Proust Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The seven volumes of Proust’s masterwork lent a new direction to psychological realism in fiction.

Summary of Event

In March, 1913, Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way, 1922), Swann’s Way (Proust)[Swanns Way] the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), was published by Bernard Grasset at the author’s expense after being rejected by several publishers. This work, with its fluid, overwrought style, mystified many readers who perhaps expected another effort from Proust in the manner of Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896; Pleasures and Regrets, 1948), Pleasures and Regrets (Proust) a whimsical collection of poems and sketches. Remembrance of Things Past (Proust) [kw]Proust Publishes Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927) [kw]Publishes Remembrance of Things Past, Proust (1913-1927) [kw]Remembrance of Things Past, Proust Publishes (1913-1927) Remembrance of Things Past (Proust) [g]France;1913-1927: Proust Publishes Remembrance of Things Past[03320] [c]Literature;1913-1927: Proust Publishes Remembrance of Things Past[03320] Proust, Marcel

Since 1907, Proust had been organizing material for a work envisioned as a lyrical synthesis of belle époque manners and mores, with a title referring to the collective reconstruction of reality through a process of involuntary recollection of experiences. Proust originally delineated a triad formation to include Age of Names, Swann’s Way; Age of Words, Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1921; The Guermantes Way, 1925); Guermantes Way, The (Proust) and Age of Things, Le Temps retrouvé (1927; Time Regained, 1931). Time Regained (Proust) Although these last two parts were complete in 1913, they were published in expanded form later, along with four additional volumes that Proust created during the years of World War I.

In 1919, Proust’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919; Within a Budding Grove, 1924) Within a Budding Grove (Proust) received Le Prix Goncourt after it was published by Gallimard, the publishing house of the Nouvelle Revue Française. The critical reaction to this work was highly charged and quickly transformed Proust from a curiosity into a literary giant. Despite the increasing popularity of his work, Proust lived a reclusive life, enlarging and revising his novel until it had seven major divisions, some of which first appeared in two or three volumes, amounting to a text with a million and a half words and involving more than two hundred characters.

The period between 1896 and 1906 consisted of years of intellectual wandering for Proust. He wrote an unfinished novel of one thousand pages titled Jean Santeuil that anticipated, in narrative structure and thematic development, parts of Remembrance of Things Past. He completed two translations of aesthetic essays by John Ruskin: Le Bible d’Amiens (1904; The Bible of Amiens, 1880-1885) and Sésame et les lys (1906; Sesame and Lilies, 1865). He began an unfinished critical study, published posthumously as Contre Sainte-Beuve (1954; By Way of Sainte-Beuve, 1958), in which he explored the psychological laws governing personality and behavior. Proust’s work suggests that humans respond instinctively to social forces; this challenges Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s reliance on a rational interpretation of reality.

Remembrance of Things Past also reflects the systems of philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer Schopenhauer, Arthur and Henri Bergson. Bergson, Henri Proust’s approach is based on Schopenhauer’s concept that social reality is determined by the idea that each individual forms of that reality. Memory fuses elements of a dormant past, giving time the qualities of a Bergsonian continuum. Proust also read the memoirs of the duc de Saint-Simon, covering the last part of the reign of Louis XIV. Saint-Simon’s interest in etiquette and in the exact pedigrees of aristocrats contributed to Proust’s nostalgia for a deeply layered hierarchical society around which his narrator spins as a bourgeois satellite.

Finally, Proust’s concern for homosexual relationships within the contexts of love, friendship, and jealousy reflects the anxiety of social reformers during France’s embattled Third Republic who vividly remembered Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial for homosexual offenses in England and who were aware that the French police maintained files on anyone suspected of deviant behavior. Proust was galvanized by the Dreyfus affair. The climate of anti-Semitism in France led him to reflect on his own Jewishness (on his mother’s side) as a form of exclusion and exclusiveness. One of his main characters, Charles Swann, is Jewish. Proust thus imagined a world of emotions and experiences that he attempted to understand through an exquisite examination of consciousness. This sets him squarely in the tradition of nineteenth century naturalists but also places him among modern advocates of psychological realism.

