In Search of Proust

Perhaps Proust got the idea that his one self was actually many selves because of the name his parents gave him: Marcel-Valentin-Louis-Eugene-Georges Proust.  He was born on July 10th, 1871, in Auteuil, France, just outside of Paris and will live all of his life in Paris, with occasional vacations by the sea, until his death in 1922.  His father (Adrien) was a doctor and his mother (Jeanne) was from a wealthy family, so Marcel will grow up knowing he’ll never have to really earn a sou.  A brother, Robert, is born two years after Marcel and will become a doctor like their father, get married, have children and live a “normal” life.

Robert and Marcel Proust

Robert and Marcel Proust

Marcel will never have a paying job, his serious relationships are with men, and he’ll spend most of the early years of his life as a social-climbing, party-going dilettante who occasionally writes fluffy pieces about parties or plays or concerts for local papers.  This worries his parents, particularly his father, who pushes him to get a “real” job (Marcel will get a job, for one year, but it doesn’t actually pay anything which works out well because Marcel, through repeated requests for leave, will never actually work) while at the same time his mother, feeling guilty that it’s her fault that Marcel was such a sickly child, coddles him and encourages his “dream” of becoming a writer.  Marcel will eventually begin to sleep for most of the day and write at night, having had the walls of his bedroom lined with cork to keep out light and noise, as well as dust and pollen and anything else that might aggravate his asthma.

Proust's bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris

Proust’s bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris

His health is also used by Marcel as an excuse when he begins to withdraw from the society life he’d worked so hard to enter.  It is true that his illness did force him to make choices in his life that might seem odd, but it’s hard to say how much his illness really forced these choices, or if he just used the excuse of his ill health to live the way he wanted to live without having people (parents included) be too critical of him.   Illness may be the excuse he used to those who might be critical, but Marcel reveals the truth behind the excuse to his housekeeper, Celeste Albaret.  The reversal of night and day, the soundproofed room, the retreat into seclusion, are, in a way, Marcel’s 19th century version of the 20th century’s sensory deprivation tank, all done in service to the writing of the novel.  Celeste says:  “Now I realize M. Proust’s whole object, his whole great sacrifice for his work, was to set himself outside of time in order to rediscover it.  When there is no more time, there is silence.  He needed that silence in order to hear only the voices he wanted to hear, the voices that are in his books”.


2 comments on “In Search of Proust

  1. steven1111 says:

    It’s always so interesting to me to learn of people’s illnesses and how they have shaped their lives in such dramatic ways. I had an overprotective mom and lots of sickness as a child myself and it really affected my life. I can see how it would have influenced Proust and made him more reclusive to attend to his Art. As the rock band The Who said – “Sickness will surely take the mind where minds can’t usually go”. A great quotation with deep meaning.. 😉

    • marimann says:

      That’s interesting, Steve, the quote from the Who which I’m not familiar with and also your childhood illnesses and over-protective mom…I am not so attuned to illness as a life-shaper and so I appreciate your directing me towards it. I have throughout most of my life been healthy, have never had a stay in a hospital or any surgery, almost never go to a doctor. I have had allergy problems and back pain since I was a young adult, but my intensified yoga practice has pretty much eliminated the back pain- if only it would make my allergies go away! Perhaps I share that with Proust…

      Anyway, Proust- it seems to me that he somehow knew that his time on earth was going to be short and limited and so he worked “while he had light”- one of his famous quotations. When he had finished “In Search of Lost Time”, he told Celeste-“Now I can die”. His illness certainly shaped his life and took his mind where minds usually don’t go- in this case, to producing one of the greatest literary works of all time. He paid with his life but was willing to make that bargain.

      Merci, Steve.

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