Monday, July 10, 2017

Birthday Books of the Day: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”


Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust (1871-1922) -born this day- was nobody’s idea of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

The son of a medical specialist and a wealthy Jewish mother, he was raised Catholic and ended up an atheist with mystical leanings. He suffered asthma all his life but still managed a year in the French Army before moving to Paris to become a full-time snob and social climber.

Being a writer seemed to be a good career route. He never had to produce much, just have things in the works. Proust published a few articles and essays, and wrote part of a novel but never completed it.

His father pressed him to get a job. Proust landed a place at the Mazarine Library in 1896 but promptly took a sick leave that ran so long management decided he must have resigned and stopped paying him.

Proust’s mother died in 1905, leaving him her fortune, and sometime in the next five years he began developing the idea for a series of novels to portray the upheavals of his time. Born in the year of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and growing up amid the rise of the Third French Republic and the decline of the aristocracy, his tales of the old familiar world set adrift in a new one of technology, anarchism and social ferment were knitted together from what he heard in the better social and literary salons of Paris and heard in the streets.

French playboys tend not to produce profound works of art, and Proust’s reputation blinded publishers- Andre Gide among them- to the merits of Swann’s Way, finally published in 1913. His health failing, Proust retreated to his apartment, sleeping by day and writing all night. His last three years he scarcely left his bedroom.

Proust died at fifty, and his brother Robert prepared the last volume of what became known as Remembrance of Things Past for publication in 1927. The series ran to seven volumes, breathtaking in their scope and detail, and including some two thousand characters.

Proust grave.jpg

Proust, who homosexuality was widely known but never acknowledged, raised eyebrows by including gay characters in the Remembrance novels. He found his improbable English-language champion in C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, a gay soldier turned professional translator who devoted the last decade of his life to the work. Proust lived long enough to approve his translation of Swann’s Way; like Proust, Scott-Moncrieff left the last volume for others when his World War I injuries and cancer killed him, at forty, in 1930.


Proust, Marcel, Remembrance of Things Past (Random House, 2 vols incorporating all seven novels, 1932, 1934). Introduction by Joseph Wood Krutch. Vol. 1 (1141 pp., Swann’s Way, Within A Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way) trans. by C.K. Scott Moncrieff); Vol 2 (1124 pp, Cities of the Plain, The Captive, The Sweet Cheat Gone, The Past Recaptured) trans. by Frederick A. Blossom). Hardcover, octavo, no dust jackets, very good condition; slight sunning and shelfwear. Signed in ink on the front endpaper, "Eleanor H. Green, November 27, 1941" in both volumes. HBB price: $75 obo.


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