Proust was born in 1871 of bourgeois parents. His father was a noted physician who had distinguished himself in his efforts to combat the spread of cholera from Persia, and Proust's mother was a highly educated Jewish woman known for her charm and humor. As a child Proust enjoyed significant attention and affection from his mother, and more than one biographer has remarked on their seeming inseparability. Aside from sharing similar interests such as reading and taking walks, Proust and his mother were bound by consideration for his tenuous health. He continually suffered indigestion, and at age nine he experienced the first of innumerable asthma attacks. The sources of these attacks seemed countless: anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia, as well as more familiar causes such as dust, dampness, and smoke. Young Proust, moody and obsessive, learned to manipulate his parents, particularly his mother, with his health problems, exploiting their reluctance to administer punishment for tantrums or defiant behavior.
Once in school Proust distinguished himself with honors despite his often poor health. In his early school years he was frequently mocked by classmates for his feminine features and delicacy, but he eventually won the admiration of some of these same students for his literary precocity. He graduated from the Lycee Condorcet in 1889 with distinctions in composition and classical languages. Among his closest friends there were Daniel Halevy and Jacques Bizet, the latter the son of the famed composer Georges Bizet. In 1888 Proust and his two friends collaborated on the journals La Revue verte and La Revue lilas, with Proust serving as contributor as well as scathing copy editor for his less talented friends. His own contributions to the journals, which included an autobiographical account of contemplation, revealed an early penchant for ornamentation and inquisitive thinking. His interest in the latter continued during his final school year when he studied idealists such as Immanuel Kant. For Proust, Kant proved inspirational, prompting speculations on metaphysics and human behavior. Biographer Richard Barker has even suggested in Marcel Proust that during this time the impressionable Proust "formed mental habits that were to remain with him for the rest of his life."
Upon graduating from the Lycée Condorcet Proust decided to pursue a career as a writer. But first he had to fulfill his military obligations. Laws at the time stipulated five years of service for eligible Frenchmen, but exceptions were made for educated citizens willing to purchase their own equipment. For citizens such as these, the required period was reduced to one year, and it was for such a term that Proust enlisted in 1889. In the French Army Proust's poor physical health proved only a slight liability, and he avoided certain rigors by ingratiating himself with his commanding officer. During his service, however, Proust did suffer bouts of depression, including a particularly traumatic period following the death of his grandmother. But his health was generally favorable. And although he was stationed in Orleans, Proust indulged his interest in high society by occasionally accompanying a new friend, Gaston de Caillavet, to receptions and parties in Paris.
Proust continued to patronize Parisian society after leaving the French Army in 1890. Through Gaston de Caillavet's mother, Madame Arman de Caillavet, Proust met author Anatole France, who was the principal guest in her salon. At this time Proust also frequented the circle gathered by Genevieve Straus, mother of his old schoolmate Bizet. Straus's next husband was a wealthy lawyer who installed her among antique furnishings in a vast apartment on Paris's Boulevard Haussmann. Proust greatly admired Madame Straus, who was known for her cutting wit, and biographers such as Richard Barker and George D. Painter have speculated that young Proust even entertained notions of a sexual relationship with his acerbic hostess. Other prominent Parisians visited by Proust were Madame Aubemon de Nerville, whose own salon had earlier featured Anatole France, and Laure Hayman, formerly mistress to one of Proust's great-uncles. Despite having only a modest allowance, Proust lavished gifts on Hayman, and some biographers acknowledge that his interest in her was sexual as well as social. "It would not have been the first nor the last time that Proust's relations with women were physical," Painter noted in his biography Marcel Proust. Still another romantic interest of Proust's was Jeanne Pouquet, fiancé of his friend Gaston de Caillavet. His flirtatious, excessively complimentary manner--defined as "Proustifying" by his friends--sometimes angered de Caillavet. But by 1893, when his two friends married, Proust had lost interest in other women and had shifted his romantic concerns, as Painter observed, to other men.
