The 14-Minute Marcel Proust
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Growth of a Novel

One of the great things about William Carter's Marcel Proust: A Life is the way it clarifies the evolution of À la recherche du temps perdu.

Proust began to write the Search in 1908, when was he still a comparatively young man – young enough indeed to told to report for thirteen days' military training. (He was excused.) He wrote six key episodes that year, including the goodnight kiss that opens the novel, and he already knew that it would be circular, ending with the Narrator ready to write the novel we have just finished reading. But he put it aside in 1909 to work on a book about the literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. In the course of this project, Proust wrote another key episode, an early draft of the famous madeleine scene in which a morsel of cake dipped in tea evokes the entire village of Combray.

He spent the summer of 1909 at Cabourg, the seaside resort that became the "Balbec" of the novel. From there he wrote a friend that "I've just begun – and finished – a whole long book" (italics added). Indeed, he had drafted the beginning and the end of the Search, starting with an early version of what we know as the "Combray" section of Swann's Way and ending with some or all of the novel's concluding book, Finding Time Again. "He had at last found his structure," William Carter writes of the thirty-eight-year-old author, "one that was to prove ideal for his narrative skills and manner of composition. Proust never composed in a linear manner or according to an outline. He always worked like a mosaicist, taking a particular scene, anecdote, impression, image, and crafting it to completion."

In this way, the novel grew larger and larger that year and the next, by which time he was working on the long section that we know as "Swann in Love." In 1911, he thought he was coming to the end of his task, and he began looking for a publisher. Toward this end, he arranged for four excerpts to be published in Le Figaro, a leading newspaper. Alas, the novel was rejected, even as it continued to grow, and Proust decided to publish it at his own expense in two volumes, titled Le Temps perdu (Time Lost, Time Wasted) and Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, Finding Time Again), comprising more or less what we know as the first and final books of a much larger novel.

Meanwhile, of course, Proust was living his life, spending the summers at Cabourg and thereby absorbing the background for what would become book two, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and also beginning his acquaintance with Alfred Agostinelli, a primary model for Albertine Simonet, the heroine and anti-heroine of the novel, and especially of books five and six, The Prisoner and The Fugitive. (I favor the more literal English titles of the "Penguin Proust" over those of C.K. Scott Moncrieff and his later editors, Messsrs Enright and Kilmartin. It remains to be seen what Yale University Press will do with Mr. Carter's reworking of Scott Moncrieff.)

It was the beginning of 1913 when Proust approached Bernard Grasset through an intermediary, asking him "to publish, at my own expense, ... a major work (let's call it a novel, for it is a sort of novel) which I have finished" (italics added). He still saw it as a work in two parts, as he wrote a bit later: "There is a person who narrates and who says 'I'; there are a great many characters; they are 'prepared' in this first volume, in such a way that in the second they will do exactly the opposite of what one would have expected from the first." Grasset accepted the offer, of course, and by May the proofs were ready for the first volume, for which Proust had decided to call Du côté de chez Swann. Playing on the two "ways" of the narrator's youth, the concluding volume would "probably" be Le côté de Guermantes, with an overall title of À la recherche du temps perdu.

Swann's Way was published on November 22, 1913. By this time, Proust saw (and warned Grasset) that the Search would be larger than anticipated, with two more volumes to come: The Guermantes Way and Finding Time Again. Soon after this joyous event, his beloved Albertine/Agostinelli fled Proust's apartment, thus setting in train a drama that Proust would inevitably include in his epic.

Meanwhile, he had more or less completed what he thought would be the second volume, including the narrator's stay at "Balbec" and his growing infatuation with "Albertine." That makes it seem that the story was entirely ad hoc, with Proust writing his life into it as he went along, but that's not entirely the case: as early as 1908, he had projected a female character of whom he explained: "In the second part of the novel the girl will be financially ruined and I will support her without attempting to possess her because I am incapable of happiness." It's almost as if he then sought out Agostinelli to play the part he'd already sketched.

Before Proust finished those final two volumes, however, the Great War began, and with it the total disruption of French society--and his book. Bernard Grasset was called to military service, the printer's lead was commandeered for a more bloody purpose, and Proust's epic was closed down "for the duration," as we learned to in the first half of the 20th century.

With manservants almost impossible to find, Proust brought Céleste Albaret into his apartment to attend to him. He became so dependent upon her that, unusual for him, he wrote her by name into the second book of the Search. This part would become À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower).

In 1916, Proust found a new publisher, Gaston Gallimard, whose firm had earlier rejected Swann's Way, and in November of that year he told Gallimard that he was ready to send him the manuscript of the second book of what he now believed would be a four-part story: Swann's Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, The Guermantes Way, and Finding Time Again. (Apparently the third volume was also sometimes called Sodom and Gomorrah.) William Carter suggests that it may have been as early as November 1916 that Proust wrote Fin at the bottom of the fourth book, and that he told Céleste that he had completed his life's work: "Now I can die."

But the war itself was intruding onto his story, which more than doubled in size from the roughly 500,000 words he'd written up to that time. Proust at one point actually likened this experience to that of a military commander: "A general is like a writer who sets out to write ... a certain book, and then the book itself, with the unexpected potentialities which it reveals here, the impassable obtacles which it presents there, makes him deviate to an enormous degree from his preconceived plan." The changes even affected the already-published book: he decided to move Combray, where the narrator spends so much of his youth, from its location near Chartres, south of Paris, to a more vulnerable spot in the north, so the two "ways" of the narrator's boyhood can be obliterated by war: "The French blew up the little bridge over the Vivonne ... and the Germans have thrown other bridges across the river," as the former Gilberte Swann explains in the final volume. "For a year and a half they held one half of Combray and the French the other."

What with the war's disruptions, Proust's continual expansions, his worsening health, and the inevitable battles with his publisher, no more of the book would appear until 1919. It was in June of that year that copies of the revised Swann's Way and -- at last! -- In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower were available for Proust to autograph and the public to buy, along with an unrelated volume of his writings. The Search was now essentially complete, as Proust explained to a critic: "the last chapter of the last volume was written right after the first chapter of the first volume. Everything in between was written afterward but long ago. The war made it impossible to have proofs, now illness prevents me from correcting them."

This was a bit disingenuous, overlooking the additions and alterations he was making even as the books were being set in type. The Guermantes Way was to be published in two parts, with the first volume available in October 1920 and the second in May 1921, in an edition that also contained an introduction to Sodom and Gomorrah. At this point, Proust envisioned that his account of male and female homosexuality would sprawl across multiple volumes, an idea that he would later jettison in favor of retitling the later two -- the "Albertine cycle" -- as The Prisoner and The Fugitive. "I have so many books to give you," Proust wrote his publisher about this time, "that if I die will not be published (À la recherche du temps perdu has hardly begun."

So it seemed: the balance of Sodom and Gomorrah was released in May 1922 as three distinct volumes, to meet Proust's objections to the small type that had marred The Guermantes Way.

However, life has the final word in these matters, and Proust became fatally ill while he was correcting the proofs of The Prisoner. He died early in the morning of November 18, 1922, having worked with Celéleste until 3:30 a.m., dictating revisions to the proofs of The Prisoner. We cannot know what further changes he would have made to that book, never mind the two that followed it. Their publication at two-year intervals -- 1923, 1925, and 1927 -- was overseen by Jacques Riviére, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, and Robert Proust, the author's physician-brother. The entire novel, and especially the three books whose publication he did not live to approve, were twice revised by French scholars, in the so-called "Pléiade Editions" of 1954 and 1987-89.