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.
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.
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...
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