During this initial period of extensive socializing Proust published his first writings in a modest magazine, Le Banquet, which he founded with Bizet, Halevy, and a few other friends. Proust's early writings are mostly anecdotes or short reviews focusing on Paris society, and they often reveal his intentions as an effusive social climber. His collaborators at Le Banquet sometimes protested Proust's use of the publication for overt pandering to hostesses such as Countess Adheume de Chevigne, whom he flatteringly portrayed in hopes of an introduction to the aristocracy. One such trite piece by Proust eventually prompted action from Le Banquet's Femand Gregh, who published a brief notice disassociating the staff from Proust's comments.
While writing for Le Banquet, Proust placated his concerned parents by studying law at the Sorbonne. After completing his studies, though, he avoided entering the field and began studying philosophy. At this time Proust also wrote several fictional pieces for La Revue blanche, which had acquired Le Banquet's staff. Proust's new writings--sensitive character studies with vaguely erotic overtones--showed a marked improvement over his earlier society reports. But he followed these writings with an article on the flamboyant Count Robert de Montesquiou, whose mediocre poetry was apparently prized by Proust. The article on Montesquiou was intended as the first in a series, but various editors rejected Proust's excessively flattering portrait, and he consequently abandoned the series.
Proust began collecting his contributions to Le Banquet and La Revue blanche, and in 1896 he published these writings, along with additional stories, as Les Plaisirs et les jours. Despite a laudatory preface credited to Anatole France--it was actually written by Arman de Caillavet--the book's sales were minimal and even failed to return the cost of publication. Reviews were generally bland or negative, dismissing Proust's style as precious and his all-enveloping sentence structure as convoluted and confusing. But in retrospect, Les Plaisirs et les jours,which was published in English as Pleasures and Regrets, is considered prophetic of Proust's later masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. In his biography Barker concedes that Les Plaisirs is "not entirely successful" but added that it contains "the raw material for a work of art," and Milton Hindus, in his Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust, was particularly attentive to themes of jealousy and sexual transgression in the stories of Les Plaisirs. These themes, dominant in Remembrance of Things Past, were first explored by Proust in tales such as "A Young Girl's Confession," which concerns envy and sexual indiscretion, and "Violante," which details the foul repercussions of high-society life and sexual indulgence.
After publishing Les Plaisirs and an insignificant verse collection, Proust resumed work on a more ambitious literary project: a vast, autobiographical novel elaborating the themes of his earlier work. For the next few years Proust devoted himself to this work, ultimately writing more than one thousand pages. This novel, published only posthumously as Jean Santeuil, lacked coherence but provided an indication of the skill and talent that Proust would later use in producing his masterpiece. Themes such as obsessive jealousy and ostensibly perverse sexuality are readily evident in Jean Santeuil, and whole episodes of Remembrance of Things Pastare introduced in the earlier novel in a manner almost entirely duplicated in the later work. More importantly, as Barker indicated, Jean Santeuilserved as Proust's forum for developing and refining a writing style "so completely transparent that it would reveal with absolute accuracy the most minute observations." This style, justifiably complex in its ornate detail, would become a hallmark of Remembrance of Things Past.
Proust socialized extensively in the late 1890s. An affair with Reynaldo Hahn, a musician, had ended tempestuously in 1897, but Proust apparently found other lovers, and he remained a frequent visitor to the salons of de Caillavet and other newfound aristocratic acquaintances. But his activities were increasingly undermined by poor health and related problems. He suffered from asthma attacks, usually as he prepared for sleep. The ensuing insomnia prompted him to experiment with allegedly sleep-inducing drugs. But some of these drugs were addictive, and their frequent use led to prolonged melancholy. Proust's mother cautioned him against dependence on these drugs, and as an alterative she took him on seaside vacations. When circumstances dictated occasional separation, Proust and his mother corresponded daily. Her letters posed queries about his health, while his missives detailed his various ailments.
These discomforts did not prevent Proust's involvement in the Dreyfus scandal that shook France at this time. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish captain in the French army, and in 1895 he was imprisoned on Devil's Island after his conviction for attempting to deliver secret documents to Germany. Few French citizens objected to the original verdict, though Dreyfus's alleged treason caused some embarrassment in the Jewish community. In 1896 new evidence indicated that a Major Esterhazy, and not Dreyfus, was guilty of the treasonous act, and the army was compelled to try the new suspect. Esterhazy's surprising acquittal in 1898 resulted in a public outcry from French intellectuals, who accused the French military of anti-Semitism in keeping Dreyfus on Devil's Island. Proust was among the first members of this protest group--known collectively as Dreyfusards or Revisionists--and he joined such prominent artists as Anatole France and Emile Zola in petitioning for Dreyfus's retrial.
