Marcel Proust


by Elyse Graham

1: What Is this Ecstasy?

Marcel Proust

Born in a Paris suburb in 1871, Proust grew up in cloistered privilege. His father was a celebrated physician, a self-made man who never understood his son’s dreamy indolence and suspected that his illnesses were psychosomatic. His mother, who fussed over his health and presided over his cultural education, was her son’s closest companion throughout his life, the recipient of ardent letters and subject of tributes in prose. Although she was herself Jewish, following custom for mixed marriages, Mme Proust raised her children as Catholics.

When Proust was nine, he suffered the first attack of the asthma that would constrict and dominate his life, haunting his time outdoors with the fear of suffocation. Yet he took evident pleasure in the sensual richness of his natural surroundings, closing family vacations at Illiers with farewell visits to the flowering hawthorns and writing for school exercises descriptions of scenery so romantic and dramatic that some of his teachers cut points for their excessiveness. 1 If a certain impressionistic intensity is a common part of childhood, Proust retained it as more than background noise, holding it in his attention as a conscious preoccupation, since he had as well the drive for understanding that goads children into science and art. Into adulthood he retained a habit of falling into startling bouts of absorption in stray details around him. A friend who witnessed one of these episodes when Proust was a young man recalled it as charming but unsettling: striding ahead of Proust on a walk outdoors, he looped back to find his friend looking at a rose bush “intently”—leaning forward, “his eyebrows knitted as by an effort of impassioned attention, and with his left hand he obstinately pushed the end of his thin, little black moustache that he nibbled. I had the impression that he heard me coming, that he saw me, but that he did not wish to speak or budge.” 2 In his long novel, Proust later described the quickening of his narrator, wound up from reading great authors, to the glories of nature around him, and with that elation the rising desire to find a language as potent for his own use: “I cried aloud in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: ‘Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh!’ But at the same time I felt that I was duty bound not to content myself with these unilluminating words, but to endeavor to see more clearly into the sources of my rapture.” 3

Despite his enthusiasms, his teachers found him less than impressive. Although his parents expected him to be a lawyer or a diplomat, the usual careers for literary types of his social class, Proust nursed a secret ambition of becoming a playwright, to make ready for which great part he began pushing his writing exercises outside what the lessons taught or his coordination could manage. The essays that survive from these years show an ambitious young writer who seeks to impress with his erudition, using the names of great authors like punctuation, who copies the decadent style of overflowing asides and whimsical parentheses that, at the time, signaled consummate literariness, who paints scenery that owes more to verse than to life, but who has a knack for imitating conversation: baggy works that raise around themselves an ambitious frame within which to develop. Before long on this course, Proust later told a friend, half the class was imitating his use of a decadent style, the other half sneered at him as a poseur, and the faculty treated him as a bad example. “If it hadn’t been for Gaucher, I’d have been torn to pieces,” he said, referring to one teacher who admired his prose, in fact took it as a sign that he had finally received the apprentice to greatness he had always wanted, and bid him read his compositions aloud in class. 4

His reputation as a literary pretender did not improve the adolescent Proust’s shaky social status. “He figured among us as a sort of archangel, restless and disturbing,” a classmate, Daniel Halévy, later recalled. “We liked him, we admired him, yet we remained astonished, troubled, by the sense of a difference, a distance, a real and invisible incommensurability between us.” 5 Besides whatever ineffable resonance this description suggests, Proust had much to make him an unsettling figure: oversensitive, a chronic show-off, the bearer of a relentless need for affection, given to shows of politeness that could seem obsequious or insincere, indiscreet in his writing of love letters to other boys, Proust was an uneasy fit in the real world. Asked well into adulthood whether their treatment of Proust had not been too severe, Halévy replied, “Severe isn’t the word. Rough. We were rough with him. Ce pauvre malheureux!6

2: Apprenticeship

After his mandatory military service, Proust took degrees in law and philosophy, which his parents hoped would steady him for a career. But Proust, who had a deep reservoir of family money to rely on, scarcely did the work necessary to earn a post at a city library, and then he didn’t show up at the office. He wrote to his father in 1893, “I still believe that anything I do outside of literature and philosophy will be just so much time wasted” (SL, 1:57-58).

That year, he joined the staff of one of the leading avant-garde magazines of the era, La Revue Blanche, when it absorbed a smaller publication for which he was a regular contributor, Le Banquet. As a society journalist and writer of short stories, Proust made the first sweep of the setting that would ground so much of his later work. The characters in his early stories are men and women of leisure, languid butterflies that their creator clearly admires as creatures of the unbroken life of beauty and culture that wealth makes possible. But he also struggles to resist their attractions, using them to examine the dangerous zone where artifice becomes decadence, beauty merely an escape from the tedium of idleness. The trouble with this fiction is that Proust seems to be mostly interested in effects, framing and embroidering his themes rather than putting life into them through dramatic conflict. For instance, in the stories “Souvenir” (1891) and “Avant la Nuit” (1893), the action consists of characters gazing at romantic landscapes and pondering the careers of vice that have brought about their present unhappiness. Proust winds up with stories that are all situation—all perfume and psychology.

