Making Up for Lost Time

November 16: Marcel Proust's Swann's Way was published on this day in 1913. Declined by a handful of publishers, this first volume of In Search of Lost Time was author-financed, but in the literary community at least, the book's rise to fame began almost immediately. Just a few months after he had rejected the book for his literary magazine, Nouvelle Revue Française, André Gide wrote Proust to apologize: "For several days I have been unable to put your book down…. The rejection of the book will remain the most serious mistake ever made by the NRF and, since I bear the shame of being very much responsible for it, one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets 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 in similar stylistic experiments. "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence," wrote Virginia Woolf. "Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there's something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that…." Several months after Proust's death, John Middleton Murray noted in the Times Literary Supplement that literary conversation was dominated by "that odd king over the water, M. Proust":

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

James Joyce observed Proust's funeral procession through the streets of Paris. The two had met six months earlier, at the legendary dinner party 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 say to each other, perhaps because Joyce was drunk. Later comments show that Joyce envied Proust his cork-lined solitude and his independent means, and did not think 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.

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