Marcel Proust Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201619-Proust.jpg Marcel Proust Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Proust is the most celebrated French writer of the twentieth century. His masterwork in seven volumes, the novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981) broke new ground in its explorations of the nature of individual identity, its psychology of space and time, and its stylistic and thematic expansiveness. Proust’s fiction and his criticism have helped widen the traditional perspectives of literary criticism.

Early Life

Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, on July 10, 1871. Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, a medical doctor and professor, had received the Légion d’Honneur the previous year for his theoretical and practical efforts to halt the spread of epidemics. Dr. Proust’s success lent his family stature, but, because Proust’s mother was Jewish, he was also something of an outsider in Parisian society. Proust was a weak child, plagued by asthma, which intesified when he was a teenager and limited his activities for most of his life. During his childhood, his family divided its time between Paris, Auteuil, and Illiers, a village southwest of Paris. Despite the security of his father’s prestige and his family’s wealth, Proust was tormented by his poor health and by a strained, although loving, relationship with his parents. In 1882, he entered the Lycée Condorcet, a private secondary school, where he pursued the chief interests of his life: the theater, reading, and writing. In 1889, Proust received a baccalaureate degree from the lycée; in the examinations, he took a first prize in French composition.

Proust had no plans for a career when he left the lycée. He spent a voluntary year of military service with the Seventy-sixth Infantry in Orléans, where, despite his weak constitution, he delighted in the routine and the camaraderie. Pressure from his family to settle on an occupation led him to study law at the Faculté de Droit at the Sorbonne and diplomacy at the École des Sciences Politiques, but much of his energy was devoted to the Parisian social scene. Proust began by frequenting bourgeois literary salons, gatherings at the homes of prominent society matrons that attracted figures from the arts. At first, Proust gained entry only to salons linked to school and family friends. Eventually, however, he was accepted into some of the most exclusive salons in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, representing the highest level of French nobility. At the same time, Proust continued writing short stories and essays like those he had contributed to magazines at the lycée. He passed the law examination in 1893, but he never practiced the profession. In the eyes of family members and acquaintances, he was a dilettante. Even the publication in 1896 of his early stories and sketches, under the title Les Plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Regrets, 1948), failed to win for him a reputation as a serious writer. Doubtless his negligent attitude toward an unpaid position at a library, which he often abandoned to travel with friends, suggested that he was more interested in gossip and play than in producing substantial work. The deaths of his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905, however, served as catalysts to Proust’s literary efforts.

Life’s Work

Despite appearances to the contrary, the influences and the aborted beginnings that would eventually culminate in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past can be traced through the ten years before his parents’ deaths. The nature of aesthetic experience fascinated Proust. Before the turn of the century, he became interested in the work of the English art critic and historian John Ruskin. Despite Proust’s relatively meager knowledge of English, he translated some of Ruskin’s work and wrote prefaces, published in 1904 and 1905, that explore the nature of reading and its effect on the reader. Proust valued reading not for its power to educate but for its power to send the reader deep within himself. For Proust, reading is communication “in the midst of solitude,” and therefore is divorced from ordinary, daily life. Allied to Proust’s conception of reading was his determination to change the assumptions and the nature of French literary criticism. In a book written during this period but not published until 1954, Contre Sainte-Beuve (By Way of Sainte-Beuve, 1958), Proust takes exception to the views of the most influential nineteenth century French critic, Charles Sainte-Beuve. Proust argues in opposition to Sainte-Beuve that a book should not be judged by its author or an author by his book. Instead, he argues, the author and the book represent two distinct selves. A book presents the elusive inner self that cannot be glimpsed in the daily life of the author, but, in Proust’s view, that glimpse should push the reader to plumb his own elusive self. Thus, the key to truth is not in any book, but within each individual.

Remembrance of Things Past, which Proust wrote and rewrote over a span of at least fourteen years, also draws on narrative material from several earlier efforts: the aborted novel Jean Santeuil (English...

(The entire section is 2141 words.)

Marcel Proust Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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 1890’s 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...

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Marcel Proust Biography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The first volume in this selection of Marcel Proust’s letters was published in 1983 (see Magi/Is Literary Annual, 1984), also edited by Philip Kolb but translated by Ralph Manheim. While volume 2 is published by Oxford University Press, which has taken over the project and is committed to future volumes, the first volume was published by Collins in Great Britain and by Doubleday in the United States. Like volume I, the second volume is a selection of the most important and revealing letters from the much more extensive French edition, each volume of which is devoted to a single year. While most of the letters are by Proust himself there are also a few letters to him from various correspondents.

During the...

(The entire section is 2290 words.)

Marcel Proust Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, on July 10, 1871. He was the son of the happily married Dr. Adrien Proust and Jeanne Weil. Adrien Proust had left the devoutly Catholic home of his candlemaker father in Illiers to go to Paris, where he ultimately found acclaim as a professor and hygienist. Adrien’s family returned to Illiers, the “Combray” of Remembrance of Things Past, for frequent holidays. The home there of Adrien’s sister, Elisabeth, became the model for the famous house and garden of Marcel’s Aunt Léonie. Marcel’s mother was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Lorraine. Although Marcel was baptized a Catholic, he remained close to his mother’s family throughout his life....

(The entire section is 962 words.)

Marcel Proust Biography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

One greets the publication of this authoritative edition of Marcel Proust’s selected early correspondence with the hope that, following upon the publication in two volumes of Francis Steegmuller’s English translations of Gustave Flaubert’s letters (1980 and 1982), this will encourage future efforts to translate and publish letters of other modern French writers. When reading letters of many French authors, one is often especially engaged by the combination of insights into personal lives and friendships with comments, as in Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet, on the rigors and complications of literary creation; in letters, writers are often more unguarded and less restrained in expressing their doubts or confusion...

(The entire section is 2172 words.)

Marcel Proust Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marcel Proust (prewst) was born in the Parisian suburb of Auteuil, France, on July 10, 1871. His parents were Adrien and Jeanne Proust. His father, from a modest Catholic family, became a famous doctor, and his mother came from a wealthy Jewish banking family. His brother Robert was also to become a doctor. Proust was baptized into the faith of his father. As a young child, he struggled with asthma, and the resulting close relationship with his mother was to inspire much of his writing.

The study of philosophy at the Lycée Condorcet impressed him greatly. There, he met Jacques Bizet and Daniel Halévy, sons of the famous musicians. They were also interested in literature and the arts. With them, Proust wrote for the...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Marcel Proust Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marcel Proust once wrote that he could understand how Noah, in spite of being shut up in his ark, could best see the world from it. Proust defined style not in terms of technique but as the statement of a vision. In Remembrance of Things Past, he shares his vision from his cork-lined room where, with the works of other artists, he re-creates a world of time and space.

Proust’s work also stands as a monument to the relation that the person entertains with his culture. Few works invite the reader to the pleasure of reading as does the above, since an essential part of its problematic theme is the deciphering of the relationship of the reader to literature.

(The entire section is 120 words.)