One of the most imposing figures in twentieth century French literature, Marcel Proust is the author of the vast seven-part À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). In this work, he depicts French society before and after World War I through sensitive and in-depth portrayals of the human psyche, the vicissitudes engendered by the passage of time, and the human struggle to achieve love and an understanding of human existence. In this monumental tableau, Proust intermingles autobiographical details, compelling reflections on the nature of time, and the complexities of a writer’s vocation. An interior monologue narrated in the first person, Remembrance of Things Past is unique in the psychological evolution of characters and in the narrator’s reflections upon the nature and effects of the passing of time.
William C. Carter is eminently qualified to undertake a daunting project such as the biography of one of the twentieth century’s most complex and intriguing writers. Carter is the coproducer of the documentary film Marcel Proust: A Writer’s Life (1992) and the author of The Proustian Quest (1992). The abundance of detail woven into the fabric of biography attests to his dedication and seriousness in composing a multifaceted portrait of Proust’s social, creative, and inner beings; homosexual liaisons; fascination with Parisian high society; and, above all, vocation as a writer. In addition to this central focus, Carter composes an intricate mosaic of the Parisian literary world in which Proust existed, including the fierce and sustained competition that prevailed between such publishing houses as les Éditions Grasset and les Éditions Gallimard, the latter the publisher of Proust’s award-winning À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919; Within a Budding Grove, 1924). The richness of documentation supporting Carter’s re-creation of Proust’s life was made possible through correspondence, memoirs, and manuscripts that became available for consultation. Carter’s work is commensurate with the intricacies and compelling portrayals found in Proust’s own work and underlines, in the case of Proust, that an author’s life could indeed be translated through metaphor and invention into a literary work. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the composition of Remembrance of Things Past is built upon Proust’s intense self-reflection, and that to fully comprehend and appreciate his work, it is indeed of interest and benefit to explore the author’s existence.
Proust was born on St. Felicity’s Day, July 10, 1871, near Paris, in Auteuil, a country village that was, at the time, considered a safe haven from the fighting between monarchists and republicans that gripped Paris. This civil strife followed the defeat of France and the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt that had ended the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The boy’s father, Dr. Adrien Proust, was an acclaimed epidemiologist who, in 1869, undertook a successful and daring mission to Russia, Persia, Turkey, and Egypt in order to learn the routes by which cholera had traveled from Russia to Europe. The Proust family, one of the oldest in the small town of Illiers, near Chartres, can be traced as far back as the sixteenth century. Dr. Proust’s ancestors belonged, for the most part, to the middle class and held administrative posts—they were lawyers, bailiffs, and elected representatives. Proust’s mother, born Jeanne Weil, studied Greek and Latin in addition to English and German, and as was the custom at the time, did not attend the lycées that functioned as preparatory schools for men but studied at home. An accomplished pianist, she was descended from wealthy families who were members of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie of Paris. Jeanne agreed to raise her children as Catholics, but out of respect for her parents refused to convert to Catholicism herself.
The baby’s precarious health was attributed to the privations, anxiety, and lack of proper nourishment caused by the siege and bombardment of Paris during the Prussian assault. During these difficult times in Paris, firewood was scarce; zoo animals, pigeons, and rats were consumed, and bread was rationed. It was in Paris that the young family resided. At the age of twenty-two months, Marcel saw the birth of his brother, Robert. Robert was robust and athletic like his father while Marcel, frail, was subject to fits of hysteria and tantrums. The influence of Jeanne Proust on her elder son was particularly pronounced. They not only were physically similar—each having an oval face with large, dark...
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