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Marcel Proust in 1895|© WikiCommons
Marcel Proust in 1895|© WikiCommons

10 Things You Didn't Know About Proust

Picture of Roberta Dencheva
Updated: 4 November 2016
Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871-1922), or simply Proust, was a French writer best known for one particular novel — Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time (in French À la recherche du temps perdu). Remembrance of Things Past is not a simple book, it is 3,200 pages long and is composed of seven large sections in which the author discusses literature, memory, and time. Proust is one of the most important figures of French, but also world, literature, and there are a few things that not so many people know about him. Here are ten things you probably didn’t know about Marcel Proust.

He was homosexual

Given the conservative times in which he lived, Proust had to hide his sexuality. The character of Albertine in his epic novel is inspired by Proust’s secretary Alfred Agostinelli. Proust was obsessed with him and even bought him a plane, in which Agostinelli died while flying. His first relationship begun in the mid-1890s with music conductor Reynaldo Hahn, an experience which influenced a lot of his later writings (though he never admitted to it).

He was an extravagant spender

The habit of buying extravagant gifts for his objects of desire cost Proust his wealth. He spent everything inherited by his family. He never had a conventional job in his entire lifetime and lived with his parents until their death. For the only job he did get, he never even showed up – at the Mazarine Library in 1896.

He had a complex relationship with Oscar Wilde

In the end of 1891, Marcel Proust invited English writer Oscar Wilde to his parents’ home for dinner. This is still a controversial topic nowadays, as no one really knows why. One thing is sure though, something must have happened between the two authors, as they never saw each other again. Wilde supposedly told the Proust family that he didn’t like the furniture, saying that it was ugly. Nevertheless, the Englishman left an imprint on Proust, as he used Wilde as an inspiration for some of his characters in Remembrance of Things Past.

He was a social climber

Proust was very included in Parisian social life and especially in the closed circles of the aristocracy, from which he drew detailed information for his writing. He was a brilliant and charming speaker, and an amazing imitator, able to mimic others to perfection. By the end of his life, the author gave up on his social life and spent his time in his room, enjoying the company of only two people – his old friend and lover Reynaldo Hahn and his housekeeper Céleste Albaret.

He lived in isolation for much of his life

Indeed, after his father’s death in 1903, followed by his mother in 1905, Proust secluded himself from high society and almost never left his bedroom, encased in walls of cork to make it soundproof. He slept during the day and worked on his big novel at night. The apartment where he lived is located at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, in the 8th arrondissement.

He was a hypochondriac

This isolation was probably partly due to his hypochondriac nature. Proust was so obsessed by his health that he gave strict instructions on how to enter his room. His visitors couldn’t wear perfume or bring flowers, as smells worried the writer. He had around 20 towels in his bathroom, each one discarded after only one use.

Publishers rejected him many times

When he first tried to find an editor in order to publish the first book of his Remembrance of Things Past, Proust was faced with a long wave of rejections. He decided to publish the book himself with the help of now famous editor Bernard Grasset. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for the second volume – In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower. One of the editors that rejected him at the time, André Gide, later stated that turning down Marcel Proust was the worst mistake of his life.

He was a medical case study for his father

Marcel Proust was the very first case study of his father, Adrien Proust, a famous Parisian doctor. Adrien is therefore the author of the first book ever to be written about the famous Parisian writer. The book is focused on Marcel Proust’s constant sick condition, despite being treated for his asthma with cigarettes. Yes, that’s right, cigarettes used to be ‘healthy’ at the time…

He invented the concept of involuntary memory

Proust was the first person to use this term in his seven-volume tome. This psychological term refers to the type of memories that come to mind without the conscious effort of recollection. In Remembrance of Things Past, he talks about how the simple act of dunking a biscuit in his tea brought up a childhood memory of eating a tea soaked biscuit with his aunt. He even gave his name to this psychological view on memory – Proustian memory.

He finished the last part of his novel on the day he died

November 18, 1922 is the day Proust died of pneumonia in his bedroom, where he spent the last three years of his life. The story becomes interesting, however, when combined with the end of the seventh and last volume of Remembrance of Things Past – Time Regained. In fact, he wrote The End the same day he died. Now isn’t that poetic?