Valentin-Louis-Georges-Eugène-Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) was a French intellectual, novelist, essayist and critic, best known as the author of In Search of Lost Time (in French À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated previously as Remembrance of Things Past).
Proust was born in Auteuil, then just outside of Paris, in 1871, the son of Achille Adrien Proust , a famous doctor and epidemiologist. His mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil was Jewish; his father a Roman Catholic. But, he was raised within a Catholic culture. Throughout his childhood, Proust spent every summer in the village of Illiers. Elements of both Auteuil and Illiers would later be fictionalised in In Search of Lost Time (also known in English as 'Remembrance of Things Past') as "Combray". The village was renamed Illiers-Combray in his honour on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.
At the age of 9, he 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. He spent most of his life after the death of his mother in 1906 in the bed of his Paris apartment because of asthma and extremely sensitive skin and stomach. Earlier, his curative trips to seaside resorts, most often to Cabourg (Calvados), inspired the fictional town of Balbec in one of Proust’s novels.
His principal work is the lengthy In Search of Lost Time. Proust died before he was able to revise the drafts and proofs of the later books, the last three of which were published posthumously. In "Jean Santeuil", Proust describes his portrait by painter Antonio de La Gandara whom he much admired.
Proust's In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of Western imaginative literature. This cycle of seven novels, spanning some 3,200 pages and teeming with more than 2,000 characters, has stirred Graham Greene to say that Proust was the "greatest novelist of the 20th century" and Somerset Maugham to call it the "greatest fiction to date".
Proust's multifaceted vision is enthralling. He was a satirist and a nanoscopic analyst of introspective consciousness, a chronicler and theorist of Eros, exploring nuances of human sexuality, a wise and ethical writer. He was the creator of more than forty unforgettable characters who continue to resonate in the world's literary consciousness. Above all, Proust's central message is the affirmation of life. Contrary to the opinion voiced by some of his contemporaries and critics, Proust's great work teaches that life's "purpose" is not to be sought in artistic artefacts: life is not fulfilled when a painting or a novel is completed, but when it is transmuted, in the very course of quotidian living, into something "artistic" or spiritually mature and wise.
Proust's work shows a heavy influence from Tolstoy, evidenced in the views he gives on art, some of the ways in which he models psychology and social interaction, and in certain episodes such as the trip to Venice (cf. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina). In turn, Proust is often compared with German writer Thomas Mann. Regarding writing style, Proust loved the works of John Ruskin, and translated them into French; he read Ruskin's autobiography Praeterita so many times that he almost memorised it. He claimed, also, that In Search of Lost Time was his attempt at writing a French incarnation of The Thousand and One Nights.
Homosexuality is a major theme, especially in The Guermantes Way and subsequent books. Proust himself was homosexual, and had a long-running affair with pianist and composer Reynaldo Hahn.
Proust died in 1922 and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Alexander Woollcott said, "Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else's dirty water."
Perhaps the most exciting literary event of the 21st century, for English-language lovers of Proust, is the new translation of In Search of Lost Time, edited by Charles Prendergast and carried out by seven translators. Its six volumes have been published in Britain by Penguin, and the first four in the U.S. by Viking. Alas, current American copyright law adversely affects the final volumes (containing three books of the original seven), which cannot be published in the U.S. until 2018, 95 years after Proust died.
- Portraits de femmes
1896 Les plaisirs et les jours
- 1913-1927 À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time
1913 Du côté de chez Swann
1918 À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur
1920 Le côté de Guermantes
1922 Sodome et Gomorrhe
1923 La prisonnière
1925 Albertine disparue (original title: La fugitive)
1927 Le temps retrouvé
1919 Pastiches et mélanges
1954 Contre Sainte-Beuve
1954 Jean Santeuil (unfinished)