The Dreyfus scandal exerted a powerful effect on Parisian society. Aristocratic circles, largely Christian and nationalist, remained supportive of French authority while bourgeois groups often rallied behind the Dreyfusards. Proust, who frequented salons of both social strata, sought to alleviate tension by inviting supporters of both sides to a party that occurred remarkably free of hostility. He also continued as an active Dreyfusard despite conflicting social ties. The Dreyfusards' efforts were eventually to prove successful, for by 1899 the French Government was largely pro-Dreyfus.
Despite the French Government's newfound support for Dreyfus, the captain was once again found guilty when tried by the French Army. But Proust was now confident that the state would not condone such a verdict. He was correct, for the French president then pardoned Dreyfus, who returned to the French mainland a broken, tragic figure. Barker, in his biography, wrote that for Proust, who was half-Jewish, the Dreyfus scandal would remain a personal memory "of a long and bitter struggle against the forces of anti-Semitism, carried to a successful conclusion."
In the early 1900s Proust's literary interest turned to the works of English critic John Ruskin. Since late 1899 Proust had been reading Ruskin's works in French translation and contributing studies on Ruskin to periodicals such as Le Figaro and Le Mercúre de France.Recognizing that Ruskin's intricate, detailed style resembled his own, Proust resolved to translate Ruskin's work into French. He began with Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens, a discussion of art and architecture in the Amiens region of France. Proust worked on the translation for more than three years, delving into Ruskin's canon and traveling to Amiens and even to Venice to see those artworks referred to by Ruskin in various volumes. But upon publication in 1904, Proust's translation met with little success and was accorded only minimal attention in French publications. A subsequent translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies fared similarly, aside from an unusually praiseworthy account in Le Figaro, which Proust was dismayed to discover had gone unread by his friends. In a letter, he complained that most educated Parisians "are incapable of reading even so much as a newspaper." This comment, cited in Barker's biography, is indicative of Proust's disappointment at the reception given the product of his intense labor.
Proust's health during these years remained unstable, but problems such as asthma and depression were doubtless exacerbated by his increasingly eccentric behavior. In an attempt to ease the breathing difficulties resulting from asthma, he burned medicinal powders, and to stabilize the air in his bedroom he forbade servants from dusting there. Thus the room was often full of smoke and dust, two agents detrimental to asthmatics. For his insomnia Proust ingested trional, which he often misused by taking it in the morning when his surroundings became increasingly lively. This rendered the trional ineffective and plunged Proust into further anxiety. His efforts to sleep in the morning seemed strange to his mother, who tried to conduct household matters as if her son kept usual hours. This allegedly unsympathetic behavior frustrated and angered Proust, who criticized her in letters delivered from his gloomy bedroom. In 1903 Proust was further shaken by the death of his father, a respected physician and professor. For Proust, the death was particularly devastating since he felt guilty over his failure to realize his father's hopes and intentions. After the funeral Proust devoted a long bereavement to completing the first Ruskin translation, which he dedicated to his father.
Following the death of his father Proust adopted a more conciliatory tone in writing to his mother. He maintained his nocturnal lifestyle but vowed to work toward keeping normal hours. In 1904, continuing with his efforts to regulate his life, Proust sought medical assistance in combating asthma. His physician diagnosed Proust's affliction as anxiety-related and advised him to enter a German clinic, where he would undergo a treatment similar to that used with drug addicts. Proust demurred, then began considering a similar clinic in Switzerland. He decided to pursue treatment in Switzerland after finishing his translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, but in the fall of 1905 his plans were dashed when his mother fell ill with uremia. She died soon afterward, whereupon Proust entered another period of mourning. Toward the end of 1905, however, he decided to take a cure, but in Paris. His treatment consisted, at least in part, of staying in bed and eating as often and as much as possible. After several weeks, Proust abandoned the ludicrous process.
