On Marcel Proust and his Magnum Opus

Marcel Proust Essay
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Marcel Proust. Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Marcel Proust was a French novelist, essayist, and critic who is widely regarded by writers and critics as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Most people even vaguely interested in literature have probably heard his name but have probably never read any of his work. And that is perfectly understandable, for his work is certainly not meant for the casual reader who constantly looks for a hook or a twist in the plot or any other element that would force them to keep turning the pages. His work is not meant for those who read purely for entertainment or lack patience or prefer a tight fast-paced plot over one that slowly and gradually unfolds in its own time.

So no, Proust, in all honesty, is not for the average reader. As snobbish as this may sound, it is true. Proust is the writer who would write pages after pages on an event or action that would otherwise be regarded as perfectly insignificant and mundane, something that another writer would probably take just a sentence or two to cover.

Hence I say that Proust is not for everyone.

Nevertheless, I have resolved to dedicate this essay to Proust and his magnum opus, his masterpiece, his monument of a novel, In Search of Lost Time. This one huge novel (although it was published in 7 volumes over the course of 14 years) would go on to influence some of the greatest and most important writers of subsequent generations.

Let’s begin this essay now by looking into the early life of Proust.

Marcel Proust was born on 10th July 1871 in the Paris Borough of Auteuil, France, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt officially concluded the Franco-Prussian War. His full name was Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust.

Proust was born and raised in the early stages of the consolidation of the French Third Republic, which was a system of government adopted in France from 4th September 1870 until 10th July 1940. He would later use his experiences of growing up during this period in his magnum opus, covering the rise of the middle class and the decline of the aristocracy, and other socio-political changes that took place during that period.

Proust was said to be a rather sickly child who suffered his first serious asthma attack at the age of 9. His recurring sickness continued in the following years, even disrupting his education at the Lycee Condorcet where he was studying. However, he was a decent student who excelled in literature, for which he even received an award in his final year.

It was during his time as a student at the Lycee Condorcet that he was first introduced to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie class of French society through some of his classmates. This experience served him with plenty of material for his future work.

In 1889, Proust, aged 18, enrolled in the French Army and was stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans, in north-central France. He would go on to serve in the army for a year and that experience provided him with some material for part three of his masterpiece, The Guermantes’ Way.

By the time he returned from the army in 1890, he was 19 years old. He showed an inclination toward becoming a writer, but this ambition of his was seriously hampered by his lack of self-discipline. He treated writing more like a past-time and hobby than a career he was serious about, and this attitude eventually gave him a reputation of being an amateur and a snob.

From the time he returned from the army, he began publishing a regular society column in the journal Le Mensuel. He kept this up for a year, after which in 1892 he helped found a literary review called Le Banquet, in which, over the following years, he would go on to publish several small pieces regularly. He also wrote for the prestigious La Revue Blanche and several other literary magazines.

In 1896, Proust got a volunteer position at the Mazarin Library after his father insisted that he pursue some career. However, he was least interested in the job and managed to obtain an extended sick leave until he eventually resigned from the position.

Also in 1896, a collection of his prose poems and novellas titled Les Plaisirs et Les jours was published. It was his first published book and it included drawings by painter Madeleine Lemaire (the woman who had introduced him to the Parisian salons of the aristocracy) and a foreword by writer Anatole France.

The book was so elaborately and beautifully produced that it ended up costing twice the normal price of a book its size. Unfortunately, it was poorly received by critics and readers alike and was a critical and commercial failure.

Around this time, Proust had also begun writing a novel, an unfinished work titled Jean Santeuil that would eventually be published in 1952, thirty years after his death. Many of the themes found in this work would end up in In Search of Lost Time, where he dealt with them in a more detailed manner.

Due to the failure of his first book and issues with structuring the plot of Jean Santeuil, Proust abandoned the project barely a year later.

It was also during this period that Proust steeped himself in the works of writer-philosophers such as John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Out of the three, Ruskin had the greatest influence on his worldview, making him realize that the responsibility of an artist was to confront the appearance of nature, deduce its essence, and then explain that essence in the work of art.

