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Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922) was a French novelist, who is perhaps best known for his seven volume novel entitled In Search of Lost Time, with Swann’s Way (1913) being the best known amongst the seven volumes.  

Born in Auteuil, France in 1871, Proust was born to a pathologist father and a well-read mother. As a child, he was fraught with ailments, such as chronic asthma attacks, which prevented him from regularly attending school. He published his first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, which translates to The Pleasures and The Days,  in 1896. Les Plaisirs et les Jours was comprised of a series of poems, essays , and prose. Following the publishing of his first book and having scrapped the second, he devoted the rest of his life to In Search of Lost Time from 1909 onwards.

In Search of Lost Time, which was published between 1913 and 1927, is considered to be one of the longest novels in the world, as it has accumulated 1,267,069 words.  It is known for its remarkable level of descriptions of people and places, whilst exploring the purpose of life. The central theme of this seven volume novel is to essentially to remind people not to take anything for granted and learn to truly experience life. It is called In Search of Lost Time because the main character’s goal is to learn how to stop wasting his time and start appreciating his existence. Proust’s father, Adrien, was a renowned physician, who helped eradicate cholera in his time, which prompted young Proust to write this particular novel, with the intention to help his readers, who stated “if only I could do humanity as much good with my books, as my father did with his work.”

In Search of Lost Time followed the exploration of three plausible means to a fulfilled life; social success, love, and art.  

The first being social success, in which Proust as a teenager thought that the meaning of life lay in joining high society which included dukes, duchesses, and other titled characters.  The narrator spends years working his way up the proverbial ladder, and this proves successful when he befriends the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes.  A realization soon dawned on him that these people were not as extraordinary or as great as he had envisioned.  Seeing as the Duke was boring and rather crass, and the Duchess was cruel and vain, he realized they led unfulfilled and unaccomplished lives. There were not perfect people, he discovered, and certainly no perfect lives.

The second way in which Proust believe one could discover the purpose of life was through love. Proust believed this because it meant that we can stop being alone and possibly fuse our life with another person, who will know and understand every aspect about us. This can be seen in the second part of the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, which is titled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919) when Proust accompanies his grandmother to the seaside and becomes infatuated with a girl named Albertine. The ending takes a rather dark turn. Proust, at the end, comes to the conclusion that nobody can fully understand another person. On the other hand, Proust discovers how intellect blinds or prevents us from fully knowing the extent of our emotions or feelings, namely the “wisdom of the heart.” This can be seen in the following passage from In Search of Lost Time: “I had believed that I was leaving nothing out of account, like a rigorous analyst; I had believed that I knew the state of my own heart. But our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.”

The third and only successful means to discovering the purpose of life, as seen in the seven volumes, is art. Proust believes that artists show us the world in a new and much more appreciative light. Proust calls the opposite of art “habit.” Habit states that much of our life is ruined by way of having routines or by way of familiarity in which we forget how to live as we get older. We become stingier or less carefree in our actions. Habit, in Proust’s words, dulls our senses and blocks our ability to appreciate. In some cases, as we grow older, we don’t appreciate the simple things like watching a sunset. Children do not suffer from habit, as they experience that joy from simply jumping in a puddle or on a bed and see the world as it is in its rawest or simplest yet most divine state. Proust stated that the only way in which the meaning of life can be revealed to one is if they strip themselves of habit; if they allow themselves to revel in the small things that may not seem like they’re significant, but are, such as watching a sunset or allowing a change to occur in their routines more often. From this means of discovering the purpose of life comes the term “Proustian Moment” in which a sudden and intense stream of memories comes flooding in as a result of having been triggered by touch, smell, taste, etc.

Proust’s central purpose behind In Search of Lost is to emphasize upon how we have forgotten how to look at life the right way. Proust realizes that it’s not necessarily the life of an individual that has been mediocre, but rather the idea of life or the voluntary memories that are linked to life rather than the occasional Proustian moments, which include involuntary memories. This can be seen in the following quote by Proust, “The reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, not on the evidence of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life and therefore, we judge it disparagingly.”

Marcel Proust died of pneumonia in 1922. At the time of his death, only four out of seven of the volumes had been published. His brother, Robert, took it upon himself to publish the remaining three volumes posthumously, though they hadn’t been fully revised.

Why do I believe more people should read the works of Marcel Proust? In most, if not all, of my literary articles thus far, I have featured writers who belonged to the time period of Modernism or Modern Literature in which the central theme throughout most works was that of exploring emotion. It was a philosophically- and psychologically-inspired time period. As such, each writer had a unique way in which to explore certain themes within and Proust chose to focus on the purpose of life and what the main factor of maintaining a fulfilled life is. Proust’s writing style is not an easy read, I will admit, but it’s definitely worth reading. Proust is not an easy read to some for the simple fact that his works don’t necessarily emphasize or focus on the plot as much as they do on the underlying matter. Nevertheless, Proust is worthy of being read for his ability to rediscover the meaning of life. His aim in writing this long novel was to do humanity as much good as his father did for the sick and to waste such a profound goal is to undermine and to be taking small things like this – a grand gesture, if you will – for granted. That certainly is no way to pave the path to living a fulfilled life.

By Maya Abou El Nasr