Marcel Proust, 1871-1922

[Photograph of Monument] Marcel Proust was born in 1871 in Paris. His childhood coincided with France's post-Commune era; Paris was being rebuilt into a modern city with wide boulevards and modern buildings, automobiles were being introduced, the Eiffel Tower was completed and the Statue of Liberty was soon to be sent to America. "It was an era of ferment, social change, and new ideas."

Marcel's father was a medical doctor and his mother was an affluent Jewish stockbrocker. Their wealth provided him with a privileged upbringing; he enjoyed country gardens, the friendship of relatives and studying at private schools. When he was 18 he joined the infantry for one year. Oddly enough, for a young man who was sickly, homosexual, and introspective, he later reflected fondly upon the experience. The military restrictions, he explained, contributed to a happy time, "in which pleasure is the more constantly with us because we have no time to run about looking for it and so miss it altogether."

As a Jew, a homosexual, and an asthmatic semi-invalid, Proust learned early in life that he was an outsider and adopted a voyeur approach to the social customs he saw around him. Thus he was able to view the aristocratic enclaves from a fresh perspective and with a shrewd insight into individuals he would later fictionalize in revealing detail.

From his 18th year he actively social climbed after being introduced to the world of the salon. He participated in lively gatherings of intellectuals, artists, thinkers, writers and the hangers-on who met to discuss art, music, science and brush shoulders and wits. Here Proust discovered the aristocratic figures who would supply the parts of his grand literary mosaic; he watched, absorbed and telescoped (a favorite word).

In 1896 the Dreyfus Affair rocked every corner of high society and splintered even the best salons. Proust sided with the Dreyfusards, but the contoversy, which was not to be resolved until 1906, fostered a disenchantment in Proust with the military and social heroes he had formerly celebrated. "Disenchantment nurtured a more critical eye with which to view the society he was to immortalize in Rememberance of Things Past."

Proust's first lover was Reynaldo Hahn, a Jewish composer and singer from Venezuela whom Proust met when he was 22 and continued to see for two years. Hahn, handsome and exotic, captivated the attention of high society which satisfied Proust's desire to be seen in exclusive and fashionable company. Later in life, Proust's romantic involvements focused primarily on a series of servants who always shared his residences.

In 1909, at an un-extraordinary but particular instant in time, Proust experienced a mental flash of understanding. Childhood memories flooded his consciousness and the secret of time and a mode for thinking, which was free from mental habits and reflexes tied to the present, were revealed to him. The discovery led Proust to create his greatest works which had tremendous influence on subsequent writers.

Publishers, confused by his stream-of-consciousness technique, initially turned down his masterpiece Rememberance of Things Past. They couldn't understand why Proust took 30 pages to describe rolling over in bed at night before going to sleep. In 1913 when it was finally published it went virtually unnoticed. In 1919 when the second part, Within a Budding Grove was published it drew rave reviews and Proust received the coveted Goncourt Prize. He became famous overnight and in 1920 was awarded the Legion of Honor, the distinguished-service award instituted by Napolean.

In October of 1922, weakened by recent bouts of asthma, Proust developed pneumonia. A month later, while working on into the middle of the night, as was his custom, he died.

As Proust's work became available in translation, his reputation grew internationally. Rememberance of Things Past is considered to have inaugurated a new style of writing that has dominated 20th century fiction. Having witnessed the entire spectrum of human passion, Proust portrayed in his writing, "the life which, in a sense, dwells at every instant in all men, and not the artist alone."

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