France’s Marcel Proust, who died 100 years ago this week, is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time. To mark the anniversary, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is hosting a major exhibition in Paris, where some of the secrets of Proust’s 2,400-page novel “In Search of Lost Time” are revealed.
In 1907 Marcel Proust, then 36 years old, embarked on what would become his masterpiece, a novel about memory and the essence of art. The project grew from one book to a second in 1912 and a third the following year.
“In Search of Lost Time” eventually grew to seven volumes – four published in Proust’s lifetime and three after his death at the age of 51 in 1922.
“For a long time, I went to bed early…”, is how “In Search of Lost Time” begins, and it’s also how the story ends for many readers, who may find Proust’s prose to have soporific qualities.
Poetic and dreamy, sprinkled with dashes and parentheses, his sentences are exceptionally long – on average 30 words, twice that of most novelists.
After receiving three rejections for the first volume, “Swann’s Way”, Proust decided to self-publish.
Nobel-winning novelist André Gide, who was an editor at the time at NRF publishing house (which later became Gallimard), was among those who decided against Proust’s dense prose.
“The rejection of this book will remain the NRF’s greatest mistake,” Gide later wrote to Proust, calling it “one of the most bitter regrets of my life”.
Gallimard managed to lure Proust back for his second novel in 1916, “The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, which won the Goncourt Prize, France’s top literary award.
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) in Paris is devoting a major new exhibition to Proust, which reveals the secrets of the writing of “In Search of Lost Time”.
“What will strike the visitor is the extent to which Proust works, corrects, writes in the margins, in the spaces between lines. He sticks papers in when he doesn’t have enough space. These are the famous ‘paperolles’, large strips of paper,” Nathalie Mauriac Dyer, Director of the Institute of Modern Manuscripts at CNRS, told RFI.
In “In Search of Lost Time”, we also find Proust’s famous madeleine – which started life as a humble piece of toast, as early drafts of the scene discovered in Proust’s notebooks reveal.
The mini sponge cake that has become the most famous detail in all seven volumes makes its appearance early in the first book.
For the protagonist, Marcel, “the taste of the madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me” releases a flurry of vivid memories, giving him access to the “lost time” he is searching for.
“This is the Proustian theory of involuntary memory caused by a sensation that recalls events that may have taken place years before. It brings back or recovers lost time,” explains Guillaume Fau, head of the manuscript department at the BnF.
Proust suffered most of his life with severe asthma, and although he liked to socialise – he had some torturous secret homosexual love affairs – he also spent long stretches in bed, writing with a tray on his knees.
“He was a very sick man. He often had asthma attacks that were not treated at the time. But when he worked, he worked in a Herculean, heroic, relentless way,” says Nathalie Mauriac Dyer.
His neurologist father urged his sickly son to get out in the fresh air and play sport, noting that asthma was not contagious.
But Proust’s mother was prone to mollycoddling, and from 1906 he followed her counsel, staying cloistered inside with a steady supply of caffeine and aspirin.
His respiratory problems would finally get the better of him. He died on 18 November 1922.