Marcel Proust, Bon Anniversaire

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Marcel Proust by Nadar

“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings, when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea…And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in the decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and with the house the town….the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine…the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”  Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

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”.