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Marcel Proust

Proust, Marcel (märsĕlˈ prōst) [key], 1871–1922, French novelist, b. Paris. He is one of the great literary figures of the modern age. Born to wealthy bourgeois parents, he suffered delicate health as a child and was carefully ministered to by his mother. As a young man he ambitiously mingled in high Parisian society and wrote his rather unpromising first work, Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896; tr. Pleasures and Regrets, 1948; new tr. Pleasures and Days, 1957). Troubled by asthma and neuroses, as well as by the deaths of his parents, he increasingly withdrew from external life and after 1907 lived mainly in a cork-lined room, working at night on his monumental cyclic novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (16 vol., 1913–27; tr. Remembrance of Things Past, 1922–32, rev. tr. In Search of Lost Time, 1992; new tr. 2002).

The first of the novel cycle, Du côté de chez Swann (1913, tr. Swann's Way, 1928) went unnoticed, but the second, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919, tr. Within a Budding Grove, 1919), was awarded the Goncourt Prize. Proust's semiautobiographical novel cycle is superficially concerned with its hero's development through childhood and through youthful love affairs to the point of commitment to literary endeavor. It is less a story than an interior monologue. Discursive, but alive with brilliant metaphor and sense imagery, the work is rich in psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding. A vital theme is the link between external and internal reality found in time and memory, to which Proust sees humanity's strivings subjugated—time mocks the individual's intelligence and endeavors; memory synthesizes yet distorts past experience. Most experience causes inner pain, and the objects of human desires are the chief causes of their suffering.

In Proust's scheme the individual is isolated, society is false and ruled by snobbery, and artistic endeavor is raised to a religion and is superior to nature. Only through the vision gained in works of art can the individual see beyond his or her subjective experience. Proust's ability to interpret innermost experience in terms of such eternal forces as time and death created a profound and protean world view and his work has influenced generations of novelists and thinkers. His vision and technique have come to be seen as vital to the development of modernism. Most of his correspondence has been published (21 vol., P. Kolb, ed., 1970–93), as has his draft of an early novel, Jean Santeuil (1952, tr. 1955), and Contre Sainte-Beuve (1954, tr. On Art and Literature, 1896–1919, 1958).

See biographies by A. Maurois (1950, repr. 1984), R. H. Barker (1958), G. D. Painter (2 vol., 1959–65), L. Bersani (1965), G. Brée (1966), R. Hayman (1990), J.-Y. Tadié (1996, tr. 2000), E. White (1998), and W. C. Carter (2000); studies by W. S. Bell (1962), P. Quennell (1971), S. L. Wolitz (1971), G. Deleuze (1972), J. M. Cocking (1982), B. J. Bucknall, ed. (1987), A. Compagnon (1992), J. Kristeva (1996), R. Shattuck (2000), and A. Muhlstein (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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