In one respect Marcel Proust is like Richard Wagner: each created one world-famous work of such scope and depth that people hesitate to explore them. Complexity should never be a barrier to intellectual curiosity, especially when the pleasure and enlightenment to be obtained are of the magnitude both these artists offer.
Wagner's Ring cycle, around 16 hours of drama and music in four separate operas, is one of the greatest achievements in music and also one of the most rewarding. Likewise, the sequence of seven novels that make up Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu is to my mind the finest work of fiction ever written in any language. It leaves the reader with an altered understanding of the nature of reality, human relationships and perceptions.
Proust wrote the novels between 1909 and his death in 1922 at the age of 51. One wonders what he might have accomplished had he lived a normal span. In one sense he was a late casualty of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71: he was born not long after the lifting of the Siege of Paris to a mother whose considerable wealth had not helped her, in those circumstances, find sufficient food to sustain her during her pregnancy. Her baby was a weakling and it was feared he would not live. Throughout his life Proust was subject to ill health, its effect made worse by his resolute hypochondria.
In his biography of Proust, written more than half a century ago, George Painter includes an anecdote about the wedding, in 1905, of Proust's brother Robert. Robert had decided to get married in winter, which Proust saw as potentially making him prey to every disease in Paris. To ensure he did not catch cold he had his tailor make him several overcoats, which he wore one on top of the other, like a Russian doll, leaving him so large that he could not fit down the side-aisle in the church. Paradoxically, it is this type of absurd sensitivity that makes him so great a novelist.
The novels portray the world in which Proust grew up. His father was one of the most successful doctors in France, honoured for his work. He invented the cordon sanitaire - the quarantined ring around an infected area - that helped prevent the spread of cholera, a curse in all European cities in the late 19th century. The upper-middle class Prousts socialised with the aristocracy and the artistic elite of Paris, and when Marcel started to publish his novels just before the Great War, those in his circle sought to identify themselves among the characters. Some were offended by their portrayals, others were wounded that they were not portrayed.
The novels were hugely influential on writers all over the world, in that they introduced the idea of writing about "streams of consciousness". Through Proust's ubiquitous narrator, they relay in great detail not just what is perceived, but also what is remembered, and the repeated and constant links between perception and memory. Even those who have not read the novels are aware of the journey of memory on which the narrator goes when he tastes a madeleine dipped in tea; it has become "the Proustian moment".
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