In search of Proust: 100 years of Swann’s Way

‘In Search of Lost Time’ is ‘the most famous and least read French novel’ – which is a pity, as it still rewards with its deep insights


Marcel Proust was a publisher’s nightmare: the page-long sentences; endless corrections and additions. “I fail to see why a chap needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep,” wrote one of several Paris publishers who rejected Swann’s Way, the first of seven volumes of Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time.

In the spring of 1913, Proust decided to publish Swann’s Way at his own expense. By the time the book came out, 100 years ago this month, Proust had spent the intervening months writing in the margins and on paperoles – strips of paper his housekeeper-secretary Céleste Albaret glued to the pages. The longest paperole measured two metres. Swann had doubled in length, bringing the cost of self-publication to about €10,000 in today’s currency. The entire novel, which Proust completed nine years later, would stretch to 3,000 pages.

In Search of Lost Time is “the most famous and least read” French novel, says Prof Antoine Compagnon, a leading Proust scholar. As Dr Robert Proust, the author’s brother, reflected: “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read it.”

Those who persevere are rewarded, however. “When you really give yourself over to it, you feel like you are reading the book of your own life,” says Barry McCrea, a novelist and professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Notre Dame. “There is something about the insistence with which he narrates his interior life. No matter how different we are from him, how far away in time, place and social class, something about the novel feels like it’s about us.”

Powers of observation
Proust’s observation of human nature still provides lessons for readers, as examined by philosopher Alain de Botton in his 1997 bestseller How Proust Can Change Your Life. Proust noticed, for example, that “when two people part, it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches”. The unfaithful partner is usually the more jealous, he observed. And liars can be detected because they add that one detail too many.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time is often heralded as the first modern novel. “Joyce and Proust are in some way searching for the same thing, which is a modern, encyclopaedic vision of reality – a reality that invokes both the way we are as social beings, and the deep, dark, lonely interior world we inhabit as individuals,” says McCrea. “Passionate love turns to indifference. Memories that seemed unimportant turn out to have been central and foundational. It’s like reading a big soap opera.”

Maternal obsession
Proust’s oeuvre is built upon “the immense edifice of memory”. The narrator, like Proust, adores his mother. Jeanne Weil was from a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family. Proust lived with her until she died, when he was 34. Many of Proust’s friends and fictional characters were of Jewish origin, including Charles Swann, the Paris dandy and art critic who is a friend of the narrator’s parents. Proust’s father, Adrien, was Christian and a prominent physician. In Swann’s Way, Dr Proust’s home town of Illiers, near Chartres, is called Combray. For the young narrator/Marcel, climbing the stairs in the home of Tante Léonie/his grandparents to go to bed before the adults is torture.

Swann’s obsessive, jealous love for Odette de Crécy, a cocotte who was kept by her lovers, illustrates Proust’s belief that everyone is irrevocably alone; that there is no real communication between human beings. The pattern is repeated in the narrator’s love for Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette.

Proust was gay and his affairs were shortlived. He frequented all-male, sado-masochistic bordellos, described in the volume titled Sodom and Gomorrah. Homosexual and bisexual characters abound, including Charlus the man-woman, and Albertine, the woman-man, who was modelled on Proust’s driver, Alfred Agostinelli. Yet Proust managed, through the story of Swann and Odette, to write a flawless portrayal of heterosexual love.

More than 500 named characters inhabit In Search of Lost Time. The writer Bergotte, based on Anatole France; the painter Elstir, who resembles Whistler; and Vinteuil, the composer, similar to César Franck, are among them. The book is a vast fresco of turn-of-the-century French society, ranging from servants to aristocracy. It is also about the writer’s vocation. After frittering away decades at fancy-dress parties, the narrator, like Proust, realises he must write a book.

Proust’s oeuvre “combines an extremely penetrating account of human psychology and behaviour with an equally perceptive account of his times”, says Max McGuinness, a PhD candidate in French literature at Columbia University who is writing his thesis on the influence of journalists on avant-garde writers, including Proust. McGuinness says the late John McGahern was the Irish writer most influenced by Proust. “They share a sense of darkness, an understanding of the perversity and morbidity of human sexuality, an intense focus on time and place.”

Read all about it
Proust was an avid newspaper reader. The novel encompasses the Dreyfus affair, the first World War and technology. “The bicycle, motor car, plane, telephone and telegraph – all these inventions happened as Proust was writing the novel, and they’re all there,” McGuinness says. “One gets a sense of a society in transition, of a society as it decomposes, of the old aristocratic world that is about to be blown away.”

Catherine O’Beirne is writing a book, based on her doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, about the influence of Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle on Proust. “After decades of psychoanalytical and structuralist analysis,” she says, “Proust studies are becoming more democratic. The focus has shifted to ‘genetic criticism’ – an exploration of how Proust worked.” An important part of that “democratisation” is the publication by the Bibliothèque nationale de France of all Proust’s manuscripts on its website, free of charge.

Writing at night, in bed, in a cork-lined room to muffle noise, Proust recreated the world he lived in, wringing details of society soirées from friends. He had suffered from asthma since childhood, and was devoured by his oeuvre. One morning in the spring of 1922, Proust greeted Céleste Albaret with, “Ah, dear Céleste, I have great news to tell you, something enormous. I wrote the word ‘end’. Now I can die.”

He continued reworking, still dictating to Céleste on the eve of his death from pneumonia, on November 18th, 1922, aged 51. But he never added a word beyond that single, emphatic, triumphant “End”.


l In one of the most famous scenes in modern literature, Proust demonstrated the power of “involuntary memory”. The taste of a small cake known as a Madeleine, served with tea, conjures up the village of his childhood holidays. “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”

l The first time Swann kisses his future wife, Odette, she holds a bouquet of Cattleya orchids, and has arranged the same exotic flowers resembling a woman’s sex in her hair and on her bosom. Henceforward, “faire Cattleya” is the couple’s shorthand for love-making. At the last moment, Swan pauses. “He wanted to allow his mind the time to catch up, to recognise the dream it had so long caressed, to watch its realisation, like a parent one summons to participate in the success of a much-loved child.”

l As a child, the narrator encounters Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette, in a country lane surrounded by flowering hedges: “I looked at her, at first with this look that is not only the spokesman of the eyes, but at whose window lean all the senses, anxious and petrified, the look which would like to touch, capture and spirit away, body and soul.”

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