Perhaps best known for his work “In search of Lost Time” ("À la recherche du temps perdu"), this French novelist, essayist and critic was arguably one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century France.
Born in the southern parts of Paris, in an area known as “Auteuil”, he grew up midst the violence of the suppression of the Paris Commune (as the result of the end of the Franco-Prussian war). In fact much of In Search of Lost time touches on these vast changes he experienced at that time, in particular the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of the new French middle class towards the end of the 19th century.
Due to health problems (he had asthma), Proust ended up spending his childhood holidays away from Paris, and instead in the village of Illiers. Combined with his time in Auteuil, Illiers very much inspired the fictional town of Combray, that feature in some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost time.
Even though Proust was considered a sick child, when he nonetheless joined the French army as a young man in 1889. Enlisted, he spent time in Coligny Caserne in Orleans. This place came to inspire events in his novel “The Guermantes’ Way”. While it may seem courageous of a sickly young man to join the army, Proust was in fact best known for being a young social climber – with plenty of desire to be a writer, but with very poor application to actually achieve anything. Instead, he was often referred to as a snob or an amateur. Something that would occasionally get him into trouble when it came to publishing his work – one example of this being the first part of his work “Swann’s Way”, in 1913.
While Proust had a good relationship with his mother, he did have to make certain sacrifices to appease his father. His father always wanted him to have a career and have some kind of professional success. To please his father, Proust obtained a volunteer position at a library in 1896. Still, not long after he took sick leave and never returned. Proust in fact never worked a job, and never left his parents’ apartment until after they had both died.
In terms of relationships outside his family, Proust was one of the first European novelists to treat homosexuality as a very open subject. Himself a homosexual man, he never avoided the subject at any length.
If for most of his life Proust was living in his parents’ apartment, this changed during a few very tumultuous years between 1900-1905. In 1903, Proust’s brother married and moved out and later that same year his father died. But what crushed Proust the most was the death of his mother in 1905, whom he also inherited a large sum of money from. During these years, Proust’s health went from bad to worse.
In the years that followed Proust produced some of his most significant work. In 1910 he started In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). During the last three years of his life, he is said to have remained in his bedroom – sleeping by day, and working by night.
In Search of Lost Time consists of seven volumes:
Swanns Way (Du coté de chez Swann) - also known as The Way by Swann's
Within a Budding Grove (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) - also known as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
The Guermantes Way (Le coté de Guermantes)
Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe) - also known as Sodom and Gomorra
The Captive (La Prisonnière) - also known as The Prisoner
The Fugitive (la Fugitive) - also known as The Sweet Cheat Gone or Albertine Gone
The Past Recaptured (Le Temps Retrouvé) - also known as Time Regained or Finding time Again