Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a French novelist, critic and essayist best known for his monumental À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search Of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past). It was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.
Proust was born in Auteuil (the southern sector of Paris' then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. His birth took place during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponds with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of In Search of Lost Time concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes that occurred in France during the Third Republic and the fin de siècle.
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 rich and cultured Jewish family from Alsace. She was literate and well-read; her letters demonstrate a well-developed sense of humour, and her command of English was sufficient for her to provide the necessary assistance 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 a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of 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.)
In 1882, at the age of eleven, Proust became a pupil at the Lycée Condorcet, but his education was disrupted because of his illness. Despite this he excelled in literature, receiving an award in his final year. It was through his classmates that he was able to gain access to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie, providing him with copious material for In Search of Lost Time.
Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Barracks 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 discipline. 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. 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 that extended 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.
Proust, who was homosexual, was one of the first European novelists to mention homosexuality openly and at length in the parts of À la recherche du temps perdu which deal with the Baron de Charlus.
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 November of the same year. Finally, and most crushingly, Proust's beloved mother died in September 1905. She left him a considerable inheritance. His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate.
Proust spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The books which compose the À la recherche du temps perdu cycle :
- Du côté de chez Swann (Swann's Way), 1913
- À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove), 1919
- Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), 1920-21
- Sodome et Gomorrhe (Cities of the Plain), 1921/22
- La Prisonnière (The Captive), 1923 (loosely adapted into Belgian film La Captive)
- La Fugitive/Albertine disparue (The Fugitive), 1925
- Le Temps retrouvé (The Past Recaptured, sometimes rendered as Time Regained), 1927
Other books :
- Les Plaisirs et les Jours (Pleasures and Days), 1894
- Jean Santeuil, unfinished
- Ruskin translations
- La Bible d'Amiens, 1906
- Sésame et les lys, 1906
- ''Contre Sainte-Beuve'', 1954 (posth.)
- Pastiches et mélanges, 1919
Marcel Proust's work provides examples of :
- Anachronic Order: Swann's Way opens with the Narrator as a young adult in the 1890s, which proceeds into an extended reminiscence of his childhood home, a long episode from before his birth, and finally a brief return to his adulthood. From then on, things are more-or-less linear, albeit with occasional asides from the Narrator's present knowledge, until the end of WWI about halfway through Time Regained, after which the events of several years are told in the order they occur to the Narrator rather than their chronological one, although this may not be a stylistic choice but a consequence of his death.
- Apocalyptic Log: Time Regained ends with about twenty pages of disturbed ramblings about the Narrator's fading mind and imminent death.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Both Swann and the Narrator wish at points that estranged lovers would meet with fatal accidents, thinking it would provide a tidy resolution. The Narrator gets his wish with Albertine, and it only makes things more complicated.
- Bookends: Halfway through Time Regained, the Narrator is suddenly reminded of the madeleine that caused him to be suddenly reminded of Combray; this prompts another extended recollection, this time of all he learned in the intervening volumes, after which the remainder of the book is much less narrative.
- Broken Pedestal: The Narrator idolizes Oriane de Guermantes, until he gets to know her and realizes that she is a normal woman and even a bit stupid.
- Camp Gay: Charlus manages to combine this trope with its near-opposite, Armoured Closet Gay. His behavior is Camp Gay in that he tends to be monumentally bitchy, only has sex with men and loves gossip, but on the other hand he dresses absolutely straight, conducts all his sexual affairs in secrecy and takes great offense at any suggestion that he's not thoroughly manly. (Then again, he takes great offense at pretty much anything.) Justified in-universe, insofar as although homosexuality hasn't been illegal in France since 1791 it was a potential source of social disgrace.
- Cast Full of Gay: So many major characters turn out to be either gay, lesbian or bisexual that it's probably easier to list the ones who aren't.
- Cessation of Existence: The frankness with which the Narrator and Andrée talk after the death of Albertine prompts him to muse on the absurdity of belief in an afterlife.
- Contrived Coincidence: Saint-Loup's mistress is an ex-prostitute. The Narrator already met her years ago when she worked in a brothel.
- Covert Pervert: Albertine. At one point, in a fit of impatience with the Narrator's clinginess, she bursts out that she'd prefer to "go and get myself b-"...then she stops herself, and he doesn't figure out what she was going to say until much later, when he realizes it was "buggered"note . The Narrator's rather paranoid conclusion from this sudden vulgarity is that she'd momentarily forgotten she wasn't with a lesbian lover, with whom she must refer to sex with men this way.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Saint-Loup gets mad if her mistress Rachel just looks at another man.