Proust would even go on to translate two of Ruskin’s works, The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies, from English to French, with the help of his mother and an acquaintance named Marie Nordlinger. Both translations were very well received by the critics.

Some of his other primary literary influences during this period include Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Montaigne, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Stendhal.

In spite of his frequent publications in magazines and his extensive and eclectic reading, Proust had still not discovered or established his own writing style and was nowhere close to making a mark on the French literary scene.

The early years of the 20th century turned out to be a particularly difficult period of his life as he witnessed the death of his father in 1903 and the death of his mother in 1905. He was very close to his mother and she left him a considerable inheritance. This period was one of the most trying times of his life and it took a toll on his already fragile health which continued to get worse.

In 1908, Proust, aged 37, began work on another book, Contre Sainte-Beuve, which consisted of essays on the nobility, French literary critic Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert, women, pederasty, a Parisian novel, tombstones, stained-glass windows, and the novel.

It is said that Proust wished to use these different fragments to form a novel. However, this work too was abandoned within a year due to the constantly changing conception of the work and the difficulty in finding a publisher. A lot of the themes and elements of this unfinished work would also find their way into his masterpiece.

But enough about Proust and his life for now. Let us now talk about the work that would go on to cement his legacy in the world of literature, the masterpiece and magnum opus that subsequent generations would remember him by – In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past.

Proust began working on the novel in 1909 when he was 38 years old. The mammoth seven-volume novel is centered around the theme of involuntary memory, which is basically a sub-conscious component of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without any conscious or deliberate effort. It is also sometimes referred to as the madeleine moment, based on the famous episode of madeleine which occurs in the first volume of the novel.

The novel follows the narrator’s recollections of childhood and experiences into adulthood in late 19th-century and early 20th-century high society France, while simultaneously reflecting on the loss of time and lack of meaning in the world.

Even though Proust had established the novel’s structure in the early stages, he continued to edit the volumes after finishing them, adding new material wherever required. He would continue to work on the volumes until 1922 when he was forced to abandon the editing of the last three volumes due to his worsening health condition and then eventual death.

Due to his reputation and the nature of the work, he found it impossible to get a publisher to publish the first volume, Swann’s Way, which was rejected by several publishers such as Ollendorff, Fasquelle, and Gallimard (the publishing arm of literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française). Gallimard famously rejected it based on the advice of writer and Nobel Laureate Andre Gide, who was not impressed by the work.

Frustrated with all the rejections and tired of waiting, Proust finally decided to pay for the publication himself and chose Grasset publishing house to publish it for him. It is even said that Proust paid some critics to praise and speak highly of the work. Swann’s Way was finally published in 1913.

This first volume is divided into four parts – Combray I, Combray II, Un Amour de Swann, and Noms de pays: le nom.

Combray is a fictional town based on the village of Illiers (where Proust spent many long holidays during his childhood) and on the recollection of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, where he was born.

Crombay I introduces the theme of involuntary memory toward the end with the famous madeleine cake episode. And Un Amour de Swann narrates the story of Charles Swann’s love affair with Odette de Crecy.

Swann’s Way was well-received by critics, compelling Gide (who had rejected the work) to apologize to Proust and offer his congratulations on the success of the work. Gide admitted that rejecting the work would remain the most serious mistake ever made by Gallimard and was one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets of his life.

Gallimard later offered to publish the remaining volumes, but Proust refused the offer and stuck with Grasset.

The Second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, was scheduled to be published in 1914 but was postponed due to the onset of World War I. When the founder of Grasset, Bernard Grasset, went into military service, the publishing house was shut down for the duration of the war, forcing Proust to move to Gallimard to get the remaining volumes published.

Upon publication in 1919, the second volume was awarded the Prix Goncourt, an award given to the author of the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.

The third volume, The Guermantes Way, was published between 1920 and 1921 in two volumes, Le Côté de Guermantes I and Le Côté de Guermantes II.

The fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, was also published in two volumes between 1921 and 1922. This was the last volume whose editing and publication were supervised by Proust before his death in November 1922. The publication of the remaining volumes would be undertaken under the supervision of his brother Robert.

The fifth volume, The Prisoner, was published in 1923. The material for this volume and the next was written and developed during the long break between the publication of volume 1 and volume 2. Therefore, these two volumes are a departure from the original three-volume series planned by Proust. The fifth volume is the first part of the Albertine Novel section.

The sixth volume, The Fugitive, published in 1925 is the second and last part of the Albertine Novel section.

The seventh and final volume, Finding Time Again, was published in 1927. Much of this volume was written at the same time as the first volume but was revised and expanded during the course of the publication of the preceding volumes. This was mainly because of the unforeseen expansion of the plot and conception of the preceding volumes.

The seven-volume novel as a whole recounts the experiences of the unnamed narrator while he is growing up, learning about art, participating in society, and falling in love. The novel primarily deals with the themes of memory, the nature of art, separation anxiety, and homosexuality.

Throughout the novel, several instances of involuntary memory triggered by sensory experiences such as smell, taste, sound, sight, etc. bring up significant memories for the narrator and sometimes even return attention to an earlier episode of the novel. For instance, in the seventh volume, a flashback similar to that caused by the madeleine is the beginning of the resolution of the story.

The nature of art is also often explored in the novel as Proust presents a theory of art in which we all are capable of producing art by taking the experiences of life and transforming them in a way that shows maturity and understanding. Proust also explores various artistic fields such as music, writing, and painting through fictional characters such as Venteuil the composer, Morel the violinist, Bergotte the writer, and Elstir the painter.

While dealing with the theme of art, the question of judgment and taste in art is also discussed as shown by Swann’s exquisite taste in art.

Proust also discusses the themes of jealousy, desire, manipulation, loss of affection or friendship or loved ones, and anxiety of separation and how it results in the manipulation of loved ones. These themes can be seen in the narrator’s relationship with his mother and in all the lovers throughout the novel.

Another important theme discussed throughout the novel is that of homosexuality, especially in the later volumes. The narrator suspects his lovers of affairs and liaisons with other women. For instance, Swann is shown to repeatedly suspect his mistress and eventual wife, Odette, in the first volume. The fourth volume also includes a detailed account of a sexual encounter between the character M. de Charles and his tailor.

It is generally accepted now that Proust himself was homosexual but never openly admitted to it. That being said, it is still uncertain to what extent his sexuality actually had a bearing on this theme of the novel.

In spite of the initial difficulty faced by Proust in getting the novel published, In Search of Lost Time would go on to have a massive influence on modern literature. It is often regarded by scholars and critics as the definitive modern novel and its influence on subsequent writers has been huge.

The novel marks a decisive break from the 19th-century plot-driven realist novels written by writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo, whose works were filled with people of action representing social and cultural groups and morals, and triggering action from other characters in the novel.

Compared to those novels, In Search of Lost Time can be considered introspective and passive, wherein the focus of the novel is the formation of an experience and a multiplicity of perspectives, and not on the development of a tight plot or a coherent evolution of the story.

In Proust’s novel, the significance of what is happening is placed within the memory and inner contemplation of what is described rather than on external events that develop the plot further. This focus on the relationship between experience, memory, and writing, as well as the de-emphasis of the external plot of the novel, were unprecedented back in 1913 and have now become the main characteristic of the modern novel.

In Search of Lost Time would go on to influence many subsequent writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Gene Wolfe, Michael Chabon, Karl Ove Knausgård, and several others. Greene even went as far as to describe him as the greatest novelist of the 20th century.

Proust’s magnum opus is now widely regarded as the most important and respected novel of the 20th century, thereby making Marcel Proust one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century.

Marcel Proust died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess on 18th November 1922 at the age of 51 and was interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Fortunately for us, Proust’s work and legacy continue to live on through numerous adaptations of his masterpiece and through countless references to him and his work in popular culture.