Without his parents to support him Proust needed to seek cheaper living accommodations. Instead, in 1906 he moved into a costly apartment on a busy, tree-lined boulevard that guaranteed noise, dust, and pollen. Despite its entirely unsuitable nature, the apartment appealed to Proust, for it had once been owned by a relative and was thus known by his late mother. The idea of living in an apartment familiar to his mother powerfully appealed to Proust, and so he moved despite the obvious liabilities. Eventually the apartment, located on the Boulevard Haussmann, became notorious for its disheveled, dark, dusty interior and its inconvenient air temperature. The place was disheveled because Proust refused to arrange to clean furniture for fear of stirring dust, and it was dark because he slept during the daytime and thus kept the curtains closed to sunlight. Finally, the air temperature was disturbing to visitors because of Proust's bizarre belief that it was healthier to remain cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Therefore he kept the windows open in the winter and slept under heavy blankets in the summer. For Proust this apartment, particularly its gloomy, filthy bedroom, which he lined with cork to muffle sound, constituted his chief environment for the next thirteen years.
In 1907 Proust began reworking the nearly eighty notebooks that composed Jean Santeuil. While organizing this material he also produced an autobiographical/critical volume, Contre Sainte-Beuve, which included long accounts derived from the Jean Santeuil notes. In Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust challenged the aesthetic principles of French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who believed that contemporary literature was best comprehended through an understanding of its writers. Proust argued that literature existed independently--inspired from unfathomable depths within the writer--and that Sainte-Beuve's method was superficial. Aside from its critical passages, though, Contre Sainte-Beuve contained lengthy digressions on memory and love, the two major themes of Remembrance of Things Past, and the earlier work, which was published only posthumously, is now read chiefly as a precursor to the later masterpiece.
While writing Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust was already shaping the Jean Santeuil material into Remembrance. Working constantly, he re-structured his narrative around the theme of memory and began writing anew from a first-person perspective. The result was Swann's Way, the first volume of Remembrance. Swann's Way begins with the narrator, Marcel, noting, "For a long time I used to go to bed early." He discusses the effects of dreams, then reveals his desire to retrieve his past. This revelation is followed by a childhood recollection in which Marcel and his parents are visited by a family friend, Charles Swann. Marcel recounts how, during one particular visit from Swann, he was forced by his father to withdraw without receiving a kiss from his mother. Marcel retires sorrowfully to his bedroom. But his father, realizing his son's distress, eventually sends Marcel's mother to his room and even allows her to sleep there. The opening segment, titled "Overture" by translator C. K. Scott-Moncrieff but untitled by Proust, concludes with the famous tea-and-madeleine incident, in which the narrator tastes a pastry dipped in tea and is immediately overwhelmed by memories of his childhood. His subsequent recollections constitute, along with attendant analysis, the remainder of Remembrance of Things Past.
In "Overture" Proust introduces Remembrance's principal themes: memory and possessive love. In Swann's Way's longest single section, "Swann in Love," he depicts the destructive force of such love in recounting Swann's social decline. This decline is precipitated by his love for Odette, a manipulative courtesan who drives Swann to acts of obsessive jealousy, much to the amusement of bourgeois hostess Madame Verdurin. Swann realizes his folly only after dreaming of Odette and the Verdurins, whereupon he acknowledges having wasted his life and his love on a woman with whom he was incompatible. Swann's Way ends with a transitional section leading into Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past.
Upon completing Swann's Way Proust labored to secure a publisher, even venturing from his cork-lined room to press for the book's acceptance. But each publisher rejected the work: some were opposed to the book's length, especially since it was merely part of a larger work; others were nonplussed by Proust's intricate prose and his penchant for detail. One such editor even wrote to Proust's brother. "My dear friend," the editor conveyed, "perhaps I am dense but just don't understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he rolls about in bed before he goes to sleep." After multiple rejections Proust decided to publish Swann's Way at his own expense. This proved a costly gambit when, at the proofreading stage, Proust appended whole pages to the galleys and filled their margins, thus effectively rewriting the entire manuscript.