Remembrance of Things Past, a long, complex novel, reveals Proust’s dual approach to narration. The central character, Marcel, relives his life from childhood. At the same time, his actions are interpreted by other characters. In this role, he absorbs experiences with little idea of their ultimate significance. As the middle-aged actor in his own drama, he attempts to clarify his own sensations as he recovers time through memory. At the end of the novel, as Marcel reflects on the unique identity of past as present, he realizes that the creative writer alone can express this transcendental nature of reality. Writing, then, is the vocation for which his entire life has been a preparation. Because he is chronically ill, however, his urgent task is to describe time’s disintegrating and transforming function before he dies. The illumination of art is conveyed hauntingly through references to the fictional trio of Elstir, a painter; Vinteuil, a musician; and Bergotte, a writer.

Early in the morning on the day he died, Proust dictated to his housekeeper several passages later included in the narrator’s portrait of Bergotte on his deathbed. In this scene, the writer’s books are displayed in groups of three, like angels’ wings, the symbol of the artist’s resurrection.


Remembrance of Things Past was conceived at a transitional moment in European history, when nineteenth century middle-class values were confronted by the ramifications of socialism, Darwinism, and modern science. In literature, the realistic novel was trying to recover its balance as it came out from under the spell of Symbolism, which tended to transform hard-edged prose into hazy, ethereal poetics. Proust enlarged the scope of the roman-fleuve (cyclic novel) tradition by emphasizing the importance of the imaginative chronicler drawing on his own experience and background to convey the spirit of an age more faithfully than a strictly accurate record could achieve. In doing so, Proust glorified the near past, and, for this reason, there is a valedictory element in the novels of his successors, among them Jules Romains, Roger Martin du Gard, and Georges Duhamel. In their attempts to express the collective spirit of pre-World War I communities, along with the psychology of individuals, these writers owed a considerable debt to Proust.

Since the 1930’s, each successive generation has added to the Proust bibliography. From Paul Valéry to Michel Foucault, the representatives of new waves of literary criticism have found in Proust’s work a rich mine of metaphoric language and crystallized moments. Most critics have praised Proust’s architectural finesse. Indeed, Remembrance of Things Past resembles a Gothic cathedral with a host of stained-glass windows like illuminated manuscripts in a Bible of stone. This evokes a comparison with Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802); some critics have articulated the similarities between Marcel and Dante (narrators) and Swann and Virgil (guides through the underworld).

Remembrance of Things Past transmits the world of the Middle Ages brilliantly in the numerous references to the legendary Geneviève de Brabant and other figures from medieval Europe who appear in the lantern slides that Marcel watched as a child in his room at Combray or in the stories that his mother read to him before bedtime. Proust’s attempt to remount the stream of time imparts a curious dreamlike quality to parts of the text. This effect is heightened by the exoticism produced by a kaleidoscopic series of perfumes and colors attached to objects, people, and events.

Many of Proust’s admirers assiduously follow the two “ways,” Méséglise and Guermantes, offered to the protagonist from doors opening on opposite sides of his Aunt Léonie’s house at Combray, which was the crucible of Marcel’s consciousness. The Méséglise path leading to Swann’s house at Tansonville is an open plain covered with lilac and hawthorn. The Guermantes path is a river valley with water lilies and violets. The Guermantes family represents a lineage dating from the Middle Ages, and Marcel associates this name with societal aspirations.

Through family conversations and isolated details, Marcel learns of Swann’s courtship and marriage to Odette de Crécy, a former prostitute with whom Swann became obsessed. Their marriage elevates her status, but Swann is eventually spurned by his peers until he becomes a forlorn and pathetic aesthete. Odette and Gilberte, her daughter by Swann, become objects of Marcel’s fascination and, through the end of the novel, their lives continue to be linked by a series of gratuitous coincidences.

Marcel is introduced to another realm when, escorted by his grandmother, he visits the seaside town of Balbec, in Normandy, the Grand Hotel of which is later referred to as a Pandora’s box. There he makes the acquaintance of Albertine Simonet, Robert de Saint-Loup, and the Baron de Charlus, each of whom teaches him about the intermittences of the heart that undermine genuine human love. The Guermantes way leads to a number of revealing and often grotesque incidents in which Marcel witnesses erotic activities and liaisons that perturb him as he slowly acknowledges his own homosexual inclinations. In classic Freudian terms, Marcel seeks maternal affection in most of his relationships, and this virtually unattainable desire ends in various forms of compensation, jealousy, and narcissism.

