One hundred years after Marcel Proust’s death (18 November 1922), À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) is one of the best-known literary works.
As a genre, Proust’s life’s work can hardly be classified. It is an autobiography, a psychological novel, a series of philosophical essays and a comedy of manners all in one. Proust started to write on his magnum opus in 1909 and worked continuously until his death 13 years later. He completed the monster job just in time.
The novel was published in parts and was not immediately successful. For the first volume, Proust could not even find a publisher and he had to pay the printing costs himself. In 1919, he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for volume two À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) for which he had received rave reviews worldwide. By the time Proust died, he was so popular that traffic in the French capital came to a standstill during his funeral at Père Lachaise.
The seven-part novel is available in an English translation. Still, the Recherche suffers from the prejudice to be a tedious story. Anyone who claims such a thing has probably never really started reading it. In an age of decline in reading, it is easy to imagine dreading 3,000 pages. The easiest way to overcome this fear is to limit yourself to the first volume. If, after volume 1, you are still not under Proust’s spell, neither will you be in the next six volumes. However, if you are receptive to the French author’s sensitive way of describing his life, you will not be able to stop and greedily enjoy Proust’s compellingly beautiful sentences until the last paragraph.
The final version of the Recherche was Proust’s third attempt to write the definitive book he envisaged. By looking back at his past, he wanted to capture what had made life valuable. In his first attempts, he dragged up old anecdotes that lacked coherence. Besides writing fiction, Proust was active as a literary essayist. In his essays, he shared his thoughts on the characteristics of a good novel: he argued for more attention to feeling, intuition and sensory experiences. Proust’s eureka moment occurred in 1909. He suddenly realised that he should not separate his literary essays from his fictional work, but had to strive for a synthesis between the two.
Proust thus applies his literary vision to his own fiction. He does this by describing ‘subconscious memories’ that pop up at unexpected moments. The most famous of these is a madeleine biscuit dipped in lime blossom tea. The smell of it takes the protagonist back to carefree holidays he spent as a child in the town of Combray. Visual art (Johannes Vermeer) and music (‘la petite phrase’) are also boosters of such memories.
Love plays a prominent role in the Recherche, both in its heterosexual and homosexual variants. Although Proust felt attracted to men, it was still a bridge too far to give his protagonist a homosexual orientation in 1920. However, Proust does show through other characters that the love between two men or two women is not essentially different from that between man and woman.
The protagonist, who bears the author’s name, is often in love, although love does not make him happy. Before he meets the object of his desire, he has such unrealistically high expectations that the actual meeting is bound to end in a disillusion. Afterwards, he spends pages mulling over what it could have been like. The protagonist becomes increasingly disappointed in love and eventually concludes that it is impossible to truly reach the other person. The only unselfish love in the Recherche is that of the narrator’s mother and grandmother.
Proust felt he could be more sincere in a novel than in a conversation with a friend. In a book, you tell the truth, you share uncomfortable thoughts, you can think before you say anything, you don’t have to fill time, you don’t have to respond to others and you can improve your own work. Proust kept editing his text until it was perfect in his eyes. He did not want to be passively read and admired. His novel was meant to be a prompt for readers to search for the meaning of their own life story.
Marcel Proust was born on 10 July 1871 in Auteuil, which today falls within the Paris municipal boundary. His parents came from the better circles: father Adrian was a famous epidemiologist whose work included fighting cholera. Mother Jeanne Weil had a Jewish background, father Proust was Catholic. Marcel was brought up liberal, although he was baptised Catholic. The writer was hypersensitive and asthmatic from an early age; even in summer, he never went out without a warm coat. Thanks to family capital, Proust did not have to do any paid work.
The author had such a close relationship with his mother that he continued to live with her until her death in 1905, his father having died in 1903. Most of the final years of his life were spent by Marcel Proust in a bedroom lined with soundproof cork, where he worked on his novel during the nightly hours.
In many ways, attempts have been made to make Proust’s literary cathedral manageable for an audience that lacks the concentration capacity to read through a seven-part novel. The book has been filmed, transformed into a comic story, turned into a self-help book and adapted for stage. But anyone who really wants to understand Proust cannot avoid those 3,000 pages. If Proust could have omitted details, he would have done so.
The patience of the persevering reader is rewarded: Proust’s writing is entertaining, lively, sharp and witty. Proust has given meaning to his life by turning his biography into a work of art. At the end of his journey, he concludes that time is not lost, but that time no longer has meaning. Timeless reality has turned into an eternal present. With that new insight, the reader can once again start to read À la recherche du temps perdu.