Wednesday, Jun. 03, 2009

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust spent plenty of time alone with his inner monologue — as his novels make plain. Nervous, frail and sensitive, Proust was still a fixture of French high society until his mid-30s. But after his father's death in 1903 and his mother's in 1905, Proust's health deteriorated, and he gradually gave up the fast life. He spent the remaining 17 years of his life a virtual recluse, working on his novels.

By 1919, Proust rarely left his soundproofed Paris apartment, complete with a bedroom encased in walls of cork to keep out noise. He worked in a sunless writing studio with the window shut as protection against the asthma that had plagued him since the age of 9. The isolation took its toll. The writer Leon-Paul Fargue recalled Proust around this time as pale, with hands that seemed frozen. "He looked like a man who no longer lives outdoors or by day, a hermit who hasn't emerged from his oak tree for a long time," Fargue wrote. (Read "The Ubiquitous Proust.")

Writing his 3,200-page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, Proust often slept during the day and worked at night. He once became so absorbed in his writing that he didn't stop for three days. Another time, he walked to the Louvre to refresh his memory of a painting, only to realize once he got there that it was midnight. When Proust met James Joyce in 1922, the two literary geniuses barely spoke. "Of course the situation was impossible," Joyce later said. "Proust's day was just beginning. Mine was at an end." Proust died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922.

Read "Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature."