This Day In Literary History
On November 16th, 1913, Swann's Way, the first volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, (In Search of Lost Time, aka Remembrance of Things Past) the classic epic novel by the legendary French writer Marcel Proust, was published.
Clocking in at well over a million words, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is one of the longest novels ever written. When Proust began work on it, he planned to publish it as a series of seven volumes.
It took him over ten years to complete the series. He died while editing his finished drafts of the last three volumes, so his brother Robert finished the revisions (working from Marcel's notes) and published them posthumously.
After completing the first volume of his epic novel, Swann's Way, Proust submitted the manuscript to several publishers, all of whom rejected it. One editor complained about some minor syntax errors, while another had a different complaint.
"My dear fellow," he told Proust, "I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep."
Proust's writing style was experimental in nature - dense and lyrical prose rich in symbolism and philosophy, eschewing plot in favor of a non-linear narrative. This reflected his fascination with the nature of memory.
The most famous memory evoked in Swann's Way is the narrator's memory of eating that classic French tea cake, the madeleine:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
The memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu are recalled in incredibly rich detail. Its style was in complete contrast with the plot-driven novels of its time. This may have contributed to its initial rejection.
Some believe it had more to do with the fact that Proust, who was gay, wrote openly and honestly about homosexuality at a time when it was not only despised by society but also illegal - a crime punishable by imprisonment.
His narrator in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is not gay, but other characters are (most notably the Baron de Charlus in the third volume, The Guermantes Way) and homosexuality is a recurring theme in Proust's writings.
Unfazed by the rejection of Swann's Way by publishers, Proust raised the money to publish the novel himself. It made him famous. Scholars have proclaimed A la Recherche du Temps Perdu to be one of the greatest modern novels ever written.
The legendary Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov named it as one of the greatest prose works of the 20th century, along with James Joyce's Ulysses and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. W. Somerset Maugham called it "the greatest fiction to date."
In 2002, Penguin Books published a new English translation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Edited by Christopher Prendergast, it's a collaboration of seven different translators.
Quote Of The Day
"Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it. It does not constitute it... There are certain cases of spiritual depression in which reading can become a sort of curative discipline... reintroducing a lazy mind into the life of the Spirit." - Marcel Proust
Today's video features a complete reading of Marcel Proust's classic novel, Swann's Way. Enjoy!