled in a heavy overcoat even in summer, and carrying an umbrella. From time to time he invited in a few friends to dine sumptuously around his bed on chicken and beer. On rarer occasions he dined alone late at night at the Ritz, swathed in a fur coat and a scarf, his hands covered with dirty white gloves, surrounded by obsequious waiters whom he tipped extravagantly.
Although he retained the friendship of many women, and although he several times made attempts at love affairs, he felt himself incapable of love for women and had male lovers. Though he was not open about his own same-sex relationships, the themes of homosexuality and bisexuality found expression in parts of his work. Proustian love remains unresolved in his fiction as it was in his personal life. For Proust the tragedy and sublimity of love resides in its utter subjectivity and reliance on imagination, which is always in conflict with reality.
The publication of Swann’s Way, which Proust published at his own expense, was little noticed. Even so perceptive a critic as André Gide could see little merit in it. The second volume, delayed by World War I, was almost equally unnoticed for a time by the public, but this time several critics recognized the novel’s worth. Léon Daudet, in particular, was convinced of its greatness, and as a result of his efforts, Proust was awarded the Prix Goncourt at the age of forty-seven.
Proust enjoyed the letters that poured in and the homage of friends and admirers, but he kept on working. Proofs were revised and rewritten until the margins were covered and the edges tattered. Before his death in Paris in 1922, he managed to complete Remembrance of Things Past, which came to be considered one of world literature’s masterpieces. The narrator, Marcel, speaks in the first person in a flowing, poetic manner, describing and analyzing Parisian high society of the turn of the twentieth century. The work is a resigned acknowledgment that time is a destroyer, that the past is dead. In form the novel is an innovation, built as it is on recurring themes of people, loves, ambitions, frustrations. It is in large part autobiographical, and Proust’s circle furnished models for many of the characters. Proust was a meticulous craftsman, detailed and realistic in his descriptions.
Proust anticipated the deconstructionist movement of the later twentieth century in believing that works of art are autonomous and self-sufficient in themselves, independent of their creators’ historical contextual circumstances.
As a philosopher and sociopsychological critic he offers many insights into the complex nature of personality, and he wonders about the nature of private truth and the illusion of personal identity, the nature of memory and consciousness “in search of lost time,” and sexual inversions and jealous love.
Proust studied with the philosopher Henri Bergson, who influenced all his works throughout his life. Although he drew his experiences from a narrow group of upper-class Parisians in literati salons, his views about the human condition were universal and all-encompassing. Shortly after World War II, the French scholar Bernard de Fallois discovered among Proust’s notebooks and unclassified manuscripts two previously unknown early works, the apprentice and unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, and an important critical study, Contre Sainte-Beuve, which throw considerable new light on Proust’s literary activities and his development as a writer.