Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past and more recently, as In Search of Lost Time.) It is 3,000 pages long and it is Proust’s own life story, written in a stream of consciousness style and told as an allegorical search for truth.
Proust was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponds with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of Remembrance of Things Past concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic.
Proust had a serious asthma attack when he was nine and from then on he was considered a sickly child, so he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with aspects of the time he spent at his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of Remembrance of Things Past take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.)
Despite his poor health, Proust served for a year as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Caserne in Orléans, an experience that provided the basis for a lengthy episode in The Guermantes Way, volume three of his novel.
As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a successful social climber, whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of application to work. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an aesthete, contributed to his later troubles with getting his book published.
Towards the end of the 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed.
Proust started writing Remembrance of Things Past in 1905, but he put it aside after a while. He realised that he needed to think about his book a little more and to clarify what it’s philosophy would be. He did other writing in the mean time…plays, parodies and essays. He had an epiphany in January 1909, and he went back to his novel the following June.
He produced the first volume, Swann’s Way, in 1913, publishing it at his own expense after several publishers rejected it. He spent the next decade working on the rest of his book which has a total of eight volumes, the last three of which Proust was proofreading and editing on his deathbed in 1922.
Proust is widely recognised today as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu is considered one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times.