French Figure: Marcel Proust (from Madeleines To The Great War)

Marcel Proust was a French intellectual, novelist, essayist and critic, best known as the author of In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past), a monumental work of twentieth-century fiction consisting of over three thousand pages in seven volumes published over fourteen years. Proust is one of the seminal figures of Modernist literature. Writing in a period of immense social upheaval in France, this new era generated an entirely new style of literature, diverting away from nineteenth-century social realism and towards a sober examination of the workings of the mind.

Primarily concerned with the exploration of memory, Proust pioneered a “stream of consciousness” style of prose that followed incidental, usually trivial memories as a gateway into the processes of consciousness and identity. With À la recherche du temps perdu Proust attempted the perfect rendering of life in art, of the past recreated through memory. His anecdote about Madeleines crystallised the Proustian theory of memory; as a child, his Aunt would give him these small cakes dipped in tea. As an adult, he realised that the act of once again eating a Madeleine instantly brought back the context and emotions of his childhood.

Quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sous leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of memory.

The Madeleine thus came to symbolise the part of our past that involuntarily comes back to the surface. His theory does not just simply state that certain objects and smells remind us of specific memories, but instead claims that the past can become the present again, that objects can compress and bend time, breaking down the dichotomy between past and present. ‘Madeleine de Proust’ has since become a French expression used to denote events of everyday life, which whereby a memory is brought back into one’s present consciousness, with the underlying realisation that this memory cannot be forgotten or supressed.

In a more general sense, Proust’s works deal with the notion of memory and recognition in that they revolve around historical events of World War I. In the final installment of À la recherche du temps perdu, Le Temps retrouvé, Proust recreates the events surrounding the end of the War, while reflecting on the role that literature played in an era of propaganda, patriotism and mass massacre. The volume includes a noteworthy episode describing Paris during the First World War. Proust died of pneumonia on 10th July 1922 and his final novel was published posthumously by his brother, Robert, in 1927. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.