The first of the novel cycle, Du côté de chez Swann (1913, tr. Swann's Way, 1928) went unnoticed, but the second, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919, tr. Within a Budding Grove, 1919), was awarded the Goncourt Prize. Proust's semiautobiographical novel cycle is superficially concerned with its hero's development through childhood and through youthful love affairs to the point of commitment to literary endeavor. It is less a story than an interior monologue. Discursive, but alive with brilliant metaphor and sense imagery, the work is rich in psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding. A vital theme is the link between external and internal reality found in time and memory, to which Proust sees humanity's strivings subjugated—time mocks the individual's intelligence and endeavors; memory synthesizes yet distorts past experience. Most experience causes inner pain, and the objects of human desires are the chief causes of their suffering.
In Proust's scheme the individual is isolated, society is false and ruled by snobbery, and artistic endeavor is raised to a religion and is superior to nature. Only through the vision gained in works of art can the individual see beyond his or her subjective experience. Proust's ability to interpret innermost experience in terms of such eternal forces as time and death created a profound and protean world view and his work has influenced generations of novelists and thinkers. His vision and technique have come to be seen as vital to the development of modernism. Most of his correspondence has been published (21 vol., P. Kolb, ed., 1970-93), as has his draft of an early novel, Jean Santeuil (1952, tr. 1955), and Contre Sainte-Beuve (1954, tr. On Art and Literature, 1896-1919, 1958).
See biographies by A. Maurois (1950, repr. 1984), R. H. Barker (1958), G. D. Painter (2 vol., 1959-65), L. Bersani (1965), G. Brée (1966), R. Hayman (1990), J.-Y. Tadié (1996, tr. 2000), E. White (1998), and W. C. Carter (2000); studies by W. S. Bell (1962), P. Quennell (1971), S. L. Wolitz (1971), G. Deleuze (1972), J. M. Cocking (1982), B. J. Bucknall, ed. (1987), L. Hodgon (1989), A. Compagnon (1992), J. Kristeva (1996), and R. Shattuck (2000).
Marcel Proust, oil painting by Jacques-Émile Blanche; in a private collection.
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Proust's father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, responsible for studying and attempting to remedy the causes and movements of cholera through Europe and Asia; he was the author of many articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust's mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, was the daughter of a well-off and cultured Jewish family. She was a literate and well-read woman. Her letters demonstrate a well-developed sense of humour, and her command of English was sufficient for her to provide the necessary impetus to her son's later attempts to translate John Ruskin.
By the age of nine, Proust had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered by himself, his family and his friends as a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with aspects of the time he spent at his great-uncle's house in Auteuil became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations).
Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Caserne in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes' Way, part three of his novel. As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a social climber, whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of application. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an amateur, contributed to his later troubles with getting Swann's Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913.
Proust had a close relationship with his mother. In order to appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at the Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he obtained a sick leave which was to extend for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at his job, and he did not move from his parents' apartment until after both were dead (Tadié).
Proust, who was homosexual, was one of the first European novelists to treat homosexuality openly and at length.
His life and family circle changed considerably between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust's brother Robert married and left the family home. His father died in September of the same year. Finally, and most crushingly, Proust's beloved mother died in September 1905, leaving him a considerable inheritance. (In today's terms, a principal of about $6 million, with a monthly income of about $15,000.) His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate.
Proust spent the last three years of his life largely confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died in 1922 and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In 1896 Les Plaisirs et les Jours, a compendium of many of these early pieces, was published. The book included a foreword by Anatole France, drawings by Mme. Lemaire, and was so sumptuously produced that it cost twice the normal price of a book its size.
That year Proust also began working on a novel which was eventually published in 1954 and titled Jean Santeuil by his posthumous editors. Many of the themes later developed in In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in this unfinished work, including the enigma of memory and the necessity of reflection; several sections of In Search of Lost Time can be read in first draft in Jean Santeuil. The portrait of the parents in Jean Santeuil is quite harsh, in marked contrast to the adoration with which the parents are painted in Proust's masterpiece. Following the poor reception of Les Plaisirs et les Jours, and internal troubles with resolving the plot, Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil in 1897 and stopped work on it entirely by 1899.