In 1896, Proust gathered more than sixty of his stories and sketches, about half of which had been published earlier, into an illustrated collection, Les Plaisirs et les Jours. Proust designed this first book as a comprehensive art object, collaring a musical friend, Reynaldo Hahn, to compose musical settings for an inset of poems, and commissioning the illustrations, pen and ink washes mostly of women, flowers, and violins, from a society painter, Madeleine Lemaire. For an extra dash of glitter, he coaxed a preface out of a famous name on the edge of his social network, Anatole France. Such indulgence sets up an immediate sense of irony: the poem on which the title plays, Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” is a sober address to sailors and farmers, advising the best schedule for doing chores and praising work as medicine for life’s pains. In Proust’s sly revision for the modern reader, work is part of the affliction, and pleasure the remedy. His characters travel, they socialize, they study the fine arts, they woo and betray, they ask the big questions about love, life, and death—but they do not work. Part of the cosmopolitanism in this rendering, of course, is an undertone of mockery regarding cosmopolitan life, an air of detached superiority over a world for which detached superiority is the privileged code of insiders. One group of sketches proposes the commedia dell’arte, for instance,  as a metaphor for high society, where the masks are the false faces of publicity and the stock routines are the exchanges of flattery, politesse, wit, and ostentation that keep the show going on. In keeping with the aesthetic of refinement, Proust packaged Plaisirs as a deluxe volume and priced it at ₣13.50, several times above the usual cost of a book.

This first book failed completely. As late as 1918, the original print run of 1,500 copies had sold only 300. Even his friends gave it a disappointing reception, and when in 1897 the book was ridiculed in an amateur play that some guests put on at a party, Proust responded with more hurt and indignation than one might expect for a little ribbing among friends. (In one line of dialogue, the character representing Proust explains his book’s extravagant price: “Item, a preface by M. France, four francs. Item, paintings by Madeleine Lemaire, four francs. Item, music by Reynaldo Hahn, four francs. Item, prose by me, one franc. Item, a few lines of verse by me, fifty centimes. Total, thirteen francs fifty, that wasn’t asking too much, was it?”) 7 Possibly the cavalier attitude of his friends threatened to confirm the risk that the levity of the world Proust had chosen for his theme would undermine the seriousness of his ambitions.

But it was a world he clearly loved and connected closely with his creativity. His serious tenure there had begun when, at seventeen, Proust had befriended Laure Hayman, a courtesan who began inviting him to her salons as a kind of mascot, acting for him as a delegate to the upper crust of the demimonde. (They were connected through his great-uncle, who had Hayman for his mistress, and Proust’s father, who was her doctor and probably her lover. It was France, it was a different time.) Proust admired the older woman for her intellectual gifts, her deadly charm, and her artistic sense, which she displayed in a collection of fine porcelain. He later used her as a model for Odette. (Naturally, using people as models for fictional characters is not the same as casting them in parts for the stage. It’s possible to take the language inscribed on someone’s gestures and transfer it to art for new kinds of reading without even caring, if it comes to that, about the original figure.) Hayman, in turn, took unconcealed pleasure in Proust’s talent for describing and analyzing the emotional life around him. Comparing this pale, delicate boy with the figurines in her collection, she called Proust “my little psychologist in porcelain” (85).

Hayman’s salons were just disreputable enough to attract the really good artists, and his classmates, many of whom had literary ambitions, had taken his new social life unfavorably. (Her lack of judgment was as impeachable as his lack of cool, one recalled: “We laughed at school on learning that she was mad about Marcel Proust, taking him along wherever she went, that he attended her parties, where he was thrilled to meet dukes, writers, and future members of the Academie française.”) They needled him for snobbery, for trifling at parties when the more virtuous would be at labor; he began affecting the mannerisms of a man about town (85). His social benefactors multiplied rapidly, and with them the drawing-rooms open to Proust, who was wealthy but still the half-Jewish son of a bourgeois. Others later remembered him as a winning conversationalist, showing off his wide reading and charming out the stories behind the displays of custom and lineage, examining the elaborate codes that mapped the articulations of social power, material that he later used in his long novel (91). His letters, which largely concern the exchange of courtesies from this world, also suggest a way in which it provided a social space where he could formalize and analyze the aristocratic element in his own aesthetic. If his theatrical politeness, which had been part of his reputation since his boyhood, already suggested an ironic awareness, a slight heightening, of the ritual character of all social life, the world of the salons elaborated social manners into a courtly dance, in the round of which he could present himself as a kind of page, gifted but deferential, epicurean in the give and take of flattery.

At one of these functions in 1892, he found an important patron in Charles Ephrussi, the director of the prestigious art journal, the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. The son of a banking family, an art critic, a collector and sponsor of exhibitions, Ephrussi cultivated young writers and painters, introducing them to his connections in society and the arts. Earlier his secretary had been a young poet named Jules Laforgue, who paid wry homage to his mentor as “the Benedictine-Dandy of Monceau Street” (contrasting himself with false chagrin as “the young man so simple and all in black”). The Benedictine is the scholar, the art historian of deadly erudition, the perfectly mannered yet slightly rigid man who is never seen without trimmed beard and brushed coat; and yet also the dandy attending several parties daily, welcome in the best circles, the elegant figure with a cane under his arm who carries a top hat as a kind of emblem. 8 When Renoir, another protégé, painted Ephrussi into The Luncheon of the Boating Party(1881), he made the top hat stand in for the critic, who stands in polished reserve, formally dressed and hiding in the back of things. Ephrussi opened to Proust the doors of the Gazette’s exceptional library, as well as his private collection of paintings, and he also led the young writer in conversations about the history of art. Later Proust used him as a model for Charles Swann.

