The French novelist Marcel Proust is one of the founders of the modern European novel. His complex and precisely shaped sentences, insightful psychological analysis, and skills of portraying the characters made a huge impact on today’s literature.
Early Life and Education
Valentine Louis Georges Eugène Marcel, known as Marcel Proust, was born July 10, 1871, in Paris, France. Born into a wealthy medical family, gentle and sensitive, he suffered from childhood asthma, which marked his entire later life. Proust's father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a distinguished pathologist and epidemiologist, credited with studying and attempting to cure the causes and spread of cholera, which was spreading in Europe and Asia at the time. He is the author of numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene.
Proust's mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, was the daughter of a wealthy and cultured Jewish family from Alsace. She was very well-read. Her letters show a developed sense of humor and sufficient knowledge of English to assist in her son's translations of John Ruskin's work.
Proust was raised in his father's Catholic faith. He was baptized on August 5, 1871, and later confirmed himself as a Catholic, but never formally practiced his faith. At the age of nine, Proust suffered his first severe asthma attack, after which he was considered a sickly child.
In 1882, at the age of eleven, he became a pupil of the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. He dropped out of school due to illness, but still collaborates in the student literary magazines Revue verte and Revue Lilas. Darlu, a professor of philosophy, influences him considerably.
Proust graduated from high school and received the highest award in philosophy. Despite his poor health, Proust served one year in the French Army, in Orléans, at the Coligny Barracks. His experience served him for the third part of the novel cycle In Search of Lost Time and Duchesse de Guermantes.
In 1890 he enrolled in the School of Political Science and listened to lectures by Henry Bergson. After graduating from college, he collaborated in the magazines Le Banquet and La Revue blanche.
In his youth, he attended salons, Mrs. Straus, the widow of Georges Bizet and the mother of Proust's childhood friend Jacques Bizet, as well as the salons of Madeleine Lemaire and Arman de Caillavet (Léontine Lippmann), the mother of his friend Gaston Arman de Caillavet, whose fiancée he fell in love with (Jeanne Pouquet). Through Arman de Caillavet he met Anatole France, his lover.
Proust was very close with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted on him building a career, Proust managed to get a volunteer position at the Mazarine Library in the summer of 1896. With considerable effort, he received sick leave, which lasted for several years, and was considered to have left his job. He never worked, so he did not move from his parents' apartment until their deaths.
His life and family environment changed significantly between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, his brother Robert married and left home. His father died in November of the same year.
Finally, in September 1905, he lost his mother, which affected him the most. His mother left him a significant legacy. During this period, his health was significantly impaired. He spent the last three years of his life in his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working on his novels at night.
As an educated and refined young man, he moved in fashionable civic, artistic, and aristocratic circles, writing and translating, especially the works of the English esthetician John Ruskin, who decisively influenced his later work. Articles from his youth are collected under the title Pleasures and Days (1896).
He wrote his main life work for ten years, in a race with illness and death. In almost complete solitude and abandonment of all other activities, one of the most distinctive and valuable works of world literature was created, a huge cycle of novels under the common title In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927, including parts such as The Road to Swann, In the Shadow of the Blossoming Girls, The Duchess de Guermantes, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Prisoner, The Fugitive, and The Time Found.
The cycle of about 3,200 pages (depending on the edition) covers the period of the second half of the XIX century, early twentieth century, and World War I, as well as themes that shook French society of the time (e.g., the Dreyfus affair). The plot takes place in a country family house in the small town of Combray (actually Illiers), in Paris, in the province, on the Normandy coast, in Venice. The novel takes the form of essayistic memoirs: it is in fact a fictionalized and meticulously linked quasi-autobiography in which all elements are taken from reality, but stylized in terms of Proust's philosophy and aesthetics, in the symbolist and impressionist spirit of the time.
This great synthetic work can be read in several ways: for example, as Honore de Balzac's study of social relations in the age of the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the rich bourgeoisie, located for the most part in the Dreyfus affair. Like Honore de Balzac, Proust strives for comprehensiveness and synthesis, presenting a whole range of characters from a wide variety of social backgrounds and their destinies. But the work, significant for that time, is a mixture of novels and essays. The author follows his narration with psychological commentaries, cultural-historical reminiscences, aesthetic digressions and sententious views. The integrity of the seemingly chaotic and heterogeneous text stems from a composition built on a network of intertwined leitmotifs as in Wagner's operas, and the myth of Time as the dominant invisible force in whose field beings and relationships are shaped and dissolved.
Proust's major themes are the corrosion of beings in the passage of time, jealousy and love, physicality and determination of the psyche by the body, the instability of interpersonal relationships and the unknowability of reality, problems of identity and self, snobbery, and political culture and diplomacy before World War I. Time is considered to be the main character of this novel, but it is not interesting to Proust as a philosophical abstraction (for example, as in St. Augustine) but as a medium and the cause of all metamorphoses. It leads to changes in identity, human communication, and the loss of the very meaning of life.
Influenced by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the writer finds a way out of the seeming futility and transience of life in discovering the fact that the subconscious stores all impressions, so seemingly lost time is stored and available in the unconscious segment of being. It is not forever dead but can be invoked to the level of consciousness and expression by involuntary sensory memory of the body, which remembers not only events but also past impulses and emotions. The dual point of view of the narrative consists of the inexperienced emotions of the main character and the intelligence of the mature narrator who imperceptibly alternates behind the first person of a melancholy and often crudely humorous soliloquy and sarcastic comments.
But the difference between them is not only in experience but also in the fact that the narrator is aware of his mission and the meaning of life he discovers in writing: his life failure never questions the value of life.
The message of the poet and modern existential metaphysician Proust affirms life - though not explicitly: life does not exist to one day be a picture or a book; it is in itself the greatest art, a kind of masterpiece. As in most of the novel, ambiguity is present: the consciousness of the narrator, never fixed, evolves in time as an entity; at the same time, the author often explicitly denies any continuity of self-consciousness and identity other than rootedness in the body (leading many to declare the writer's spiritual kinship with Oriental, Hindu-Buddhist metaphysics denying the Western tradition of personality unity).
The message of the work is clear that the purpose of the "Search" is in fact the narrator's spiritual salvation and, in a sense, the realization of Walter Pater's aestheticism and the symbolism of the late 19th century; but on the other hand, Proust's work establishes the magic of life independently of the writer's apology of artistic vocation to his private obsession which seems anachronistic and marginal to the modern reader, while his focus on analysis has provoked many critical comments that can be reduced to two points: Proust "kills life" by hyperanalization, and the spiritual dimension of existence remains largely hidden from him because of his all-encompassing immersion in time-limited experiences.
Heir to Montaigne, French moralists, the memoirs of the Duke de Saint Simon, Stendhal, and Dostoevsky, Proust has achieved one of the greatest works in the history of literature.
He died of pneumonia and lung abscess in 1922 and was buried in the "Père Lachaise'' cemetery in Paris. There is a tomb of Marcel Proust, in the "Père Lachaise" cemetery in Paris.