Proust's personal life at this time was hardly conducive to the demands of writing and revising. Suffering from insomnia, weight loss, and even dental pain, he hired his lover, Alfred Agostinelli, as his live-in secretary. But Agostinelli had a wife, and her constant presence thwarted Proust's creativity and his romantic inclinations. As tensions at Proust's apartment peaked in 1913, he left for a brief vacation. His respite was hardly calming, however, for he traveled with the Agostinellis. Proust eventually convinced Agostinelli to return with him to Paris without Mrs. Agostinelli. But once home Proust again succumbed to his various ailments. Bedridden, he inexplicably contemplated another vacation.
Swann's Way was published in late 1913, but brought more anguish to Proust. Critics generally agreed that he possessed sensitivity and a keen perception, but they also complained that he lacked artistic judgment--that the sentences rambled interminably, thoughts turned confusing, and the entire work required drastic reduction. For Proust, who had dreamed of winning a literary prize for his work, the reviews were devastating.
Proust suffered further hardship in 1914 when his lover, Agostinelli, fled the gloomy, prison-like confines of the Boulevard Haussmann apartment and began training as an airplane pilot. Proust was crushed by Agostinelli's desertion, and begged him to return. But Agostinelli continued his training, and was killed that spring when his plane crashed at sea. Before Proust could recover from his grief, he executed a series of stock maneuvers that ravaged his finances. Later that year the French economy collapsed, and World War I followed.
During the war Proust continued writing Remembrance of Things Past.The second volume, Within a Budding Grove, awaited publication by the Nouvelle Revue Francais, and the third volume, The Guermantes Way, approached completion. These two volumes, more chronological than Swann's Way, depict Marcel's early loves and chart his rise in society. In the final section of Swann's Way, Marcel befriends Charles Swann's daughter, Gilberte, and Within a Budding Grovecontinues with this friendship, noting Marcel's attempts to manipulate her and perpetuate their relationship through lies and various contrivances. This segment of the novel features an obsessive analysis of dying love and is considered one of the finest episodes in all of Remembrance. Two other important characters are introduced in Within a Budding Grove: Robert de Saint-Loup, a military man who provides Marcel with an important introduction into high society, and Baron de Charlus, a flamboyant homosexual--based on Montesquiou--who presumes to serve as Marcel's mentor. The end of the second volume concerns Marcel's budding love for Albertine, one of several girls he meets while vacationing seaside.
In The Guermantes Way, emphasis shifts from romance to high society, and much of this volume consists of dinner parties. Here Marcel begins infiltrating Parisian society and meets acquaintances of the revered Guermantes clan. During a long sequence depicting one such party, the Dreyfus affair is discussed in detail, with Baron de Charlus offering a bizarre, somewhat anti-Semitic defense of the convicted Jewish officer. Among the other guests, banal activities are discussed in merciless detail. Allusions are also made to homosexuality, a dominant theme of subsequent volumes. The Guermantes Way ends with a pair of tragedies. Marcel's grandmother suffers a stroke and is subsequently plagued with temporary blindness and deafness. Her inept physician's cures, including leeches and morphine injections, drive her to suicide, at which she fails. And her eventual death, though expected, exerts a devastating effect on Marcel. The other tragedy involves Charles Swann, who reveals to the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes that he is dying of cancer. This is the famous "Red Shoes" episode, in which the Duke de Guermantes dismisses Swann's revelation and expresses greater concern for the shoes his wife is donning for a party.
Proust was surprisingly active during the war. While struggling with asthma, failing vision, and other ailments, he nonetheless managed to venture from seclusion to maintain social ties and visit more recent acquaintances. He also attended symphonic concerts and even frequented all-male brothels. But when the war ended he faced another trauma. His finances were dwindling, and his other resources were few. Then his apartment house was sold and he had to find another home. In 1919, suffering from asthma and distraught from upheaval, he moved into a furnished apartment on the Rue Laurent-Pichat. This place was so noisy that Proust resorted to drugs to temper his anxieties and sustain him as he worked. He lived here less than one year before moving again, this time to an extremely unsatisfactory apartment--too expensive, too dark, too small--where he continued writing and rewriting the final volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.