The Gazette later published two articles Proust wrote on John Ruskin, the great English art critic, who first came to Proust’s attention in the late eighteen-nineties and who took on Promethean dimensions in the French writer’s thought. In 1899, Proust put aside his own vexed and stopped-up efforts at fiction and devoted himself for the next six years to translating Ruskin’s books, publishing La Bible d’Amiensin (1904) and Sésame et les Lysin (1906) (with the publisher Mercure de France). As Maurice Chernowitz notes, Proust found issues on which to disagree with his critical mentor, most notably Ruskin’s claim that art should defer to morality and religion. (For Proust, art is at once apart from and one with morality; their hierarchical relation isn’t even a question.) But he admired Ruskin’s devotion, his sense that explicating the visible is a mission to be pursued as though mortality didn’t exist. Just as importantly, the beauty of Ruskin’s writing, the expansive and lushly foliated sentences, the reverent eye for visual details, must have retained its appeal as a stylistic exercise even after long exposure cooled Proust’s filial warmth somewhat. This vigorous style ties into Ruskin’s credo that men survive in the contortions of their work even after all else about them is lost, a theme that Proust turned back as a compliment by saying that Ruskin’s truest legacy is the light he left upon the things he loved. Ruskin’s thought, he wrote,

makes the universe more beautiful for us, or at least certain individual parts, certain specifically named parts of the universe, because it touched upon them, and because it introduced us to them by obliging us, if we want to understand it, to love them. 9

In the Recherche, this sense of the didactic power of the artist’s vision would become a stylistic principle in the form of constant allusions to paintings and artists. For instance, the narrator compares the tumult of a Paris air raid at night with the violent rhythm of an El Greco painting, or the shimmering, unreal quality of a dream, with its indistinct play of sorrow and delight, with the delicate atmospherics of Watteau. In both cases, the allusions aren’t ornaments but precision instruments, identifying something effectively real: either the particular moods and atmospheres that artists identify already exist in nature, but we are dead to them before we see them painted, or the dissemination of art makes merely subjective emotional landscapes part of the common human experience. Sometimes the novel seems to invoke an artist as a gloss on its own aesthetic commitments, as when the narrator compares his family’s kitchen maid with Giotto’s depiction of Charity. The aspect of Giotto’s style to which the aside calls attention, the painter’s investment of symbols with human substance and drama rather than separate treatment of each, is also clearly part of what the novel dreams about doing itself. (Other painters Proust makes this use of include the Impressionists, Botticelli, Rembrandt, and especially Vermeer.) In fact, as Chernowitz remarks, Proust took art as such a natural part of life that he sketches character partly in terms of attitude towards art. Odette declares Vermeer to be boring when Swann tells her it isn’t known whether romance inspired his work. Mme Verdurin cares about art only when it touches on her little salon (Chernowitz, 63-66). Swann, the connoisseur, falls into his disastrous love for Odette when he realizes that she resembles the graceful figures of Botticelli. Swann’s passion is so loaded with aesthetic coloring that he buys Odette dresses and accessories that resemble those on Botticelli’s women. In Proust’s calculus, Swann’s error is not so much the failure to love Odette for herself, but rather directing at a living person the human largeness of feeling and imagination that can only find compensation in art.

In 1895, Proust had begun working covertly on a long novel. Scholars discovered this manuscript in the nineteen-forties, more than a thousand pages of sketches, dialogues, and descriptions to which Proust had added intermittently over four or five years before abandoning the effort for Ruskin. They titled it Jean Santeuil. In an introductory section, a narrator describes his boyhood friendship with a renowned writer, C., and explains the narrative that follows as a manuscript found after his death. That narrative, which has a traditional narrator speaking in the third person, follows the career of the eponymous Jean, an aspiring writer and prevailing dullard, from the eighteen-seventies to the end of the century. From our perspective, the most interesting part is the introduction, which Proust wrote in 1896, and which employs, as his later work would, a first-person narrator who describes the action from a position of retrospect. Brian Rogers, who has written an elegant study of Proust’s narrative techniques, has the best analysis of the work’s composition. Although Proust uses some retrospective narration, he does not yet seem conscious of the possibilities in the form for seriously interrogating the contrast between the narrator and his past self, nor for overlapping multiple slices of time that, for the present, are equally available. Instead, he seems to have elected the third person as the best way to exercise his talents for abstract thought and psychological observation. But Proust’s interest in his lines of general commentary, which are admittedly more interesting than the protagonist, leads him again and again to follow them away from his hero down the labyrinth of implications for his principles, inventing more extrinsic examples to illustrate each turn. Similarly, his vivid description and characterization break up under the lack of plot and structure. Some of the author’s most cherished motifs are already here, the goodnight kiss, the experience of resurrecting a forgotten memory, but without a solid theme to give these force and direction: Jean doesn’t substantially change or learn. 10 Still, even in its haphazard state, the work is valuable for its record of the development of Proust’s voice. He has evolved the comparatively simple sentences of his early stories into much longer, winding periods. He has also drawn out his penchant for using multiple perspectives into a method of cursory description, looping around an event a chain of interpretations or analogies: “the Duchess left the room to make tea, saying, ‘Those who would like some of my tea had better come too,’ as though her tea was a commodity supplied under letters patent, a delicious and forbidden pleasure, a sort of a test by which to separate the sheep from the goats….” 11 Here and in his contemporary essays, Proust gave potent evidence of his engagement in working out the terms of a style of mind, the deadly precision of his observations and the elaborate control of his sentences provoking one writer to announce, “Marcel Proust is the devil” (283).