- Did They or Didn't They?: Albertine and the Narrator. Although, if they didn't, it's hard to think what else they were doing for hundreds of pages of La Prisonnière.
- Distant Finale: Most of "Time Regained" is set at a party the Narrator attends where we meet most of the characters who have survived to that point years or even decades after they last figured in the narrative. This inverts the trope as it is the novel's present.
- Doorstopper: A la recherche du temps perdu itself. Most editions clock in at around 3000 pages. It is frequently considered the longest novel ever written.
- Early-Bird Cameo: Several people mentioned in passing in the "Overture" of Swann's Way turn out to be Satellite Characters to more important characters of later books, such as Albertine and Saint-Loup.
- Embarrassing Nickname : Mémé, for "Palamède".
- End of an Age : The book deals with the vast changes of that time, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes that occurred in France during the Third Republic and the fin de siècle.
- Gratuitous Japanese: Albertine gets in the habit of using the word "musmé," a corruption of "musume."
- High-Class Glass: Robert de Saint-Loup, a sophisticated nobleman, wears a monocle.
- Intelligence Equals Isolation : The Narrator stays locked in his room, writing.
- Mistaken for Pedophile: At the beginning of The Fugitive, the Narrator invites a little girl into his home to confide in her; her parents get the wrong idea and call the police. Françoise doesn't help matters when she tells the police he often brings home "girls" (meaning, to her, Albertine).
- Most Writers Are Writers: The narrator is a would-be writer.
- Nameless Narrative: The Narrator hints that he has the same name as the book's author. But only once. In seven books.
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations: In Sodom and Gomorrah, M. Verdurin tells M. de Charlus (who is a closet gay) that, when he met Charlus, he immediately realized Charlus was "one of theirs". Charlus first thinks that Verdurin guessed his sexual orientation, but he soon realizes that Verdurin just meant that he was an arty person.
- Overly Long Name: The Marquise douairière Zélia de Cambremer.
- Passive-Aggressive Kombat: The mindgames between the Narrator and Albertine at the beginning of The Fugitive.
- The Philosopher: Many characters have a crack at this: Norpois, Brichot, Charlus. The whole book is in part about how the Narrator gets to be better at it than anyone else.
- Photographic Memory: A la recherche du temps perdu is a seven-volume deconstruction of this trope, the point being that the Narrator forgets about all the things that he cares about and he can't just remember things whenever he wants to. It takes some apparently random stimulus, like the taste of a cake dipped in tea or the act of tripping over a broken flagstone, and only then do his memory superpowers kick in. At one point early in Sodom and Gomorrah, he comments that the reader might think him to be suffering from early-onset dementia. By middle age, he is.
- Recursive Canon: The end implies that the Narrator is preparing to write what you just read, despite having acknowledged at multiple points that it's a work of fiction being written by someone else.
- Roman à Clef: Despite its reputation, A la recherche averts this. A lot of the characters are inspired by people Proust knew but he did so much swapping-around, conflating and generally fictionalising that it's more like Very Loosely Based on a True Story. At one point the Narrator stops to claim that everyone in the story is fictional except for a cousin of Françoise who gave her money when the destruction of WWI caused her to fall onto hard times.
- Scenery Porn: The earlier books are full of this. Justified as the Narrator spends a lot of time visiting old churches, and also because two of the books are named after paths that he often walks along that turn out to link up with each other.
- Shout-Out: The characters often talk about literature. The works of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal (The Charterhouse of Parma), Racine (Phèdre, Athalie, Esther)... are mentioned, as well as many more obscure writers. In total, 180 French writers and 60 foreign writers are mentioned or alluded to. Here is the full list.
- Split Personality: The Narrator can be very tender with Albertine, but he's also extremely jealous and possessive and forbids her to go out.
- Stalker with a Crush: The Narrator has a crush on Mme de Guermantes and he stakes out the streets where she usually walks.
- Take That!: The Narrator's criticisms of Charlus' opinions about art and literature.
- Unnamed Parent: The Narrator's mother and father are never named.
- Unusual Euphemism: “faire catleya” means “to make love”.
- Upper-Class Twit: Played straight with the Duc de Guermantes but averted with the Duchesse, who is considerably smarter than her husband.