Marcel Proust - his life and his career

Centenary of the Death of Marcel Proust

November 18, 2022

‘Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude’ Marcel Proust.

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust was a French novelist, essayist and critic. November 18, 2022, is the day of the centenary of the death of Marcel Proust. Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu; In search of lost time, a monumental novel based on Proust’s life, published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Critics and writers have considered Proust to be one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. 

Portrait of Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French writer, © Stefano Bianchetti / Bridgeman Images

Marcel Proust’s Early Life 

Marcel Proust was born in the Paris borough of Auteuil on 10 July, 1871. Proust’s birth took place at a time when violence surrounded the suppression of the Paris commune. Much of his childhood corresponded with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Proust’s father Dr. Adrien Proust was a prominent epidemiologist and pathologist of French Catholic descent. His mother, Jeanne nee Weil came from a wealthy Jewish family. Jeanne was well educated and loved Moliere and Racine, the great classic writers of the 17th century. The family would take holidays at Illiers, Auteuil and at the seaside resorts of Normandy. The village of Illiers and Auteuil both became the model for the fictional town of Combray in his novels, where the majority of important scenes In search of the lost time take place. Proust was originally baptized as a Catholic but later went on to become an atheist and was described as something of a mystic. 

‘Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.’ Marcel Proust. 

Image of Robert and Marcel Proust children in 1877, Unknown photographer, (19th century), © Stefano Bianchetti / Bridgeman Images

Proust attended the Lycée Condorcet where he excelled in literature leading him to receive an award in his final year. 

Image of Marcel Proust in 1887 at Lycee Condorcet in Paris (bottom left), Photo © Doppio / Bridgeman Images

‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ Marcel Proust. 

Image of Robert and brother Marcel Proust (r) when child in 1885, © Bridgeman Images

Marcel Proust’s Career 

‘Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.’ Marcel Proust. 

His father encouraged him to pursue a stable career. Proust volunteered at the Bibliotheque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. 

Proust suffered with asthma throughout his lifetime and despite his poor health , in 1889 - 1890, Proust served a year in the French army. The army was stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orleans. This experience provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes Way, part three of his novel.

In 1889 Proust discovered English art historian John Ruskin's art criticism. He was immediately inspired and seeked a new revelation in Gothic architecture and in the beauty of nature. Proust spent several years writing translations and annotating the works of John Ruskin. 

The death of his mother in 1905 and father in 1903 left him grief stricken. He was however financially independent and began writing his novel. 

Proust's novel Swann’s Way was his first large-scale novel to be published in 1913. Proust was known for adding and editing new material to finished volumes throughout many years. 

Image of Marcel Proust French novelist, 1871-1922, © Lebrecht Authors / Bridgeman Images

Proust’s interest in writing from an early age set him a foundation for future success. A collection of early pieces of work was published in Les plaisirs et les jours in 1896. Many of the themes that appear in Proust’s later work In search of lost time appear first in Proust's novel Jean Santeuil. These themes include the necessity of reflection and the enigma of memory. Proust’s style of writing generally consists of long sentences, some almost several pages in length!

‘We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take us or spare us’ Marcel Proust. 

Portrait of Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French writer / Stefano Bianchetti / Bridgeman Images

Proust also produced many works for Symbolist magazines. He moved amongst the  famous social circles of famous Parisian aristocrats. 

‘The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do (with great artists), with artists like these we do really fly from star to star’. Marcel Proust. 

Image of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) french novelist, drawing by Maurice Henry (1907-1984), © Bridgeman Images

Marcel Proust sadly died of Pneumonia on November 18, 1922 at the age of fifty one. Proust’s masterpieces are composed mainly of the themes of time and energy. His works often describe how art is powerful and can withstand the disastrous impact of time. 

Image of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) French novelist on his death-bed in 1922, © Bridgeman Images

‘If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.’ Marcel Proust. 

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