During these years, the command center of his work was a filtered and muffled bedroom in his parents’ apartment, a sheltered island with help nearby for his complex medical needs. Proust was, he later said, “from the medical point of view, many different things, though in fact no one has ever known exactly what. But I am above all, and indisputably, an asthmatic” (SL 2: 83-85). In an effort to control his symptoms, which he believed were exacerbated by drafts, sunlight, smells, noises, and digestive discomfort, he developed a number of rituals. He ate only once per day, ordering in from high-end restaurants. He slept during the daylight hours, rising around eight p.m. and working through the night. He insisted that everything that touched his skin, bath water, changes of clothes, had to be just his temperature, so his housekeeper kept extra shirts and long johns in the oven. 12 When his chest felt tight, he would perform fumigating sacraments with anti-asthma powders and a candle. (His mother, noticing the self-destructive element in his phobias, regularly urged her son to eat and sleep at the ordinary hours and to stop mixing medicines. She sometimes won temporary reforms, but his eccentric habits intensified with the years. When working on the Recherche, he drove his erratic hours by chasing sedatives with coffee and caffeine pills, occasionally lamenting that the drugs were probably worsening his health, as of course they were.) Especially after 1907, he withdrew more and more into his private routines, replacing his old social excursions with visits at his bedside, and acquiring at the functions he did attend a reputation as a strange, delicate man, an elegant conversationalist snowballed in a fur coat. At his brother’s wedding, the prospect of attending which so terrified him that he didn’t sleep for days beforehand, he appeared among the guests a pale and rheumy figure, sealed against drafts in a tuxedo he had stuffed with wadding and wrapped with three coats. (A bridesmaid later said he looked like Lazarus fresh out of the grave.) 13 Later, his illness would become the central plot of his legend, serviceable, when tweaked one way or the other, either to explain his prose style as a symptom of his neurasthenia, or to etherealize his suffering as an extension of his aestheticism, rendering Proust as the finest and most easily bruised flower of aesthetic delicacy. “The hypertrophy of the invalid author’s nervous system,” one critic reported, “renders him so sensitive that, lying in bed on the fifth floor of his residence, he feels the innocent draught created on the ground floor by opening the door of the servant’s stairway.” 14

3: Death & Publishing

In the spring of 1908, Proust sent a friend a list of writing projects on the back burner: among these, “a study on the nobility,” “a study on pederasty (not easy to publish),” “a study on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert,” “a Parisian novel” (SL, 2:371). This last entry would grow to absorb the rest of the list, and indeed, the remainder of Proust’s life, creeping over the divisions between his projects, twining his pet interests into themes, burrowing into his discarded manuscripts, overrunning his social affairs, an intellectual outgrowth that, to a degree, surprised the author, who initially set himself, in November 1908, to writing the study of Sainte-Beuve.

What Proust found offensive in the method of Sainte-Beuve, the biographer and critic, was his treatment of works of literature as commentary on the lives of their authors, as if the parties a writer attended or the convolutions of his love life could tell us what his characters really mean, who this voice we love really is. Such a method, Proust wrote, “fails to recognize what any more than merely superficial acquaintance with ourselves teaches us: that a book is the product of a self other than that which we display in our habits, in company, in our vices.” 15 Reversing the older critic’s priorities, Proust insisted on the obligation to seek the man in the work, rather than the work in the life.

The draft for the study grew in disconnected heaps, Proust’s usual writing process. Some of these fragments wandered off and became pieces of autobiography and fiction. Proust told a friend that he had decided, whimsically, to frame the article with a scene in which he calls his mother to his bedside and begins describing to her an article he plans to write about Sainte-Beuve (SL, 2:426-27). By the following summer, the draft had turned into an outline for a novel revolving around this scene and the reminiscences flowing from it, a novel with plot turns and characters and finally, at the end, the disquisition on Sainte-Beuve and art. “It’s a book,” Proust told an editor whose magazine he hoped would serialize the work, “of events, and the reflection of events on one another at intervals of several years, and it can only appear in large slices” (SL, 2:443).

Here at last were the basic structural elements of the great work we know. The frame of retrospect, in which details in the present require for elucidation the retrieval of scenes from the past, folds into the principle that only from the narrative, which supplies the particular from which the general develops, can the aesthetic conclusion rationally flow. Moreover, Proust mentioned to publishers when pitching the novel that homosexuality would be a recurring theme, as it later was in the Recherche. (Mentioning this was a professional courtesy, since publishers often rejected such works on grounds of indecency.) Yet even with this advancement, Proust while writing fell in and out of focus, sometimes lamenting in letters that the material seemed to have no shape. Still, he worked like a mole, tunneling endlessly forward. Years earlier, he had written an essay comparing artists to creatures like spiders, urged on by mysterious and merciless forces: artists “act by virtue of a sort of instinct which, like an insect’s, is reinforced by a privy knowledge of the magnitude of their task and the shortness of their days, and so they put by every other obligation in order to create the dwelling where their posterity will live… and that being done, are ready to die” (259).

