|Who was Marcel Proust?
Marcel Proust is regarded as one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. His most celebrated work, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past), was in many respects the story of his own life.
Proust was born July 10, 1871, in Auteuil, France, a suburb of Paris. The son of a prominent Catholic doctor and a wealthy Jewish mother, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending private schools and spending summers in the countryside or at the seashore. He was a sickly child, however, and nearly died from asthma at age 9.
Although his health was fragile, Proust served briefly in the army, an experience he remembered fondly. After that, his father tried to pressure him into a diplomatic career. Proust studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne, but decided to follow his passion for literature. He published his first work, Les plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), in 1896.
In his late teens, Proust began attending the famed Parisian artistic and intellectual salons, where he met members of the aristocracy who would later serve as models for the characters in his books. Though many considered Proust a charming and witty young man, others regarded him as a fawning social climber; writer Colette, for one, was disgusted by his "overweaning politeness." But when French high society was riven by a political scandal in the late 1890s, Proust sided against the aristocracy, and became disillusioned with the elite he had previously admired.
Biographer Edmund White suggests Proust always felt like an outsider due to "the fact that he was half-Jewish, untitled, gay, and invalid."
Although Proust had several affairs with women as a young man, his first serious relationship, at age 22, seems to have been with Reynaldo Hahn, a handsome musician from Venezuela. Proust also had liaisons with Jacques Bizet (son of Carmen composer Georges Bizet) and playwright Francis de Croisset. Later in life, though, most of his romantic relationships were with younger servantsamong them his live-in secretary and chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, whose affairs with women caused the jealous writer much anguish. In addition, Proust reportedly had a penchant for sadomasochism, and enjoyed dressing up in military uniforms.
Yet he apparently had mixed feelings about his sexuality. Though rather open about his relationships with men, Proust once fought a pistol duel with a critic who publicly suggested he was homosexual. In his work, he dealt extensively with both male and female homosexuality, as well as with sadomasochism. "Proust was the first novelist to explore the entire spectrum of human sexuality," wrote biographer William Carter. Howeveras noted by fellow author Andre Gidewhen writing semi-autobiographically, Proust had a tendency to turn his male lovers into women.
Beginning in the mid-1900s, following the deaths of his parents, Proust gradually withdrew from social life and became a virtual recluse in his Paris apartment, working at night in a cork-lined room to shield himself from light and noise. Apart from the occasional restorative journey to the coast, he traveled little. "The real voyage of discovery," he wrote, "consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
Around this time, Proust began writing his 16-volume magnum opus, a task that would consume the remainder of his life. A la recherche du temps perduweighing in at more than 3,000 pagesnominally chronicles the interlocking lives of three families, but is really a stream-of-consciousness account of the narrator's thoughts and memories sparked by biting into a madeleine cookie. Among the central characters are the kinky Baron de Charlus and the narrator's love, Albertine (modeled after Agostinelli); the narrator frequently muses about whether the people he encounters are homosexual, and is obsessed with Albertine's lesbian liaisons.
The first part of Recherche was initially rejected by publishers on the advice of Gide, who thought Proust was a mere dilettante socialitean assumption for which Gide later apologized, although he disapproved of what he regarded as Proust's negative representations of homosexuality. Proust ended up publishing the first part at his own expense in 1913, but it failed to draw much notice. The second part, however, released in 1919, garnered rave reviews; Proust achieved instant fame and won the Goncourt Prize, France's most prestigious literary award.
Not long thereafter, the increasingly frail Proust developed pneumonia. He died in November 1922 during one of his habitual late-night work sessions. The final three volumes of Recherche, which he did not finish revising before he died, were published posthumously.
Proust's work gained further acclaim as it became available in translation, and later enjoyed a revival at the turn of the 21st century. "In the novel [Proust] really traces the effects of modern inventions, machines of mass transit, on our perceptions of time and space," said Carter, attributing the renewed interest to "some connection with the age of the Internet, where everything seems instantaneous and we have the perception we can communicate instantly, but still, we are governed by the laws of time."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.9 July 15, 2005