Born: July 10, 1891
Died: November 18, 1922
Marcel Proust's multi-volumed novel A la recherche du temps perdu (aka "In Search of Lost Time") is widely regarded as one of the crowning achievements of modern literature. Proust resurfaces in 2006's acclaimed film "Little Miss Sunshine," in which one of the characters, played by Steve Carell, is a Proust scholar.
Graham Robb writes in an October 19, 2006 New York Review of Books article on Richard Davenport-Hines's book Proust at the Majestic:
"One of the merits of Davenport-Hines's account is that it shows the extraordinary degree of deliberation that lay behind almost all of Proust's activities. He may have suffered from exquisite sensitivity, as he often complained, but he took steps to ensure that that sensitivity never waned. A man ... who subjects himself to a steady diet of caffeine, opiates, barbituates, amyl nitrate, and pure adrenalin is unlikely to remain oblivious to the functioning of his brain. The quantity and variety of drugs that went into the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu are probably unparalleled in French literature. Proust urged his critics not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation, but it is probably reasonable to suppose that the vivid, hallucinatory memories that the narrator of his novel enjoys at intervals of several years were more common occurrences for the author, and that they were produced by substances less innocuous than a madeline dipped in a cup of herbal tea.
"Davenport-Hines...recognizes in Proust 'the habitual drug user's cunning': even during World War I, by manipulating a reluctant admirer, Proust managed to keep himself supplied with Swiss and German drugs. But he also recognizes Proust's habitual intoxication as a means of sustaining 'his explorations in the exciting serendipitous jungles of the unconscious'."
Proust writes in A la recherche du temps perdu, Volume III, The Guermantes Way, (Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, The Modern Library, New York 2003, p. 108):
"...one cannot properly describe human life unless one bathes it in the sleep into which it plunges night after night and which sweeps round it as a promontory is encircled by the seaÉIndeed, what one has meant to do during the day it turns out, sleep intervening, that one accomplishes only in one's dreams, that is to say after it has been diverted by drowsiness into following a different path from that which one would have chosen when awake. The same story branches off and has a different ending. When all is said, the world in which we live when we are asleep is so different that people who have difficulty in going to sleep seek first of all the escape from the waking world. After having desperately, for hours on end, with their eyes closed, resolved in their minds thoughts similar to those which they would have had with their eyes open, they take heart again on noticing that the preceding minute has been weighed down by a line of reasoning in strict contradiction to the laws of logic and the reality of the present, this brief 'absence' signifying that the door is now open through which they may perhaps presently be able to escape from the perception of the real, to advance to a resting-place more or less remote from it, which will mean having a more or less 'good' night. But already a great stride has been made when we turn our backs on the real, when we reach the outer caves in which 'auto suggestions' prepare--like witches-the hell-broth of imaginary illnesses or of the recurrence of nervous disorders, and watch for the hour when the spasms which has been building up during the unconsciousness of sleep will be unleashed with sufficient force to make sleep cease.
"Not far from thence is the secret garden in which kinds of sleep, so different from one another, induced by datura, by Indian hemp, by the multiple extracts of ether--the sleep of belladonna, of opium, of Valerian--grow like unknown flowers whose petals remain closed until the day when the predestined stranger comes to open them with a touch and to liberate for long hours the aroma of their peculiar dreams for the delectation of an amazed and spellbound being...."
"When I had finished sleeping, tempted by the sunlit sky but held back by the chill of those last autumn mornings, so luminous and so cold...like a chrysalis in the process of metamorphosis, I was a dual creature whose different parts were not adapted to the same environment...I got up only after my fire had been lighted, and studied the picture, so delicate and transparent, of the pink and golden morning to which I now added by artificial means the element of warmth that it lacked, poking my fire which burned and smoked like a good pipe and gave me, as a pipe would have given me, a pleasure at once coarse because it was based upon a material comfort and delicate because behind it were the soft outlines of a pure vision. The walls of my dressing room were papered in a violent red, sprinkled with black and white flowers...they succeeded only in imprisoning me in the heart of a sort of poppy, out of which to look at a world...."
"Artists are under an obligation to live for themselves," Proust wrote. "Little Miss Sunshine" tells us drugs may bring comfort in old age, while youth is for sexual exploration and enjoyment of the seemingly difficult journey of life. In a quote chosen to begin VIP Nathanael West's first book The Dream Life of Balso Snell, Proust's character Bergotte says, "After all, my dear fellow, life, Anaxagoras has said, is a journey."
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