By the summer of 1909, Proust had left off referring to the critic in his notes and moved entirely to the structure we know as the Recherche. In August, he wrote to his friend, Madame Straus, “I’ve just begun—and finished—a whole long book” (SL, 2:486). What he meant was that he had a workable formula. Once the germ was in place, the writer was able to spin out the complicated but firmly woven narrative structure that would finally let the contradictory aspects of his sensibility not block each other, but converse. Our narrator tells the story of his past from the perspective of middle age, following the twisting logic of association and sensation rather than a straight chronological line. The use of the first person allows Proust to shake off the stiff literariness that dogged his third-person writing, in favor of a more fluid and conversational style. His eloquent, and sometimes catty, narrator takes evident pleasure in observing little perversities of human behavior, which he then draws out into the formulation of general laws. That the speaker of such laws is naturally perched in the chilly heights of disenchantment, knowing irony, even cynicism, implies, moreover, a future turn of plot: the speaker has arrived at a changed perspective that isn’t yet available to the past self he describes, who passes from scene to scene wrapped in youth’s romantic sheen. Finally, the reason for the difference emerges: not just the alterations of age, but beyond this a great revelation on the narrator’s part, by whose light, in the final pages, he examines his round of years once more and draws from its lessons an aesthetic program. Thus can Proust accommodate both his passion for poetry, evoking moods and scenes from the past, and his natural gifts as a “psychologist in porcelain,” delivering up analyses with a hard, cool edge (Rogers, 94).

He could claim to have finished the book because the shell he had crafted could expand to admit any number of moving parts. This shell comprised the novel’s opening section, “Combray,” which introduces the major characters and themes, and the conclusion, where revelation turns the narrator, Marcel, back to his beginnings. Rogers again gives a good account. In “Combray,” Marcel describes two walking paths near his childhood home, associated with the Guermantes family and Charles Swann, which deeply affected him as a child and which, as he grew older, became totems for many of his dearest illusions. The storyline presents his young life as the pursuit of these and other glamors until, experience doing its cruel work, he sinks into disillusionment before at last hitting on his revelation, which returns the world of the past with its lost color and now complete knowledge of its meaning. At the same time, he discovers that the two paths, which he thought ran in opposite directions, connect in a circle. As Rogers describes it, although publishing delays let the middle sections expand to unexpected proportions, this schema is effectively the Recherche in a pocket-watch, a symmetrical and self-contained book (Rogers, 96). In December, Proust wrote to a friend asking him “whether you think that if I were to die now without any further completion of the book, this part is publishable as a volume, and whether in that case you would look after it” (SL, 2:461).

Death and publication, the fear of one overtaking, the fear of the other eluding, became the ruling demons of a life now given over almost wholly to his manuscript. The theme of homosexuality was the most obvious obstacle to finding a publisher, although ultimately more trouble would cling to the sheer strangeness of his design: here was a seven hundred page typed manuscript that seemed to wander everywhere and promised two volumes to follow. Hoping to increase his readership by starting out the novel as a magazine serial, Proust submitted his manuscript to the Figaro and the Mercure, both of which had published his work before. Both rejected the manuscript for, as always in publishing, completely unjustifiable reasons. Proust next turned to two prestigious but anti-traditionalist imprints, Fasquelle and the Nouvelle Revue Française, offering to cover the cost of publication. They turned him down. With a flicker of desperation, Proust next approached a publisher that specialized in nature writing. The response of its managing director has become celebrated: “I fail to understand,” he remarked, “why a man needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep” (533).

Finally, in 1913 Proust turned to an adventurous young firm called Grasset. The director, Bernard Grasset, had arrived in Paris an upstart full of ideas about how to shake up the industry. At the time, most publishers announced new releases and considered the job done; a top-notch novel might expect to sell two thousand copies, as Jean-Yves Tadié notes (Tadié, 580). In this Grasset saw fallow ground for his ideas about marketing, media, selling through the press with layers of publicity such as the leak, the excerpt, and the critical article, and as he put these methods to work and sought out prominent voices, the firm was becoming better known: one of its books had won the Prix Goncourt in 1911. Grasset agreed to bring out Swann and let Proust cover the initial costs; he also shared ideas about publicity for which Proust, always interested in disseminating through as many minds as possible, was enthusiastic. But the publisher’s boldness and energy, Proust would learn, were the business side of a personality that was also difficult and sometimes unstable. The two men would be perpetually at odds, with Proust always looking for ways to get out of his contract, but grateful enough for the initial publication to reconnect after clashes, out of a kind of battered loyalty.

In the midst of these offensives with manuscripts and contracts, Proust continued to work feverishly in his notebooks, registering the stress of his uncertain future on his crumbling health. Not only did his asthma worsen with age, but also his neurasthenia, the sensitivity of the nerves that belonged to the era as hysteria did, seemed to spike after painful events. When he had moved to a new apartment after his mother’s death in 1905, he had set up there an even more thoroughgoing architectural metaphor for invalidism, sealing the windows against the suffocating fragrance of the trees outside and hanging dark curtains lined with felt to shut out noise and light. In 1910, he had arranged for the installation of large sheets of cork in the walls and ceiling to muffle the sound of builders working in the next apartment. He worked in bed, in the miserly glow of a single reading lamp, filling school cahiers with disconnected scenes and impressions, which he shuffled around his larger framework as he went. “Place this somewhere,” he would scribble beside odd passages in his notebooks (284).

