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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