Swann’s pursuit of Odette represents a central feature that is extrapolated in subsequent phases of Marcel’s development. His frustrations reach a climax in his affair with Albertine, with whom he briefly shares a hotel room in Venice, where he observes her in a trancelike sleep in this subterranean city. Soon after, he attempts to hold her prisoner in his Paris apartment. She escapes to her home in Balbec and dies as a result of a riding accident. This leads Marcel to conclude that love is an illusion that exists only in the mind of the lover. He lapses into habit, a form of inaction and neurotic passivity.

Marcel’s redemption is distilled through art. Proust’s characters appear as figures on tableaux, frescoes, and tapestries in an endless succession of mirrored rooms. Albertine resembles women in paintings by Giotto and by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Odette possesses a Botticelli beauty, and Gilberte is compared to Daphne from classical mythology. At the end of the novel, Marcel finally is able to enter the salon of the elusive Duchesse de Guermantes; he observes the vicissitudes of time, mutable in society but immortalized in art. He breaks out of habit and enters the plenitude of memory, located in privileged moments such as the enjoyment of a madeleine dipped in tea, the church steeples of Martinville, and a reading of George Sand’s François le champi (1850; Francis the Waif, 1889).

Proust’s technical innovations are similar to those found in modern art: Near and far are pushed together, perspective is flattened out so that movement seems horizontal across zones of turbulence, and there is no specific beginning, middle, or end with respect to time, which is often considered to be a fourth dimension in surface reality. Furthermore, despite the length of the novel, there is an extraordinary process of psychic compression at work in the introspective landscape that Proust creates. As Joseph Conrad suggested, it might prove difficult to find another novel in which artistic vigor, emotional amplitude, and linguistic splendor are so fully integrated. Remembrance of Things Past (Proust)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brée, Germaine. Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time. Translated by C. J. Richards and A. D. Truitt. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1969. Insightful work by a distinguished critic presents nine chapters that focus primarily on feminine influences on the protagonist. Connects Proust to aesthetic theories proposed by other writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Girard, René. Proust: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Fourteen essays cover a wide range of themes, among them Proust’s notion of time as a plurality of isolated moments, the three-dimensional novel, memory as a form of spiritual grace, and Proust’s belief in intuitive criticism. Includes a chronology of important dates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Addresses the issue of the hybrid philosophical and literary nature of Remembrance of Things Past. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maurois, André. Proust: A Biography. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Meridian Books, 1958. Considered by many critics to be the definitive biography of Proust, this carefully documented work relies on factual data to present the evolution of Proust’s career. Excellent use of correspondence provides keys to many of the characters. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Howard. The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust. New York: Macmillan, 1962. This short but illuminating study is a reliable introduction to Proust’s main themes, represented by the metaphoric concepts of windows, gardens, parties, and steeples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Painter, George. Marcel Proust: A Biography. 2d ed. New York: Random House, 1989. Addresses the early years and later years of Proust’s life with an almost Freudian reverence for the effects of childhood phenomena. Carefully reviews the Dreyfus affair and painstakingly forms composite sketches of Proust’s main characters. Contains a multitude of photographs and prints, copious notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quennell, Peter, ed. Marcel Proust, 1871-1922. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. Presents ten essays depicting the cultural atmosphere of Proust’s novel, with an emphasis on fashions, food, and flowers. Includes many unique and original photographs and sketches in addition to a serviceable index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rivers, J. E. Proust and the Art of Love: The Aesthetics of Sexuality in the Life, Times, and Art of Marcel Proust. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Uses behaviorist and physiological research into human sexuality to contend that Proust was misled by the sexual theories and homophobia of his generation. An unorthodox but challenging treatment of Proust. Extensive notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shattuck, Roger. Proust’s Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time, and Recognition in “A la recherche du temps perdu.” New York: Random House, 1963. The author, an esteemed critic, discusses the narrative structure and comic spirit of Proust’s novel. An entertaining presentation of Proust’s contribution to literary history. Includes notes, chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Edmund. Marcel Proust. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. A biography of Proust by an accomplished novelist. Places Proust’s work in the context of his life and times. Blends anecdotes with literary criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Edmund. “Marcel Proust.” In Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. 1931. Reprint. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. A refreshing and effervescent analysis of the symphonic structure and architectural unity of Proust’s work. Wilson’s usual command of the subject is evident as he emphasizes Symbolist influences and other literary, artistic, and historical connections.

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