Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Marcel Proust

Remembering the French novelist Marcel Proust on the 141st anniversary of his birthday (born today in 1871; died in 1922).

Anyone who has read, or attempted to read, Proust knows it can be a daunting task. Few of us have time to tackle a novel with more than 3,000 pages, a million and a half words. Contemporary living and our culture of immediate gratification mean that Proust's most famous novel, Remembrance of Things Past, also known as In Search of Lost Time, is increasingly read only by professional academics.

I had never tackled his famous novel until about a year ago; I have made it through the first volume. I now hope to gradually work my way through Volumes II and III.

Proust’s profound observations on life, literature and art are brought to life by a rich panoply of characters who are as contemporary now as when they were first created. The book is extremely funny, Proust’s humor veering between the subtle and the outrageously bawdy.

Because of the book's reputation, I bought A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past by Patrick Alexander. It was essential for me to help sort out all the characters and shed light on many of the scenarios that would best be understood if you lived during that time period or were a great student of French and world history.
Proust, kneeling, at front.

From Alexander:
“In Search of Lost Time is a fictional autobiography by a man whose life almost mirrors that of Marcel Proust. The first forty pages of the novel describe the narrator as a young boy in bed awaiting, and as a middle-aged man remembering, his mother’s good-night kiss. Though not obvious to the reader at the time, these first forty pages also establish more of the themes of the next seven volumes and introduce most of the major characters.

The remainder of the novel traces the chronology of Marcel’s life over the next fifty years and the lives of his family, friends and social acquaintances. The novel concludes at a grand party in Paris attended by Marcel and most of the remaining characters.”

The novel was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Much of it concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes that occurred in France during the Third Republic and the turn of the century.

The novel’s theme is about “Time,” the passage of time. Where has it gone? How much is left? What shall we do with it? He focuses on how we live, and communicates a way of "living in time.”

Begun in 1909, his monumental book features more than 2,000 characters. Graham Greene called Proust the "greatest novelist of the 20th century", and W. Somerset Maugham called the novel the "greatest fiction to date". Proust died before he was able to complete his revision of the drafts and proofs of the final volumes, the last three of which were published posthumously and edited by his brother, Robert.

A few quotes from Proust:

Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us."

Credit: Joy of Baking.com

All this talk of Proust has made me want to go have a cup of tea and a madeleine. After all, it was dipping a Madeleine into a cup of tea that spurred Marcel's memory to begin his long journey of 3,000 pages.

What are you reading these days?


  1. I think my brain is too old to do him justice, but when my daughter and I were in France in January, my carry on for the return flight was 90% Proust in the original French for her. She thinks he is very funny.
    Right now I am reading a series that Shelley of Shelley's House, the Oklahoman expat in England suggest - Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher. Most books take about a day to read - it takes longer to figure out which one is the next in the series. Very fun! And of course, Sherlock Holmes, I'm always reading some Sherlock Holmes.

    1. Hmmm. Perhaps tackling Proust at this age is my attempt to keep my brain sharp! Reading him is challenging! Your current reading sounds like fun. I usually have two or three going at once to match my mood on a given day.

  2. His third quote is so very true.I have never read Proust,but your post has piqued my interest so have added it to my book list.

    Am in the middle of reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton,have you read any of her books? Ida

    1. Hello Ida
      I will pro ably take a year to read the next volume. If you decide to start Remembrance let me know and we can discuss as we read.
      I got interested in Edith Wharton this past winter and read A Backward Glance.. Have two more of her books loaded on Kindle. Ill read The Age of Innonence next. I'm interested in that era: turn of the century. WWI.

  3. I haven't read Proust but like his 3 quotes - food for thought. I just finished Almost To Eden written by June Hall McCash. She's a Middle TN State Univ. professor whom I met recently at a book signing. Loved the book; finished it in 2 days; it is centered primarily around Jekyll Island, GA in 1911-12. It's fiction based upon fact.

  4. Hi Areeda
    Ive missed you here! Those books sound interesting. Love Jekyll Island. You should seek out Eugenia Price novels which áre set in this locale as well.

    1. re E. Price, I've read all of them! Discovered her books when I visited St. Augustine years ago and she had written the book about the very first home built in St. Augustine - loved her books! Would have enjoyed meeting her; she died a few years ago.

  5. Years ago I attempted Proust and couldn't stick with it. You have inspired me to think perhaps it is time I gave it another try. I have much more time to read now that I am retired.


    1. Hi Darla,
      If you decide to dive into Proust again, one of the reader's guides will be helpful, at least it was for me! Like you, I'll have more time to read now that I am retired!


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