Marcel Proust is the author of the oft-cited, little-read six-volume novel In Search of Lost Time. The original manuscript was written in French, and was continually altered by Proust until his death (even when he was physically unable to write any longer, he enlisted one of his nurses to carry out the necessary changes for him).

Proust is (in)famous mostly for his ceaslessly detailed descriptions of even the most mundane things or events (honestly, you can't have read this book and look at a madeline or a cup of tea in the same way as before).

Proust was quite the controversial figure of his time with his scathing description of the banalities of French artistocratic society and his clearly Pro-Dreyfus stance (the Dreyfus affair was a court case which ignited the issue of anti-semitism in Europe at the time, my knowledge of which is admittedly limited). Also, in the fourth volume, Sodom and Gommorah, Proust vividly and reverently describes a clandestine homosexual encounter between two French nobles. Proust, himself a homosexual, was ahead of his time not only in depicting homosexual acts, but in depicting them in a beautiful and frankly sensual manner.

The book also goes into GREAT depth about disappointment, lost love, the nature of friendship, and the clash between idealization and reality. It's a fabulous piece of work and I couldn't begin to do it justice in such a brief summary, but if you have enough free time to read a 4800-page novel, you won't regret it.

It is fantastically easy to imitate Proust's distinctive writing style, the way he wrote, his words arranged together, like soldiers standing in a line, a line such as that which divides the present from the past like a glass barrier, a barrier through which we may perceive that foreign land, but no more alter it than a moth might alter the moon, the dispassionate moon, sailing through the sky, casting its gaze on all of creation, observing, distant, casting a cold light on the face of the sleeping world, a world oblivious to the interloper wandering about it, wandering through the night sky like a moth, a moth perceiving the past through a glass barrier, a barrier of glass, square, maybe five feet across, dimpled, with wires running in criss-cross patterns through its milky depths like fish through a sea of confusion, and so forth.

The closest modern equivalent to Proust is probably Peter Greenaway, whose films are lengthy, hyper-detailed, and often tinged with surrealism. Or Nicholson Baker, who writes chapter-long footnotes. And with his critiques of the banalities of the ruling elite Brett Easton Ellis has undoubtedly drawn inblood from Proust's pen.

Not to be confused with the other famous Marcel, Marcel Marceau.

"In my days of greatest desperation I have never conceived of anything worse than (working in) a lawyer's office." (From one of Proust's letters to his father)

Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871, in Anteuil, France, soon after the end of the Franco-Prussian war. His parents, Dr Adrien Proust, a Catholic doctor, and Jeanne Weill, an upper class Jewish woman, doted on him throughout his childhood. Marcel was sick a lot as a child, and suffered from severe asthma attacks from a young age. As a result he missed large amounts of formal schooling and was often taught by his mother at home; when he attended school he won several awards for writing. Although Marcel had a burning desire to be a writer he completed degrees in philosophy and law for the express purpose of staying out of the job market and to please his parents. Throughout his life Marcel wasn't once formally employed, preferring to write freelance articles and stories for magazines and newspapers. He was once offered a casual job but applied for leave before he started; the leave was continually renewed for four years until Proust's employers-to-be gave up on him.

"His hatred of snobs was a derivative of his snobbishness, but made the simpletons (in other words, everyone) believe that he was immune from snobbishness." (Marcel Proust)

Marcel was quite popular through high school and college. He was a quick study and entertained those around him with his impersonations of other students and teachers. Marcel hung out with the upper class people his father introduced him to, spending a lot of time in salons around Paris, where he was legendary for his wit and beauty. Marcel was a night owl: he would often sleep until late afternoon, when he would rise and dress. By the time he then arrived at a social gathering most of the other guests would have already departed due to the late hour.

"Let us leave pretty women to men without imagination." (Marcel Proust)

After a stint in the army at 18 Marcel returned to his writing and socialising. He was an outrageous flirt with both men and women, and was a friend of Oscar Wilde after the author's exile from England. Marcel had close relationships with several men but fought a duel when accused of having a homosexual affair with one.

Marcel spent his writing time in his bedroom, a large room with cork-lined walls. According to The Mammoth Book of Oddballs and Eccentrics, he had a sexual obsession with meat and young butchers. He apparently questioned a young male butcher during sexual activity, asking "How do you kill a calf?" and "How much does it bleed?" at the height of his passion. He also had strange habits when visiting male brothels, showing the young men photos of his mother and asking questions such as "What do you think of this tart?", encouraging the men to put his mother and other relatives down. He also reportedly bled rats to death after poking them repeatedly with hat pins.

Towards the end of his life, as his health deteriorated, Marcel cancelled more and more social engagements. After the deaths of his father and mother, in 1903 and 1905 respectively, Marcel stayed in bed all day writing, rising only to visit cafes at night after being visited by his friends in bed. He then almost stopped leaving the house altogether, preferring to write letters to his friends and relatives. On the rare occasion Marcel left the house he would interrogate his dinner-party companions on their day-to-day routines to help him write more realistic works.

"Happiness is beneficial for the body but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind."(Marcel Proust)

In the last 9 years of his life Marcel would not see doctors, preferring the company and advice of his driver's wife, Celeste Albaret. Celeste pasted his works together, brought him the coffee he regularly demanded, dealt with visitors and spoke to him throughout the nights while he worked. Marcel's last words, on November 18 1922, were a request for a cold beer; by the time the ale was brought to him he was dead.

Marcel's most popular work is Remembrance, a huge tome with an autobiographical bent. Other works included Les Plaisirs et les jours (his first completed book, written in his 20s, which is a collection of stories on the idle rich), Jean Santeuil, (his first novel), a translation of The Bible of Amiens and many articles based on his life experiences. Marcel continually had tremendous difficulty getting his work published during his life. His first published book, Les Plaisirs et les jours , was so lavishly painted and decorated by his socialite friend Madeleine Lemaire that it was very expensive and sold very few copies.


Information from www.proust.com, gateway.library.uiuc.edu/kolbp/Proust.htm and The Mammoth Book of Oddballs and Eccentrics.

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