Beginning in 1895 Proust spent several years reading Carlyle, Emerson and John Ruskin. Through this reading Proust began to refine his own theories of art and the role of the artist in society. Also, in Time Regained Proust's universal protagonist recalls having translated Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies. The artist's responsibility is to confront the appearance of nature, deduce its essence and retell or explain that essence in the work of art. Ruskin's view of artistic production was central to this conception, and Ruskin's work was so important to Proust that he claimed to know "by heart" several of Ruskin's books, including The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Bible of Amiens, and Praeterita (Tadié 350).
Proust set out to translate two of Ruskin's works into French, but was hampered by an imperfect command of English. In order to compensate for this he made his translations a group affair: sketched out by his mother, the drafts were first revised by Proust, then by Marie Nordlinger, the English cousin of his friend and sometime lover Reynaldo Hahn, then by Proust again finally polished. Confronted about his method by an editor, Proust responded, "I don't claim to know English; I claim to know Ruskin" (Tadié). The Bible of Amiens, with Proust's extended introduction, was published in French in 1904. Both the translation and the introduction were very well reviewed; Henri Bergson called Proust's introduction "an important contribution to the psychology of Ruskin" and had similar praise for the translation (Tadié 433). At the time of this publication, Proust was already at work on translating Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, which he completed in June 1905, just prior to his mother's death, and published in 1906. Literary historians and critics have ascertained that, apart from Ruskin, Proust's chief literary influences included Saint Simon, Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
1908 was an important year for Proust's development as a writer. During the first part of the year he published in various journals pastiches of other writers. These exercises in imitation may have allowed Proust to solidify his own style. In addition, in the spring and summer of the year Proust began work on several different fragments of writing that would later coalesce under the working title of Contre Saint-Beuve. Proust described what he was working on in a letter to a friend: "I have in progress: a study on the nobility, a Parisian novel, an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert, an essay on women, an essay on pederasty (not easy to publish), a study on stained-glass windows, a study on tombstones, a study on the novel" (Tadié 513).
From these disparate fragments Proust began to shape a novel on which he worked continually during this period. The rough outline of the work centered on a first-person narrator, unable to sleep, who during the night remembers waiting as a child for his mother to come to him in the morning. The novel was to have ended with a critical examination of Sainte-Beuve and a refutation of his theory that biography was the most important tool for understanding an artist's work. Present in the unfinished manuscript notebooks are many elements that correspond to parts of the Recherche, in particular, to the "Combray" and "Swann in Love" sections of Volume 1, and to the final section of Volume 7. Trouble with finding a publisher, as well as a gradually changing conception of his novel, led Proust to shift work to a substantially different project that still contained many of the same themes and elements. By 1910 he was at work on À la recherche du temps perdu.
The book was translated into English by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, appearing as Remembrance of Things Past between 1922 and 1931.
In 1995, Penguin undertook a fresh translation of the book by editor Christopher Prendergast and seven translators in three countries, based on the latest and most authoritative French text. Subsequently, the title of the novel was more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time and is now often referred to as such. Its six volumes were published in Britain under the Allen Lane imprint in 2002. The first four (those which under American copyright law are in the public domain) have since been published in the U.S. under the Viking imprint and in paperback under the Penguin Classics imprint.
|Vol.||French titles||Published||English titles|
|1||Du côté de chez Swann||1913||Swann's Way|
The Way by Swann's
|2||À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs||1919||Within a Budding Grove|
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
|3||Le Côté de Guermantes|
(published in two volumes)
|1920/21||The Guermantes Way|
|4||Sodome et Gomorrhe|
(published in two volumes)
|1921/22||Cities of the Plain|
Sodom and Gomorrah
|5||La Prisonnière||1923||The Captive|
The Sweet Cheat Gone
|7||Le Temps retrouvé||1927||The Past RecapturedTime Regained|
Finding Time Again