How to talk about books you haven’t read? And especially of The research, this paper cathedral. For the centenary of the writer’s death, we offer you some tips to deceive you at the table of the new Verdurins.
Accustomed to worldly salons, Marcel Proust, who died a hundred years ago, left behind a complex body of work which is not necessarily easy to discuss in society. Here are five anecdotes to shine without having read it.
On the Swann side refused by Gallimard
In 1909, Proust embarked on his life’s work, a novel in which the hero discovers through his memories the vital importance of art. From one volume in 1909, the novel grew to two in 1912, to three in 1913… In Search of Lost Time will eventually number seven. The last three will be published after his death, at age 51 in 1922.
After having suffered three refusals from publishers, Proust was forced to self-publish with Grasset in 1913. Andre Gidefigure of the NRF (New French Review, future Gallimard) is one of those who turned him down. “The refusal of this book will remain the most serious error of the NRF and (…) one of the regrets, the remorse, the most burning of my life”he wrote to Proust, the author of Earth Foods. Gide will multiply the attempts to reconquer it. Gaston Gallimard achieved this in 1916 and published In the shade of the maidens in bloom in 1918.
“Oh?” : When Proust learns that he has the Goncourt
On December 10, 1919, the jury Goncourt awards its prize to Proust, a victory snatched by six votes out of ten. Gaston Gallimard goes to Proust, near the Champs Élysées, says biographer Thierry Laget in Proust, Prix Goncourt, a literary riot. He wakes up the writer in the middle of a nap. “Oh?”, he reacts flatly. This is the shortest sentence of its existence! The writer, who however fought to obtain it, does not want to see anybody.
This distinction triggered a lively controversy: the entire left lined up behind its unfortunate competitor Roland Dorgelès and his war story, The wooden crosses. She jeers “the little colic of children” of Marcel Prouttan ambush judged too old, too rich (the 5,000 francs of the price would be more useful to another) and too worldly.
Thirty words per sentence
“For a long time, I went to bed early…”, the most famous incipit in French literature has discouraged more than one reader. With his endless sentences – 30 words on average per sentence, twice as many as other writers -, his abundance of dashes and parentheses, Proust invented a new literary music.
Exploded, the text is traversed by dialogues as if it were made to be read aloud. Let the reader be reassured: if Proust’s sentence is complex, his lexicon is simple. The singularity of his style also lies in his metaphors, witnesses to the finesse of his inner world.
Proust’s notebooks reveal that he first imagined the famous madeleine scene with a slice of toast and then a rusk. It appears at the very beginning of The research : Marcel, sullen narrator, drinks a spoonful of tea in which he left “to soften a piece of madeleine”. “The very moment the sip mixed with the crumbs of the cake touched my palate, I shuddered (…) Where could this powerful joy have come from?” Marcel relives a happy childhood memory: “This taste was that of the little piece of madeleine that on Sunday mornings in Combray (…) my aunt Léonie offered me after having soaked it in an infusion of tea or lime blossom.”
It is one of the keys to The research : the past can be reclaimed through writing, an eternal source of bliss.
Marcel Proust’s father, containment theorist
Her father, a neurologist and hygienist, is one of the great thinkers of social distancing and confinement. Member of the Academy of Medicine, he also advocated frequent washing of hands and face. A rather terrifying father, Adrien Proust crushes his sickly son. He appears in A love of Swann in the guise of Doctor Cottard. From 1906, Proust, socialite in the evening, lived recluse the day at home, “suspended between caffeine, aspirin, asthma, angina pectoris and all in all six days out of seven between life and death”. “It’s his mother’s methods that he uses (…), while his father told him to exercise, to go out, to open the window”, notes specialist Jean-Yves Tadié. A few days after the death of this mother, on September 26, 1905, Marcel wrote to his friend, Louis d’Albuféra: “I only love one person in this world, that’s Mom.”
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