The relation between the worlds without and within is a major theme of Swann’s Way (1913). The novel’s famous opening passage, in which the narrator describes his periodic experience of emerging from sleep without a clear sense of where he is or his present age, requiring a moment of struggle to recall himself to himself, hints at the sense in which what follows will concern itself with awakening into one’s identity on other, larger, levels. The awakening self that he chooses to begin his larger narrative is the one in his childhood home in Combray, the sketch of which place he crowns with a wicked portrait of one Aunt Léonie, an ancient and eccentric invalid who, as F.C. Green says, enjoys all the advantages of ill health with few of the unpleasant symptoms. (Although Proust sketched this character partly as a sly libel on himself—as a church artist, relishing the chance to play the sinner, renders himself as one of the devils in his portrayal of hell—he was not above taking advantage of his illness, telling friends, for instance, that his eyes were too weak to read their books.) But all this is merely preparation for the novel’s main action investigating a malady of a different kind, which comes into view in the final third of the novel, a self-contained novelette titled “Un Amour de Swann.”

“Un Amour de Swann” chronicles the misplaced infatuation of Charles Swann, a friend of Marcel’s family, over a coquette named Odette de Crécy. Proust’s congenitally cynical view of love, which much of his writing treats not as recognition but as illusion, allows him to relate the plot of the romance with the minute attention and inverted dramatic scale of a clinician following symptoms, even using terms like “disease” and “convalesce.” 16 A collector of art, a connoisseur, a bit of a dilettante, Swann lets aesthetic sentimentality overwhelm his judgment of Odette, whom he decides looks like one of the sylphs from Botticelli or Watteau, the inaccessible glories of those painters at last “united in a creature whom he could possess” (Swann, 238). As this line suggests, Swann’s dilettantism loads the gun of his aestheticism. The collector’s response to an artistic vision is to want to possess it, Proust remarks, but the artist loves with disinterest; it is the glamour of art, rather than its essence, that pulls Swann into his affair, and eventually into a disastrous marriage (Swann, 227). Many critics have compared the novelette to an overture, remarking that its structure sketches the Recherche in miniature. Marcel, who tells us the story as he has heard it from others, since its events happened before his birth, will recapitulate many of the mistakes and adventures of his older counterpart. As a study of change over decades, the story also gives the first sustained experience of the theme of the passage of time. (In later volumes, Proust would complicate the passage of personal time by offering the comparison of historical time, working into the narrative events such as the Dreyfus Affair and the war.) The scene in the novel that everyone remembers, of course, is a communication with time’s passage of the most personal kind, taking place when Marcel dips a shell-shaped cake called a madeleine into a cup of linden tea. When he takes a bite, the taste releases a storm of lost memories from his childhood, a resurrection of the past that brings with it a mysterious and indefinable ecstasy.

When Swann’s Way first appeared in 1913, it met a muted and generally bewildered response. The war was by now the major concern of the French public, and indeed, soon wartime privations would shut down publishing houses altogether, holding back even the notional completion of the next volume for years. The critics didn’t particularly mark the novel’s originality, since it seemed to fall under a familiar category, “souvenirs de jeunesse,” but they registered a classically French distaste for what seemed to be a lack of system and organization. A few praised the pleated cream of the writer’s style, remarking that his way of interfolding images from the landscape and the imagination creates striking hallucinatory effects. 17 Praise was less audible in the reviews of the publishers that had rejected him earlier, to whom Proust had sent copies, hoping perhaps for a sportsmanlike truce or, better still, public remorse. The critic for the NRF politely demolished the novel, opening with the dismissal of Swann as a leisure outlet, the work of a man with clearly a lot of time on his hands, and concluding, almost with a regretful shake of the head, that “his book is not a novel,” only an obsessive and interminable prose poem. 18 But ten days later, Proust received a letter from the NRF’s founder, André Gide, that must have been more heartening to read: “My dear Proust, For several days I have not put down your book; I am supersaturating myself in it, rapturously, wallowing in it. Alas! why must it be so painful for me to like it so much?” Turning the writer away was now, the editor said, “one of the most bitterly remorseful regrets of my life” (SL, 3:225-26).

In fact, public reception notwithstanding, nearly all of the publishers who had turned Proust down now asked to publish the rest of the series, and he took advantage of the shutdown during the war to leave Grasset for the much more prestigious Gallimard. No publisher, however, was willing for his sake to swerve from certain covenants of the book business, of which the one he complained most about was the obligation to divide his enormous work into separate volumes, an accommodation to manufacturing and the marketplace that he compared with slicing up a large tapestry to hang comfortably in a small modern apartment. 19 “My volume is a picture,” he told a friend. “It’s true that a picture is necessarily seen, however large it is, whereas a book isn’t read in the same way.” (SL, 3:189). He reluctantly dealt with the problem of division by importing from music the structural logic of the pedal point, a sustained or repeated note that anchors, and sometimes amplifies through contrast, the change of other melodies above, allowing the musician greater local freedom by reinforcing the unity of the larger harmonic framework. 20 In short, he gave himself a strategic metaphor for patterning suspense. The ending of Swann’s Way , Proust told a friend, is point of suspension rather than closure, one that in fact would be shown to have led the reader to a misleading conclusion when the larger span of the work put all in perspective: “In this first volume you have seen the pleasurable sensation the madeleine soaked in tea gives me—as I say, I cease to feel mortal etc. and I can’t understand why. I’ll explain it only at the end of the third volume. The whole thing is constructed this way” (SL, 3:233).

