Marcel Proust died on this day in 1922, aged fifty-one. His last months offered more material for the legendary decade which began Nov. 16, 1913 with the publication of Swann’s Way. Proust had to bring out this first volume of In Search of Lost Time himself, the publishers having returned it with puzzlement and scorn:
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me…. (C. K. Scott-Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s opening lines) My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep. (Alfred Humboldt, Ollendorf Publishing)
Against this dubious start, Proust’s biographers place a series of contrasting snapshots from his death and subsequent months. In one we see the deathbed author, living on café au lait as he furiously revised his remaining manuscripts; in another we see the famous contemporaries witnessing, from a distance, “the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation” (Francois Mauriac); in another we view the funeral, traffic stopped throughout Paris for the writer most honored since Hugo. Proust’s last effort on the night of November 21 was to revise the passage from volume three, The Captive, which describes the death of the writer Bergotte; this was necessary, he told his housekeeper-nurse, because he now knew better what death was:
…They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in lighted bookshop windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outstretched wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
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.