The Haunting Truth Behind France’s Literary Legend Marcel Proust

Photo of Jade Cuttle
15 February 2018

Marcel Proust (1871–1922) is one of France’s greatest literary legends, world-famous for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), but there’s a sad truth behind its world-breaking records. Marcel Proust’s masterpiece of a novel À la recherche du temps perdu stands out in literary history for its epic length, with over 1.5 million words spilling out across 3000-4000 pages, depending on the edition. The work charts the narrator’s thoughtful recollections of childhood and transition into adulthood in the late 19th century to early 20th century aristocratic France, all the while musing over the loss of meaning in a modernising world.

Not only does this title hold the world record for the longest novel ever published, but it also holds the record for the longest single literary sentence. Believe it or not, but one of these sentences splurges out over a ridiculously long 847 words.

Marcel Proust | © Wikicommons

However, there’s a sad truth behind this incredible feat. Proust was subjected to regular, severe attacks of asthma throughout his life. His very first severe attack came when he was just aged nine, walking in the Bois de Boulogne of Paris. Not only did his asthma come to shape his daily rhythms of productivity as a writer, prompting him to sleep during the day and work at night, but this health condition also inspired his creativity and idiosyncratic style in quite a unique way.

Marcel Proust in 1887 | © Paul Nadar / Wikicommons

His incredibly long sentences signal his deep-rooted fear over his illnes; he was afraid that if he stopped, he might never draw another breath. The links between his asthma and writing have been picked up by numerous literary critics over the years. Walter Benjamin, in The Image of Proust, argues that the author’s asthma ‘became part of his art – if indeed his art did not create it. Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating.’

Proust’s greatest work | © Warburg / Wikicommons

For the last three years of his life, the asthma-plagued novelist could barely leave his bedroom. Bed-bound at 44 rue Hamelin in Paris, he did not let this illness stop him. He worked all night and rested all day to become a literary hero with an incredible legacy to leave behind. The final draft of the novel was published in France between 1913 and 1927, over seven lengthy volumes.

Marcel Proust’s grave | © Paul Louis / Wikicommons

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