The war years had given the author time and nervous energy enough to rework the manuscript to nearly twice its old length, making his next volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919), the second of a newly projected four. This volume’s selection for the Prix Goncourt, with the celebrity and sales that tumbled after, was a pleasure that Proust maaged to increase only by cultivating a suspicion that his new publisher was too lazy to replace falling retail stock, sending him in and out of bookstores to check the vanishing stacks of his books while he worked on the next volumes (719). The sprawling middle section that prolonged conflict had added, Sodome et Gomorrhe, included some of his darkest and most vulnerable writing to date, a stormy discourse on the passions that opens into a new twist in the narrator’s life, which critics have titled the “roman d’Albertine.”

The “roman d’Albertine” is, in a sense, Proust’s Iliad: a story about the terrible destructiveness of passion. Marcel finds himself suddenly obsessed with a casual flame when a friend ignites his jealousy by suggesting that she prefers women to men; realizing that she has kept herself enough of a secret from him that he can’t guess whether the claim is true, he becomes consumed with the desire not merely to possess her, but to understand her; to which end he pursues her through every romantic torment before finally holding her a virtual prisoner in his apartment, despite which she remains elusive, unknowable, continuing covert liaisons with other men and even women, until at last she packs her things and disappears. Later he learns that she has died. This is, as it was with Swann, love as a malady, a destructive infatuation that delays Marcel from pursuing his vocation.

Biographers like to underscore the parallels between this narrative and the story of Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s secretary, with whom Proust became infatuated during the war years, and who also died unexpectedly after taking leave. Certainly, Proust expressed a helpless affection for the young man, showering him with letters and gifts, and he must have known that his attraction to the married Agostinelli shared an orbit with ideas he had already developed about the impossibility of finding a satisfying object for one’s love, with perhaps the bitterness of that impossibility having its own narcotic tang. But to treat his fiction as if it were a diary in code is to lose the aesthetic premise that Proust stressed perhaps more than any other: in any comparison with life, art has far and away the superiority of substance and meaning that merits our treatment as the referent. 21 In a draft for the discourse on aesthetics that closes the Recherche, Proust has the narrator remark, “Perhaps the people we know and the feelings we experience because of them are for the psychologist what models are for the painter. They pose for us. They pose for our suffering, for our jealousy, for our happiness.” 22 The operative word here is “model,” by which Proust means, I think, not the figure in a portrait, where the painting works as a reference to the subject, but the studio model whose presence allows the artist to see in thee dimensions, showing how light falls across the shoulders or down the ripples of the back. The human form is raw material. In the final version of the passage, Proust gives the figure of the model even less substance, arguing that the writer can discard the particular once he has found a better expression for the general truth underneath: “It was by tones like these, by such facial movements, even if seen in his earliest childhood, that the life of others was represented in his mind, and when later he comes to write, he will describe a common movement of the shoulders, as realistically as if it had been written in an anatomist’s note-book, but in order here to express a psychological truth, and then on to those shoulders graft somebody else’s neck-movement, each person having contributed his momentary pose.” 23

The critical response to Sodome et Gomorrhe was inevitably turbulent. Proust supported the notion, to which his novel gives feeling, that androgyny is our state of life, born of male and female as we are, and that homosexuality (or “inversion,” as Proust prefers to call it) is as natural as the reverse. In his own life, Proust felt attraction to both men and women, though more to men than women, and advertised these feelings with letters and gifts. But the depiction of homosexual life in his novel is not mollifying: it is often funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes grotesque, discussing in tones of clinical frankness an enigmatic twist of nature. Perhaps he was unwilling to universalize any love story to make it safe. Shortly before the publication of the volume’s first part, Proust wrote to a critic in an effort to head off the laziest reviews. His aim, Proust said, had been to write neither a “condemnation” nor a “speech for the defense,” but rather a “frank, unadorned depiction,” an “impartial one without the intervention of the moral element, which has no business here” (748). The claim corresponds with Proust’s declarations elsewhere: what frees art from moral considerations is not that art only cares about beauty, but that art is thought. Evil into the mind of God or man may come or go and leave no spot or blame. Of course, Proust sometimes added, art is also intensely moral, meaning perhaps that the artist has an obligation to get it right, whatever it should be.

The defense of art as a form of intellection is the subject of the aesthetic discourse that ends the Recherche. A scene in the final volume describes Marcel hurrying through the street to an afternoon party held by the Princess des Guermantes when he stumbles over some uneven paving stones. Suddenly a feeling of elation and immortality overwhelms him, as it had in the first volume with the taste of the madeleine. Unlike there, however, this time he sets himself to determining the source of his rapture, and at last realizes it to be the effect of an unexamined dimension of memory. We move through life as through a dark wood, too inattentive and inexperienced to see the network of connections among the paths we walk or the people we meet. But with the right turn of chance, some unexpected stimulus, like the taste of a cake dunked in tea or the feel of rough pavement that evokes the streets of a familiar city, can call into consciousness previously neglected sensory impressions, illuminating the landscape traversed in all its alienated majesty. That the memory is involuntary, that it has nothing to do with will or reason, is precisely what assures the truth of the vision. It is the unexpectedness of the solution that proves the deceitful intellect hasn’t forced the material into an inaccurate structure. By these lights, Proust’s inward eye is far from solipsistic, as some of his early critics charged; on the contrary, it presents, as Maria DiBattista puts it, a check against solipsism, and also an assertion that art offers privileged access to the truth of experience. Because it is the artist who, in the fulfillment of his vocation, goes to the trouble of expanding upon and interpreting his experiences with the aid of both the memory and the intellect, with the memory recovering and ordering reality and then the intellect, which can interpret and analyze despite its powerlessness to summon those memories itself, completing that reality, it is he who can claim to live the life fully lived. The rapture, in short, is existence: the feeling of one’s compound selves opening at once, the feeling, as John Shade put it in another context, of being distributed through space and time. Marcel’s revelation is that the life of seeming aimlessness and creeping disillusionment that he has led before this moment was, in fact, building him up for his vocation, embedding in him the higher reality that he can now, a true artist who comprehends the nature of his work, begin to investigate. Because of the difficult work of editing and publishing the final volumes, which were modeled but still unfinished at Proust’s death, the contents of this aesthetic program would not come before the public for another five years, but the philosophy was implicit from early on. While working on the draft for Sainte-Beuve, Proust wrote a note to himself about “the boy” he felt to dwell in him, who “dies instantly in the particular, and begins immediately to float and live in the general, the general animates him and nourishes him… but while he lives, his life is only ecstasy and felicity. He alone should write my books” (Tadié, 519).

