Marcel Proust

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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...

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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 translation, 1955) probably written largely between 1895 and 1899, but not published until 1952; “Sur la Lecture” (1905; “On Reading,” 1971), his preface to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies (1865), and Contre Sainte-Beuve. In 1909, incorporating parts of these works, Proust wrote the beginning and end of Remembrance of Things Past. What he intended in 1912, the year the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (1913; Swann’s Way, 1922), was published, to be three volumes eventually became seven, as Proust added hundreds of thousands of words. The novel’s seemingly infinite expandability reflects Proust’s addition of new layers to his narrator’s life. The added length intensifies one of the novel’s key processes: forgetting and remembering. Proust writes in the last volume, Le Temps retrouvé (1927; Time Regained, 1931), “[T]he true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”

The plot of Remembrance of Things Past is a transmuted version of Proust’s life. The narrator begins by remembering a time when his life was disordered, when he was plagued by memories. One memory, an unconscious memory, sparked by a cup of tea and a madeleine, a shell-shaped French pastry, conjures up a vivid memory of his childhood; from that memory, the main narrative begins. The narrator presents his life in a roughly chronological order, with digressions and some hints of the future. His life is one of repeated disappointments in himself and in others: in his parents, in the wealthy bourgeois aesthete Swann, in the aristocratic Guermantes family, and in the enigmatic Albertine, the narrator’s great love, who may represent a combination of women the homosexual Proust admired and men he loved. Seemingly like Proust, the narrator feels lost, unsure of his life’s work. The novel’s sheer mass occasions in its reader the same divorce from the past experienced by the narrator. Finally, in the last volume, the narrator experiences a series of revelations that highlight his error in searching for truth in others instead of seeking it within himself. He discovers himself and his past anew and, in an effort to resurrect all the selves buried within him, he determines to write the book that the reader has now finished.

Remembrance of Things Past is autobiographical, but its clues to Proust’s life are of secondary importance. More significant, drawing in part on the ideas of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Proust’s novel asserts in both its narrative form and its theme the need for a “three-dimensional psychology, one that adds to the traditional points in space and time a movement through time: what Bergson calls ‘duration.’ “ Proust’s literary theory and technique might be compared to a cubist painter’s representation of movement or changes in perspective in a medium generally considered two-dimensional. In an attempt to create duration in fiction, Proust turned to a variety of techniques, including cutting back and forth between memories in a quasi-cinematic fashion and undermining narrative tension by prematurely revealing future events.

Proust had difficulty finding a publisher for his novel and therefore paid for the printing of the first volume. When it was published, however, its value was soon recognized. Printing difficulties and the outbreak of World War I delayed publication of subsequent volumes until after the war’s end, but the delay proved fortuitous because it allowed Proust the time to expand and revise the novel. When he was awarded the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1917 for the second volume, Proust was lionized.

Stories abound of Proust’s eccentricities during the years he spent writing Remembrance of Things Past. He usually slept during the day and wrote at night. To shield himself from urban noise, he had a cork lining applied to the bedroom walls of one apartment he occupied during those years. His guilt over his homosexuality sometimes led him toward sadomasochism, but he was not a recluse, as he is sometimes claimed to have been. He emerged often to dine at the Ritz, he still sometimes attended society soirées, and he occasionally patronized the ballet and the theater. His true devotion, however, was to his work. When he was dying of pneumonia, too weak to write in his own hand, he insisted on dictating textual additions to his housekeeper. At Proust’s death on November 18, 1922, the last three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past remained unpublished. Doubtless Proust would have revised them if he had lived longer, but their published forms complete his design.


Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is valuable in all its facets: as a panorama of French society of his time, ranging through all economic and social classes and illustrating changes in fashion, technology, psychology, philosophy, and politics; as a treatise on the psychology of the self and the relation of the individual to society; and as an exemplum of literary modernism in its isolation and elevation of the individual consciousness. Proust’s influence on both criticism and literature has been powerful. Although no single author can be credited with spawning new schools of criticism, a comprehensive review of criticism would suggest that Proust’s experiments with narrative and his three-dimensional psychology deserve some part of the credit for the development of branches of criticism such as structuralism and narratology. In literature, Proust’s influence is clearly evident in the work of a number of major figures who have followed him, including Samuel Beckett, whose debt to Proust would be obvious from a look at his characters lost in time even if he had not written about Proust himself, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose dismembered narratives and amnesiac narrators represent extreme versions of Proust’s narrative cross-cutting and his forgetful narrator. Like the work of most great innovators, Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past is part of a historical complex of interrelated ideas. That complex has shaped the psychology and the values of the twentieth century.


Beckett, Samuel. Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1931. A brief but fascinating book by the premier playwright of the second half of the twentieth century, who explores the nature of habit and its role in Remembrance of Things Past.

Brée, Germaine. The World of Marcel Proust. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. One of a number of books by a prominent critic of Proust, this work explains the problems and joys of reading Proust.

Genette, Gerard. “Time and Narrative in À la recherche du temps perdu.” In Aspects of Narrative, edited by J. Hillis Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. A seminal article on Proust’s narrative techniques by one of the French literary critics who have helped shape the branch of criticism called narratology.

Kilmartin, Terence. A Reader’s Guide to “Remembrance of Things Past.” New York: Random House, 1983. Four indexes to characters, historical figures, places, and themes in Remembrance of Things Past, compiled by the most recent translator of the novel.

Painter, George. Proust: The Early Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

Painter, George. Proust: The Later Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. An exhaustive two-volume biography that is especially helpful about Proust’s historical context and the correspondences between Proust’s life and the plot of Remembrance of Things Past.

Poulet, Georges. Studies in Human Time. Translated by Elliott Coleman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956. A widely cited critical work that helped open a new sphere of inquiry for criticism by identifying one of Proust’s methods as the “spatialization of time.”

Proust, Marcel. Letters of Marcel Proust. Translated and edited by Mina Curtiss. London: Chatto & Windus, 1950. Although not the most recent selection of Proust’s letters, this book includes a range of letters from all periods of his life as well as notes and photographs.

Shattuck, Roger. Proust’s Binoculars. New York: Random House, 1963. A thought-provoking book by a prominent critic of French literature, who here outlines Proust’s use of optical and cinematic images and techniques in Remembrance of Things Past.