Marcel Proust is regarded as the greatest writer of the twentieth century, particularly for his seven-volume book, ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Proust often used long phrases to express a chain of successive associations, much like in unmonitored thought. A memory of being sent to bed without a kiss is an example of a stream-of-consciousness association that can last for 20 pages or longer. Or with the famous madeleine biscuit dipped in tea, Proust uses simple and pedestrian occurrences and memories to unfurl deep philosophical concepts.
On Happiness and Loneliness
Furthermore my frivolity, the moment I was not alone, made me eager to please, more eager to amuse by chattering than to acquire knowledge by listening unless it happened that I had gone out into society in search of information about some particular artistic question or some jealous suspicion which my mind had previously been revolving. Always I was incapable of seeing anything for which a desire had not already been roused in me by something I had read, anything of which I had not myself traced in advance a sketch which I wanted now to confront with reality.
Culled from ‘Time Regained’, the final volume of ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Marcel, the narrator, wants to fit in, so he becomes a snobby comic among those pompous comedians because the glitter of high society is alluring. But rather than feeling happy, he continues sensing a pitiable emptiness all around him.
In love, happiness is an abnormal state, capable of instantly conferring on the pettiest-seeming incident, which can occur at any moment, a degree of gravity which in other circumstances it would never have. What makes one so happy is the presence of something unstable in the heart, something one contrives constantly to keep in a state of stability, and which one is hardly even aware of as long as it remains like that. In fact, though, love secretes a permanent pain, which joy neutralizes in us, makes virtual and holds in abeyance; but at any moment, it can turn into torture, which is what would have happened long since, if one had not obtained what one desired.
From ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.’ As time passes, Marcel becomes more neurotic and hypochondriac. He experiences a love affair, but it is not reciprocated, leaving his heart crushed. He seeks sanctuary by the water and passes his time daydreaming and fantasizing about love. The sorrow of the lonely in love.
On the Passage of Time and Memory
But it is sometimes just at the moment when we think that everything is lost that the intimation arrives which may save us; one has knocked at all the doors which lead nowhere, and then one stumbles without knowing it on the only door through which one can enter – which one might have sought in vain for a hundred years – and it opens of its own accord
From ‘Time Regained.’ In this passage, Marcel surprisingly discovers himself in the rubble of the old world and his previous convictions after the war, and his protracted illness. He begins remembering and writing about the past as a result, which allows him to make up for lost time, hence the title, ‘Time Regained.’
For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them), and that fame is transitory, the manner in which—by means of a sort of snapshot—we take cognisance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilising it.
Time was a very fundamental concept to Marcel Proust. The ability to take a snapshot of the moment in time and experience its sensations in all of its glory and entirety represented the summit of Proust’s ideal.
And like an aviator who rolls painfully along the ground until, abruptly, he breaks away from it, I felt myself being slowly lifted towards the silent peaks of memory.
When Marcel dips his madeleine biscuit in tea, he is immediately transported to a moment in time. This memory — the past — represents, to Marcel, a sort of portal to the past, wherein everything pauses and one can relive one’s greatest moments afresh.
For a long time I used to go to bed early
Culled from ‘Swann’s Way’ — the first installment of ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Marcel, the narrator, recalls how challenging it was for him as a little boy to go to sleep. The narrator then appears to fall asleep while pretending to be the book’s subject. After opening his eyes, he realizes that he actually had fallen asleep and had only just woken up into the darkness. In contrast to his fear of the dark, Marcel fears losing his sense of time. He is fascinated by how sleep can strip people of their uniqueness, leaving them to reconstruct their lives after waking up and having forgotten who they are. He is fascinated by how sleep can strip people of their uniqueness, leaving them to reconstruct their lives after waking up and forgetting who they are. Despite these “confused gusts of recollection,” Marcel can adapt to the dark environment and remember exactly where he fell asleep because this uncertainty is returning.
On Multi-Perspectivism and Subjectivity
The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes
This is culled from ‘The Prisoner’ from ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Here, Marcel explores the concept of perspectivism and how viewing the same things from multiple angles can lead one to multiple interpretations. This multi-perspectivism is the hallmark of the avant-garde modernist style of the early twentieth century. Things don’t necessarily change, but our interpretation of them does.
We remember the truth because it has a name, is rooted in the past, but a makeshift lie is quickly forgotten
This quote is from ‘The Captive,’ in ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Proust asserts the immutability of the truth, its unrelenting nature, and its ability to persist in the presence of falsehoods. Charles Swann from ‘Swann’s Way’ is blinded by the “makeshift lie” of his feelings for the harlot, Odette, and the truth of his feelings inevitably gets exposed. The lie will inevitably fall to the unflinching truth at some point.
People who note some striking detail in someone else’s life often draw conclusions from it which are entirely incorrect, and see in the fact they have just discovered explanations of things which have absolutely nothing to do with him
From ‘The Prisoner’ in ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Proust harps on the multi-perspectivism of nature. The ability to see things as we want to see them, whether they are true or false.
Thus it can be only after one has recognised, not without having had to feel one’s way, the optical illusions of one’s first impression that one can arrive at an exact knowledge of another person, supposing such knowledge to be ever possible. But it is not; for while our original impression of him undergoes correction, the person himself, not being an inanimate object, changes in himself, we think that we have caught him, he moves, and, when we imagine that at last, we are seeing him clearly, it is only the old impressions which we had already formed of him that we have succeeded in making clearer, when they no longer represent him.
One of Proust’s core beliefs is addressed early in ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,’ and it is a theme that will recur throughout his story: what we understand someone to be, how we perceive and describe them, and what we expect them to be, are simply efforts on our part to shape all of the traits we have been shown and seen through our perception into a sculpture we believe to be a fully functional person.
If we are to make reality endurable, we must all nourish a fantasy or two.
Part of the appeal of the modernist literary style is to question reality and the status quo by suggesting alternative realities and subjectivity. This alternative reality — whether fiction or not — serves to make, as Proust implies, reality more tolerable. Gabriel García Márquez did this with his magical realism style as he was influenced by Proust.
What makes Marcel Proust so great as a writer?
His sociological observations and commentaries on art, writing, and music had all the depth of any scholar in those fields. Psychologists have claimed Proust as one of their own because he nailed the dynamics of human behavior across class lines, as well as showing how early childhood experience affects adult life (he makes the point that losing the Oedipal struggle kept him from ever breaking from his mother without saying so). He was able to make connections between the sciences, the arts, psychology, or other fields in a single sentence that all led to a certain point.
Who influenced Marcel Proust as a writer?
Proust was influenced by the writings of an English art critic named John Ruskin. Ruskin was himself a professor at Oxford. His most famous student at Oxford was Oscar Wilde, and the two became good friends.
What made Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ a literary masterpiece?
The most famous remembrance is a single memory triggered by the smell of a little biscuit – a Madeleine – after being dunked in coffee. But what a trip down memory lane this is – it goes on for seven large volumes and over one and a quarter million words. ‘Swann’s Way’ spawned that incredible psychological treatise that took the Western literary world by storm. Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ was laced with intertextuality and expression of complex ideas and emotions, taken to its extremes. It became the torchbearer of the modernism genre of the twentieth century.