Through 1922, Proust’s symptoms grew more and more perilous, running through nausea, vomiting, and occasional delirium. On November 18, after an especially bad week, his housekeeper, already alarmed by his deterioration, noticed the normally cluttered Proust “pulling up the sheet and picking up the papers strewn over the bed.” “I’d never been at a deathbed before,” she later wrote, “but in our village I’d heard people say that dying men gather things.” 24 By that afternoon, three doctors, including the patient’s brother, Robert Proust, had determined that he had only a few hours to live. Proust died before nightfall. A man who had always looked eerily young, he preserved enough of a glow in death to allow friends and colleagues to visit the bedroom over the weekend to pay their respects. When Jean Cocteau visited, he remarked on the tall stacks of notebooks near the bed: “That pile of paper on his left was still alive, like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers” (809).



1 William C. Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life (Yale University Press, 2000): 5. Hereafter cited by page number only. All excerpts from Proust’s letters use the editions edited by Philip Kolb and translated by Terence Kilmartin; they are cited as SL, with volume number and page number. Marcel Proust, Selected Letters, ed. Philip Kolb, trans. Terence Kilmartin (London: HarperCollins, 1983-2000).

2 Robert Proust, Hommage à Marcel Proust; quoted in Germaine Bree, The World of Marcel Proust (Houghton Mifflin, 1966): 14.

3 Reynaldo Hahn, “Promenade”; quoted in Carter, 173.

4 Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C.K. Montcrieff (Courier Dover, 2003): 136.

5 Daniel Halévy, “Souvenirs sur Proust,” 1929. Reprinted in Marcel Proust, ed. Anne Borrel and Jean-Pierre Halévy, Marcel Proust, Correspondance avec Daniel Halévy(Paris: Editions de Fallois, 1992): 169.

6 Daniel Halévy, translated and quoted by Mina Curtiss, in Letters of Marcel Proust, trans. Mina Curtiss, introduction by Adam Gopnik (Helen Marx Books, 2006): 5.

7 Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust: A Life, trans. Euan Cameron (Viking, 2000): 832. Hereafter cited as Tadié, with page number.

8 Dottin-Orsini, Mireille. “Jules Laforgue et Charles Ephrussi: le ‘jeune homme si simple’ et le ‘bénédictin-dandy’ de laGazette des Beaux-Arts,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 117, 1468-69 (mai-juin 1991): 233-240.

9Maurice Chernowitz, Proust and Painting(New York, 1944): 16-17, incl. quotation. Hereafter cited as Chernowitz, with page number.

10 Brian G. Rogers. Proust’s Narrative Techniques (Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1965): 20.

11Marcel Proust, Jean Santeuil, trans. Gerard Hopkins (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956): 250. Hereafter cited as Jean Santeuil, with page number.

12 Germaine Brée, The World of Marcel Proust(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966): 41.

13 Valentine Thomson, “My Cousin Marcel Proust,” Harper’s Magazine 164 (May 1932): 717.

14 Maurice Verne, quoted in “The Curious Career of Marcel Proust,” Current Opinion 68, 5 (May 1920): 679.

15 Marcel Proust, “The Method of Sainte-Beuve,” Against Sainte-Beuve and Other Essays, 12.

16Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2002): 242-43. Hereafter cited as Swann, with page number.

17Douglas W. Alden, Proust and his French Critics(Los Angeles: Lymanhouse, 1940): 12-17.

18Henri Ghéon, review of Du Côté de Chez Swann, Nouvelle Revue Francaise (1 January 1914); reprinted in Leighton Hodson, Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1997): 99-101.

19 “In my mind, my work was like a vast tapestry in an apartment unable to contain it.” Quoted in Christine Cano, Proust’s Deadline (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006): 32. Hereafter cited as Cano, with page number.

20“I can always find a ‘pedal point’ at which to stop the volume if all its real content is not exhausted when its outermost limit is reached.” Quoted in Cano, 48.

21See, for instance, Jean Santeuil, 11-12.

22“Peut-être les êtres que nous connaissons, les sentiments que grace à eux nous éprouvons sont-ils pour le psychologue ce que sont pour le peintre des modèles. Ils posent pour nous. Ils posent pour la souffrance, pour la jalousie, pour le bonheur.” Addition to Cahier 57, Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes, Cahiers du Temps Retrouvé, ed. H. Bonnet and B. Brun (Paris: Gallimard, 1976): 391.

23Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson (New York: Penguin, 2002): 209.

24 Céleste Albaret, Monsieur Proust, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003) 54. Hereafter cited as Albaret, with page number.