In the ensuing volumes of his masterpiece Proust continued charting the narrator's experiences in high society and portraying romantic love as futile and disappointing. Remembrance's fourth volume,
Cities of the Plain, begins with Marcel discovering Baron de Charlus in a homosexual act. The sequence develops into a long, historical/scientific analysis of homosexuality and its implications. The novel also includes episodes devoted to more social gatherings, and portrays two loves: that of the baron for a callous violinist and that of Marcel for his childhood friend Albertine. Baron de Charlus's relationship develops into a pathetic farce; his callous lover manipulates and humiliates him. Marcel's love for Albertine, which provides the key drama in the next two volumes, is similarly hopeless, as Marcel grows increasingly suspicious of Albertine's previous relationships with other women.
Marcel's relentless desire to expose Albertine's lesbianism--behavior that echoes Charles Swann's earlier actions against Odette in Swann's Way--becomes the focal point of The Captive and of the first half of The Sweet Cheat Gone (retitled The Fugitive). In these two volumes Proust exhaustively explores love's more insidious aspects: jealousy and infidelity, manipulation and exploitation. Social intrigue is also represented in the Verdurins' scheme to disrupt Baron de Charlus's relationship with violinist Charles Morel, a member of their circle, and in Marcel's efforts to ingratiate himself with the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes. In The Sweet Cheat Gone Marcel also learns of Albertine's accidental death, whereupon he becomes obsessed with establishing her lesbian past. Other important episodes in this volume include Marcel's visit to Venice, where he meets characters from his past, and his discovery that Robert Saint-Loup, his friend from years earlier, also engages in homosexual practices.
The Past Recaptured, the concluding work in Remembrance of Things Past, unites the characters and themes of preceding volumes. It begins with Marcel visiting his childhood friend Gilberte--daughter of Charles Swann and Odette--and her husband, Robert Saint-Loup. Marcel marvels at the couple's perverted behavior, notably the homosexual husband's flagrant womanizing, which is apparently designed to conceal further his actual preference for men. Marcel also discovers that the Verdurins, once considered vulgar, bourgeois pretenders to high society, are now key social figures. He then withdraws from society and enters a sanatorium to better contend with his tuberculosis. The narrative subsequently turns to Parisian society during World War I and focuses particular attention on Baron de Charlus's experiences at all-male brothels. Following another withdrawal to a sanatorium, Marcel returns to Paris after the war has ended and discovers that the aristocratic Guermantes and the coarse Verdurins have joined through marriage, thus forever compromising French high society. At a costume party, Marcel is stunned to realize the effects of age on the various celebrants, most of whom he can no longer recognize. It is at this party that Marcel's memories are triggered by seemingly insignificant details. Like the tea and madeleine of Swann's Way, these details prompt flooding memories that overwhelm and inspire Marcel. He then reveals his intentions to record his past experiences and sensations in the homage to time that will become, presumably, Remembrance of Things Past.
Summarizing Remembrance of Things Past, as more than one critic has conceded, is impossible. Its riches--vivid characters, astounding insights, and elaborate descriptions that are spread over more than thirty-three hundred pages, indicate that mere plot synopsis must necessarily prove superficial and inadequate to any true appreciation or understanding of the work. Some critics, including biographer George Painter, have even speculated that Proust's masterpiece transcends the novel genre and is more accurately an elaborate memoir. Remembrance of Things Past, according to Painter, was intended by Proust as "the symbolic story of his life" and thus "occupies a place unique among great novels in that it is not, properly speaking, a fiction, but a creative autobiography."
Proust did not live to see his entire work published. He did receive greater acclaim, however, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt for Within a Budding Grove in 1919. But even this honor was not without its attendant controversy, as some critics suggested that Proust, at age forty-nine, was too old for an honor intended for young writers. Other critics rallied to Proust's defense, claiming that Within a Budding Grove, as well as Swann's Way, signified the presence of a great, innovative artist. Even critics objecting to Swann's Way conceded that they had been rash, and affirmed that Within a Budding Grove was in fact a major work. But by 1922, with the final three volumes still to be published, Proust was too weak to take an active interest in his newfound celebrity. Already wracked with numerous complaints, including dizziness, slurred speech, and impaired vision, Proust fell desperately ill after contracting a cold that autumn. A disastrous adrenalin injection only compounded his problems, and by November he was near death. On November 18, 1922, Proust, in delirium, declared that a large, black figure loomed near his bedroom door. A final injection by his brother, a doctor, proved futile, and that evening Proust died.
