Making Up for Lost Time

November 16: MarcelProust’s Swann’s Way was published onthis day in 1913. Declined by a handful of publishers, this first volume of In Search of Lost Time wasauthor-financed, but in the literary community at least, the book’s rise tofame began almost immediately. Just a few months after he had rejected the bookfor his literary magazine, Nouvelle RevueFrançaise, André Gide wrote Proust to apologize: “For several days Ihave been unable to put your book down…. The rejection of the book will remainthe most serious mistake ever made by the NRF and, since I bear the shame ofbeing very much responsible for it, one of the most stinging and remorsefulregrets of my life.”

By the time Proust died just a little over a decade later(November 18, 1922), he was the envy of even those modernists engaged insimilar stylistic experiments. “Proust so titillates my own desire forexpression that I can hardly set out the sentence,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “Ohif I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishingvibration and saturation that he procures—there’s something sexual in it—that Ifeel I can write like that, and seizemy pen and then I can’t write likethat….” Several months after Proust’s death, John Middleton Murray notedin the Times Literary Supplement thatliterary conversation was dominated by “that odd king over the water, M.Proust”:

The vogue has risen into a cult; and the cult, embracing thecultured masses, has deepened into a wave; until the whole of our literarytaste is threatened by the towering line of this tidal, this positively Marcel,wave.

James Joyce observed Proust’s funeral procession through thestreets of Paris. The two had met six months earlier, at the legendary dinnerparty held at the Majestic Hotel, Paris, attended by Stravinsky, Diaghilev,Picasso and others. Accounts of the conversation between Proust and Joyce vary,though all versions indicate that the two giants of modernism had little to sayto each other, perhaps because Joyce was drunk. Later comments show that Joyceenvied Proust his cork-lined solitude and his independent means, and did notthink that he had “any special talent.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.