Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

Born on July 10, 1871 (as Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust), Marcel Proust grew up during the relatively peaceful period of French history known as la belle époque (the beautiful era). After a humiliating defeat to Prussia in 1871, France attempted to reassert its national pride and honor during the next thirty years. It quickly repaid its debt to Prussia (which had been incorporated into the German Empire) and sought to reestablish the reputation of its army (Proust refers to the common practice of dueling as a national movement to assert French masculinity). The stabilization of the political situation, in addition to Baron Haussman's modernization of Paris in the 1850s, helped usher in the culture-rich era of la belle époque.

The new, French-dominated artistic school of Impressionism rose to international prominence, and masters such as Van Gogh and Monet left an indelible mark on the world of art; the Eiffel Tower, erected in 1889, dominated the Parisian skyline as a triumph of architectural engineering; and the Lumière Brothers revolutionized entertainment by inventing modern day cinema. It was also a time of great scientific achievement, as Louis Pasteur and Pierre and Marie Curie helped France lead the world in the study of disease and radiology.

Proust's literary talent began to flourish in this rich cultural and intellectual atmosphere. He was an expert socialite who became a favorite among the Parisian elite, as his extraordinary intelligence and charm gained him access to the most sought-after salons in Paris. (One must note that the attitudes of the Parisian elite had an influence on Proust. His works contain a certain snobbery and condescension toward the bourgeoisie and working classes, though they also foreshadow the eventual demise of the aristocracy.)

At a particular salon he met the author Anatole France, who helped him publish his first work, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, in 1896. This collection of short stories, essays, and poems, however, did not fare well, and he ended up abandoning work on a novel in 1899. The death of his beloved mother in 1905 put Proust's literary aspirations on hold. Yet his writings over the next few years hinted at the themes of guilt and memory that would mark his masterpiece, the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

Proust began to work in earnest in the years leading up to World War I—as la belle époque was gradually ebbing away—publishing the first volume, Swann's Way, in 1913. He continued his work as the war dragged on, and he could not help but look back on the bygone era with nostalgia and regret. The war delayed the publication of the second volume until 1919, and in the last three years of his life, Proust was consumed with finishing his ambitious novel, publishing three more volumes. He died in 1922, having finished writing, but not revising, the final volumes of his seven-volume novel.

Background on Swann’s Way 

One of the major philosophical currents in Proust's day was the study of the nature of time. Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity inspired scientists and artists alike to reassess the meaning of time and the inherent subjectivity of existing interpretations of time. One of the most famous philosophers at the turn of the century was Henri Bergson, who believed in a more "natural" form of time called "duration," which "flowed" like music. Unlike the "homogenous" time measured by a clock, Bergson's duration had no pauses, but was instead an interconnected "interpenetration" of moments that were indistinguishable from each other.

Proust adapted Bergson's idea to explain his theories about time and memory. He wrote that "we labor in vain" to try to recapture the past by means of the intellect; only the workings of chance will draw a person back in time to the moment he seeks. Proust compares his own theories about time and memory to the Celtic belief that the souls of deceased loved ones are held captive in objects; these lost loved ones are reincarnated only when a person brushes against or passes by these objects and recognizes the voices of these loved ones.

Proust also found inspiration for his work in the contemporary aesthetic philosophies of the visual arts. Despite the immense popularity of photography in his day, Proust considered painting a more "natural" expression of emotions. In addition to celebrating in Swann's Way the classical beauty of works by such Renaissance artists as Botticelli and Caravaggio, he attempted to capture the stylistic influences of one of the most revolutionary artistic achievements of la belle époque: Impressionism. He was fascinated by the works of Claude Monet and sought to emulate his form and subject matter; as a result, Swann's Way became a hallmark of French expression.