In the years since Proust's death, Remembrance of Things Past has increased in stature, and it now ranks among the century's greatest works. The English translation, largely rendered by Scott-Moncrieff, is similarly praised as a masterpiece of its kind, and it has exerted considerable influence since its volumes began appearing in the early 1920s. Joseph Conrad, in a letter to Scott-Moncrieff in 1923, concluded that the appeal of Proust's work lies in its "inexplicable character." Conrad wrote: "It appeals to our sense of wonder and gains our homage by its veiled greatness. I don't think there ever has been in the whole of literature such an example of the power of analysis, and I feel pretty safe in saying that there will never be another."
Due in large part to the popularity of Remembrance of Things Past,Proust's other writings have also continued to be reprinted both in French and in new translations. Other works previously unpublished or untranslated have appeared for the first time. These include volumes of the author's voluminous correspondence with the famous (such as André Gide) and not-so-famous, his essays, and aphorisms and maxims drawn from his work. The 1987 volume, On Reading Ruskin, brings together Proust's introductions to John Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. Reviewing the compilation for New Republic, Frederick Brown dwelt on the similarities between the two writers, concluding: "They yearned for an identity that life could not accommodate. Obsessed by death, each--like Romantics before and since--leapt inconsequently from dreams of self-envelopment to dreams of self-immolation, clearing at one bound or the other all that in the social realm argues human finiteness."
The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust, in a new translated by Joachim Neugroschel, appeared in 2001. This volume includes Proust's first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, first translated into English in 1948 as Pleasures and Regrets, along with six previously untranslated early short stories. Together, they comprise all of the fiction Proust wrote other than Remembrance of Things Past and Jean Santeuil. Reviewing the collection for Kirkus Reviews, a critic dismissed the previously untranslated work as "dated ephemera devoid of narrative tension ('The Indifferent Man' being a partial exception)." Likewise, Chris Colin of Short Reviews, while praising Proust's descriptions, found the stories to be "didactic and unmoving, and not particularly funny." Taking a different view of the collection's worth, namely its foreshadowing of Proust's greatness, was James Gardner of National Review. According to Gardner: "Never was the child more father to the man than the author of this book is father to the author of À la recherche du temps perdu. What begins here as a mildly pretentious pose becomes, two decades later, a monumental cultural reality." Noting Proust's "gift for mimicry and . . . sharp eye for social folly," in "Social Ambitions of Bouvard and Pecuchet," and the "lofty scientific dispassion" of "The Melancholy Summer of Madame de Breyves," both qualities that would be more fully realized in later work, Gardner concluded that "this book deserves to be read more for what it portends than for what it achieves."
Further testimony to an abiding interest in Proust are the books that continue to be published both about the author's life and his writing. Three new biographies of Proust appeared in the three-year span from 1999 to 2001. Reviewing Marcel Proust: A Life by Jean Yves-Tadie for the Lambda Book Report, Felice Picano commented: "When I was in college the three established giants of twentieth-century literature were James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust. Since then, the first two have fallen; Joyce deservedly so. . . . while Mann is now underrated. . . . But Proust's reputation has soared. Few of his time, himself included, would have dreamed it." Admitting that "why, exactly, Proust's reputation is so high, is something of a mystery, even to a fan like myself," Picano went on to suggest an answer. Referring to both the daytime soap operas and prime time dramas of television, the reviewer remarked that "we are trained . . . to accept and enjoy long plot arcs, containing sometimes tiny, sometimes sudden, changes. Not since the era of Dickens and Thackeray has the 'serial' held so many people in thrall." According to Picano: "There's no question that Proust fulfills this need." Returning to Remembrance of Things Past "where I had last left it at volume five," Picano declared: "In minutes I was sucked in by the seductive, knowledgeable, unmistakable voice of the author. Within half a hour, places, people, motivations, even actions I'd last thought about half a decade ago . . . were revived. They were like old pals, as close as my own, and as constant."
From: "(Valentin-) (Louis-George-Eugene-)Marcel Proust." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2004.