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Friday, 12 May 2017

Marcel Proust


Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil (the south-western sector of Paris's then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle on July 10, 1871.

Marcel's father, Adrien Proust, was a famous doctor and epidemiologist, who wrote numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene.

His cultured and beautiful mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace.

Adrien Proust was a Roman Catholic and Marcel was raised within a Catholic culture.

From the age of 9 he suffered from asthma and thereafter Marcel was considered a sickly child.

Marcel's studies at Lycee Condorcet were interrupted from time to time by his illness but he wrote for the school magazines and was a good student. However he was shunned and mocked by his fellow students for his effeminacy.


Proust was involved in writing and publishing from an early age. In the early 1890s he published a regular society column in the journal Le Mensuel. In 1892 he was involved in founding a literary review called Le Banquet and throughout the next several years Proust published small pieces regularly in this journal and in the prestigious La Revue Blanche.

When his first published book Pleasures and Days was slated by critic Jean Lorrain, Proust challenged him to a duel. On February 5, 1897 they fired pistols from 120 paces but both missed.

Proust began working on a novel in the mid-1890s. Many of the themes later developed in In Search of Lost Time found their first articulation in this unfinished work, including the enigma of memory and the necessity of reflection.

Following the poor reception of his novel and internal troubles with resolving the plot, Proust gradually abandoned the book in 1897 and stopped work on it entirely by 1899.

Marcel Proust in 1900

The work was eventually published in 1952 and titled Jean Santeuil by his posthumous editors.

Proust was prompted to embark on his autobiographic novel À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) by the smell of a tea soaked orange teacake. He has said that fragrance is the most tenacious form of memory and the teacake evoked memories of culinary delights at Aunt Leonie's on a Sunday morning. Proust dined almost nightly at Place Vendome, Paris to observe the decadence about which he writes about Remembrance of Things Past.

On November 22, 1913 Marcel Proust published "Swann's Way", the first part of Remembrance of Things Past. An important breakthrough in the psychological novel, it was an attempt to pierce together the jigsaw of his real self through occasional illuminated perceptions that would reveal it. They included extended meditations on love and lust including his relationship with a girl called Albertine. Proust also remembers important events in his lifetime including the Dreyfus Affair and the First World War.

Proust paid for the publication of the first volume (by the Grasset publishing house) after it had been turned down by leading editors who had been offered the manuscript in longhand.

Remembrance of Things Past was subsequently published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.

Remembrance of Things Past is more accurately translated as "In Search of Lost Time," which was the title Proust meant.

Proust's first line was "For a long time I used to go to bed early". Over 3000 pages later (it contains almost 1.5 million words) his last line was "In the dimension of time." The novelist was forever obsessed with further elaborating his writings.

In July 2000 a first galley proof of Swann's Way with handwritten revision notes by Marcel Proust was auctioned by Christie's, London for £663,750 — a world record for a French literary manuscript.

First galley proof of A la recherche du temps perdu: Du côté de chez Swann 


At the age of 9, Proust suffered his first asthma attack, which nearly killed him. From then onwards, his health started deteriorating and sometimes he was even hypersensitive to light and noise. Proust spent much of his life in bed because of his asthma and extremely sensitive skin and stomach.

The writer and journalist Leon Daudet described the young Proust as a doe-eyed young gentleman "muffled up in an enormous overcoat".

The sickly French writer showed up at his brother's wedding under three overcoats, several scarves and chest padding. He was so bulky, he was unable to sit in a pew and had to spend the entire ceremony standing in the aisle.

Proust wore a fur coat during meals. He'd eat asparagus while wearing white gloves and went to sleep wearing a shawl and bowler hat.

In his 20s, Proust was a conspicuous society figure. After the death of his mother in 1906 he shut himself away in the bedroom of his Paris apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris, where he lived until 1919.

In 1919, Proust's aunt sold the apartment to what became CIC  Bank and Proust never recovered from the shock of leaving.

102 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris, where Marcel Proust lived for 12 years. By Mbzt -  Wikipedia

Proust had been left financially independent by his parents. At one time wealthy, he’d lost so much money on imprudent investments that he was plagued by financial anxiety though he could always afford to dine at the Ritz.

Marcel Proust suffered from hay fever asthma, chronic lung disease, insomnia, nervous tension and hypersensitivity. He rarely left his room where the air was thick with the smoke from the powders he burned to relieve his asthma attacks. The sickly author took so many drugs to counter his illness he could scarcely totter from his bed to the bedroom door without falling. He wrote bundled in sweaters, a hot water bottle at his feet, flat in bed.

The insomniac Proust lined his bedroom with cork to keep out the street noises and the dust that might provoke an asthma attack. As his anxiety over his health worsened he rarely left his room.

The bedridden Marcel Proust was fascinated with the music of a string quartet, particularly the viola player. So he frequently hired them to play in his room to him alone.

The music-loving Proust had installed in his cork lined room a theatrophone- a system of microphones set up at a concert such as the performance of the Pastoral Symphony and linked to a telephone.

Proust himself was homosexual, and had a long-running affair with pianist and composer Reynaldo Hahn.

Proust's devoted housekeeper Céleste Albaret faithfully attended to him from 1914 to his death after which she wrote her memoirs. After coming home from parties he often opened up to her. Proust inscribed one of his books to her "Greetings to the temporary invalid from the perpetual invalid."


In May 1922 Violet and Sydney Schiff hosted a famous dinner party at the the luxurious Hotel Majestic which was attended by Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso. This was to be Proust's last proper square meal as not long afterwards he contracted viral pneumonia complicated by an abscess on his lung, which burst and caused septicaemia. From then on he subsisted on milky coffee.

Proust died early in the morning of November 18, 1922, having worked with Celéleste until 3:30 a.m., dictating revisions to the proofs of Remembrance of Things Past 's fifth volume "The Prisoner."

Marcel Proust was buried Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, Paris.

The last three of the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past were published posthumously. They existed only in draft form at the death of the author; the publication of these parts was overseen by Proust's brother Robert.

Sources Food For Thought by Ed PearceThe People's Almanac Presents The Books of Lists, No. 2 by Irving Wallace

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