The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Proust in the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

One hundred years ago, the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, one of the greatest novels of all time, came out of print. It won Marcel Proust the Goncourt Prize the following year. For the next three years, until his untimely death at the age of 51, Proust feverishly worked on the next five volumes. He died exhausted and utterly spent from a badly cured bronchitis, but with the legacy of the creator of a true time-conquering masterpiece.

Many critics have said that modern literature starts with Proust's impressive seven-volume literary endeavour In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927)The first stone for this monumental work was laid in 1907. During the course of the next 15 years, Proust lived as a recluse in his room insulated by cork, on the second floor of Haussmann Boulevard in Paris, where he moved in the last days of 1906 after the death of his parents. On over 3200 pages, more than 200 characters covering four generations came to life under his pen.

The most renowned French publisher, Gallimard, refused the manuscript of Swann's Way, the first volume, on the advice of André Gide, who wasn't impressed by the work. The Nobel Prize winner later admitted that it was one of the gravest mistakes of his life. Gallimard compensated for the misjudgment by publishing the second volume of the novel, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower in 1918. It earned him the most coveted literary award in France, le prix Goncourt.

The themes in Lost Time revolve around a musical plan and a game of correspondence resembling poetry. Proust wanted to grasp life in motion, with no other order than the fluctuations of emotional memory. He leaves unique portraits, recreated places, a reflection on love and jealousy, an image of life, the emptiness of existence and art.

Proust's unique style of writing reflects a desire to comprehend and describe reality in all its dimensions, in all its possible perceptions, in all the facets of its different actors. Proust was influenced by the music of Wagner and the philosophy of Impressionist painters: reality has meaning only through the perception, real or imaginary, of the subject.

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, wrote Proust. This is why he attempts to desribe, in Alain de Botton words, "an almost painfully delicate variety of sensory reminiscence verging on tantric solipsism."

The most famous example of this sensory-induced reminiscence is when the main protagonists tastes the petite madeleine, a small cake with almonds, Its taste brings back a slew of involuntary recollections from his childhood. This journey of empirical evocations caused by a taste is now known as "the Proustian moment."

Svetozar Postic

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