Marcel Proust wrote one novel. It took a transformation from aristocrat to hermit, long nights in a cork-lined room (to drown out the bustling clamor of the Paris boulevards below), and more than ten years to write it. He called his... [more]
Marcel Proust wrote one novel. It took a transformation from aristocrat to hermit, long nights in a cork-lined room (to drown out the bustling clamor of the Paris boulevards below), and more than ten years to write it. He called his opus, a tomb replete with half-page sentences and sinuous revelations, "Remembrance of Things Past."
But why, one wonders, if he only wrote one novel, does he belong in the great pantheon of literary giants? On the most superficial level, the sheer volume of his output has certainly earned his inclusion -- the novel measures more than 3,000 pages, one of the longest in history, thus dwarfing the oeuvre of the average writer. But more than that, in this oceanic work Proust engages in an intricate study of the senses, of subtlety of emotion, presenting us with a detailed philosophical structure of memory. Proust bequeaths upon us a strangely unique yet familiar world. Along with fellow modernists Joyce and Faulkner, Proust is undoubtedly one of the greatest literary navigators of twentieth-century human consciousness.
Born in 1871 to a prominent family in Paris (his father is credited with almost single-handedly cutting off the spread of cholera to Western Europe), Proust developed his literary talents early, using his bourgeois upbringing to spring him into the world of Parisian salons. Yet, as his homosexuality became more apparent and his health deteriorated (he is one of the most renowned hypochondriacs in letters), he withdrew from society and dedicated himself fully to his literary creation.
In his novel's most pivotal scene, the narrator nibbles the famous madeleine pastry with a cup of tea. "No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran though me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me... I put down the cup to examine my own mind." This sensory experience takes him back, as perfume or a glass of wine may transport us spontaneously to some event in our past, to his childhood in the fictional Combray. Autobiographical elements spill out at us as we come to know Swann and his hopeless love for a coquette. We move through the sensory awakenings of his first love, and watch as he finally launches into the aristocratic world of barons and counts.
Proust died in Paris from pneumonia in 1922, at the height of Parisian literary activity. His novel was already an acknowledged classic of the century. [show less]