Today is Marcel Proust’s birthday.
Regular readers will remember your humble blogger’s (mild to medium) obsession with the French writer of one of the longest novels ever written (in fact, those who have Shirts and Skins may have notice that I payed homage to Proust (specifically the narrator meeting Robert de Saint-Loup in the barracks at Doncières in Guermantes Way) in my own novel. However such an obsession makes complete sense to me.
Proust changed my life.
That’s not hyperbole. In my senior year of undergrad at the University of Toronto, I majored in Literary Studies (this was in addition to my specialist in English and my minor in Political Science). And my fourth year seminar class in Literary Studies was a full-year class where we read all seven volumes of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
À la recherche du temps perdu is a cathedral. In his great novel Proust raises the dead. For Proust, the act of writing becomes a memorial that redeems losses and makes them bearable.
Begun in 1909, À la recherche du temps perdu consists of seven volumes totaling around 3,200 pages (about 4,300 in The Modern Library’s translation) and featuring more than 2,000 characters. Author, Graham Greene called Proust the “greatest novelist of the 20th century”, and W. Somerset Maugham described the novel as the “greatest fiction to date”.
Quite an accomplishment considering that it had been turned down by numerous publishers in Paris resulting in Proust having to pay to have the first volume published himself!
(Actually, I should mention that my experience of Proust is limited to the translation (the Modern Library) I used, though I have read portions of the novel in the original French).
Who was Proust?
Proust was born July 10, 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war during the violence of the Paris Commune. His father was a doctor searching for the causes of cholera and his mother was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family. Often you will hear people refer to Proust as “half-Jewish” – I’ve always thought this was a stupid thing to say – since there is no such thing as being “half-Jewish”.
And like me, Proust was asthmatic (air and breathing being one of the motifs in the novel).
Also like me, Proust was gay (or an ‘invert’ as he called it). He was one of the first European novelists to mention homosexuality openly and at length in the parts of À la recherche du temps perdu (most explicitly – and wonderfully – in volume four, Sodome et Gomorrhe, which deal with (one of the most interesting characters in all literature) the Baron de Charlus.
Since university, I’ve taken a number of trips to Paris. And each time I’ve made the pilgrimage to a number of Proust Places in Paris.
Of course I drag the husband to all these places as well.
One place I always head to is Proust’s home 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Proust lived here from 1907-1919 and wrote most of À la recherche du temps perdu here. No trip to Paris would be complete without a trip to Haussmann.
Proust wrote in bed and, to minimize outside noise, he had the bedroom walls covered in cork. The bedroom where he worked from 1906 to 1919 at 102 Blvd Haussmann is now on view at the Musée Carnavalet. The furnishings are all Proust’s.
And they don’t like it when you touch stuff.
I made the walk to Musée d’Orsay to see Jacques-Emile Blanche’s famous portrait of Marcel Proust. Though it’s never a hardship to go to the Musée d’Orsay.
And since all the American’s are gathered around Whistler’s Mama (ugh!) , I can spend a little time alone with Marcel.
It was at 44, rue de l’Amiral Hamelin where Marcel Proust actually died of pneumonia in 1922. Today the building is the Hotel Elysee Union.
A plaque over the door commemorates the site.
Finally I went to see Marcel Proust’s grave in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery is Paris. I took some violets with me (read the book) and left them on Proust’s grave.
It was very moving for me.
The next time I go to Paris I will make the trip to Illiers-Combray (the town based on Proust’s childhood home, Combray in the novel) to sample the petite madeleines and tea. Of course I’ll drag the husband there as well.
Happy birthday, Marcel!
Jeffrey, The Gay Groom