MARCEL PROUST, French novelist, born (d: 1922); As almost everyone who is aware of Proust knows, he suffered from chronic asthma and wrote – mostly at night – in a cork-walled room. His vast novel Remembrance of Things Past (Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu) recounts the life of his hero, tacitly Proust himself. It has no plot in the usual sense, but is closely woven together like a symphony by the recurrence of the same characters and the same themes.
Memory plays a large part in the construction, and remembered scenes from boyhood are the device by which the more usual chronological method is replaced. There are many lengthy digressions, ranging from the metaphysical dissertations on the flight of time and the timelessness of sensation to beautiful passages on architecture and art. In 1912, when Proust sought to have his manuscript published, it was summarily rejected. The report of a publisher’s reader survives.
Ironically, the first third of the many-volume novel, so rich in aesthetic, scientific and philosophical learning, and today considered perhaps the most remarkable literary work produced in the first half of the 20th century, was rejected on the grounds that “one has no idea of what it’s all about…nothing happens in these 700 pages.”
One of Proust’s major themes, of course, is homosexuality, but the subject is confused because, as Andrè Gide was the first to point out, Proust made certain characters female when he really meant them to be male. Thus the character of Albertina, for example, is really based on Proust’s own chauffeur-love, Alfred Agostinelli, a daring young Italian so in love with speed of newly invented machines that he died (in 1914) while learning to pilot a primitive airplane.
In the past, English and American readers have undoubtededly wondered why so much fuss has been made about Proust, since his famous book seems at times to be insufferably boring. The reason is the Scott Moncrieff translation that is not only dated in its stilted language, but severely bowdlerized to protect the tender virtue of the Anglo-Saxon reader. Gratefully, the Terence Kilmartin translation is both modern and unexpurgated. Proust, at long last, is permitted to be Gay.