Marcel Proust 1871-1922
French novelist, essayist, poet, and short story writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Proust's life and works. For additional discussion of Proust's complete career, see TCLC Volumes 7 and 13; for discussion of the novel Remembrance of Things Past, see TCLC Volume 33.
Proust is widely considered the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century, and, with James Joyce, one of the two most important authors of the early twentieth century. His reputation, based almost entirely on his sprawling multi-volume novel À la recherché du temps perdu (1913-27; Remembrance of Things Past), is that of a talented prose stylist, and keen observer. Proust's masterwork is grounded in the author's powers of recollection, and features both comic and psychological dimensions, encompassing characters from all strata of French society. Proust is most noted for his ability to form his memories into a compelling narrative and his penetrating view into his own life.
Proust was born in 1871, in Auteuil, France to Dr. Adrien Proust, a prominent physician, and Jeanne Weil, the highly-educated daughter of a stockbroker and member of a prominent family. As a child, Proust suffered from asthma, an illness which would follow him throughout his life. In school, Proust showed an aptitude for composition and classical languages, graduating from the Lycée Condorcet in 1889. Following a mandatory one-year term of military service, Proust entered into Parisian society. He frequented the many literary salons of the city, where he met notable figures including author Anatole France. During the early years of the 1890s Proust began publishing his first writings in the magazine Le Banquet, which he founded with his friends Daniel Halevy and Jacques Bizet, son of famed composer Georges Bizet. These early works were primarily anecdotes or short reviews of Parisian social events. During this period Proust also studied law at the Sorbonne in order to please his parents. Proust's first self-published collection of writings, Les Plaisirs et les jours, appeared in 1896. The work met with negative critical reception, and its sales failed to cover the cost of its publication. Over the next several years, Proust devoted himself to writing a vast, autobiographical novel. Published posthumously in three volumes, Jean Santeuil (1952) refined Proust's writing style and influenced his later composition of Remembrance of Things Past. In 1900 Proust began translating the works of English critic John Ruskin into French, recognizing that Ruskin's intricate, detailed style resembled his own. His translations of Ruskin's works, including The Bible of Amiens in 1904, were met with minimal attention from French critics.
The first portion of Remembrance of Things Past, Du côté de chez Swann, was published in 1913, at significant personal expense to Proust after it was rejected by numerous publishers. It garnered a largely negative reception from his contemporaries, who, though acknowledging Proust's keen perception, found the work needing significant reduction. Proust continued work on Remembrance of Things Past, publishing the second and third volumes À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur and Le côté de Guermantes in 1919 and 1920-21, respectively. Proust did not live to see his entire work published. He did, however, realize his dream of winning a literary prize when the prestigious Prix Goncourt was awarded to him for À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur in 1919. By 1922, with the final three volumes of his masterwork written but still unpublished, Proust's health had diminished. He fell ill after contracting a cold and died in November of that year.
Proust's primary contribution to twentieth-century literature is his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past, which comprises seven individual novels, each of which was first published in two-, three-, or four-volume editions. Proust lived to see the publication of four novels, but the rest of the work was published posthumously: La prisonnière in 1923, Albertine disparue in 1925, and Le temps retrouve in 1927. Vivid characters, elaborate descriptions, and meticulous attention to memories are all hallmarks of this work. A massive work, Remembrance of Things Past, defies summarization. Thought not strictly autobiographical, the work uses aspects of Proust's life to explore themes such as the journey from childhood to adulthood, the nature of love and sexuality, and the interaction between the artist and society.
At the outset of Proust's literary career, critics were generally dismissive of his intricate, analytical style. One editor, referring to the massive size of Du côté de chez Swann,, remarked “… I cannot understand how a gentleman can use thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before getting to sleep.” After À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur received a literary prize in 1919, however, critics began to reconsider their negative assessments of Proust's unique style. In the years after the author's death, Remembrance of Things Past received more and more positive attention, and the work now ranks among the century's most respected works of French literature. Significant critical and scholarly attention to Proust's masterwork continues more to this day, and has driven critics to examine his minor works as well. The enduring appeal of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, is described by Nadine Gordimer, who maintains that “Marcel Proust is a writer with whom one moves along, for life; reading and re-reading without ever exhausting the sources he reveals only when one is ready for, or made ready for them.”