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The huge coat that Proust always wore in later years was lined with fur, and he was never without a hat, gloves, and a cane. Proust's socializing began in the artistic salons of the late s, but his desire to scale the heights of the Faubourg Saint-Germain—the wealthy and aristocratic section of Paris—to meet duchesses as well as the grandes cocottes "great courtesans" of the Belle Epoque was strong and speedily gratified. The models for his later characters were found in these different settings.

The character. Baron de Charlus, for example, was based on Robert de Montesquieu, aristocrat and would-be poet, whom Proust first met in In the portrait of Montesquieu by the society painter Giovanni Boldini, the baron is raising his ebony cane like a rapier; the blue porcelain handle matches his large cuff links. His unusually high-coiffed hair, handlebar moustache, and small imperial-style beard, along with his arresting and extraordinary pose, created the kind of extreme image that Proust feared most, given its perceived links to homosexuality and to the writer Oscar Wilde , whom Proust had met and whose trial for homosexual conduct was thoroughly covered in the French press.

Yet the young Proust himself was photographed with two close friends in a similar, though muted, mode of self-presentation. Elisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, one of the models for Duchesse de Guermantes, was a friend and cousin of Montesquieu. She posed for an unknown photographer at about the same time as Montesquieu sat for Boldini. She chose to be depicted, by another unknown photographer, in far more somber attire, as if to emphasize her intellectual credentials.

In his later years Proust did not forgo the company of artists nor did he eschew high society completely.


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He became friendly with the writer Jean Cocteau and dined with the ballet producer Sergey Diaghilev and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky , but his work took priority. She is now married to the rich and respectable Charles Swann. Earlier in the volume she has been described as one of the most stylish women in Paris, with "rich garb such as no other woman wore.

She has an inordinate number in different fabrics—silk, crepe de chine, chiffon—and the colors vary from old rose and mauve to Tiepolo pink and gold, all described carefully and frequently in Within a Budding Grove. An intense focus on sensuous detail is one way in which dress operates within the novel's sequence. Fashion is also vital as the way in which an individual constructs his or her personal identity while remaining mindful of the rules of social caste. Odette's outdoor clothes show small details in their trimmings or patterns, which hark back to her heyday as Second Empire courtesan.

The craftsmanship and the overall design of her garments are stressed. The narrator follows Odette, enchanted, through the Bois de Boulogne, and Proust records the details of the linings of her jackets and the collars of her blouses, likening them to Gothic carvings. Such details may never be noticed by a casual observer but they are nevertheless vital.

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The woman to whom Proust awards the accolade of the very best-dressed woman in Paris is also one of the most socially elevated—Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes, who is always spectacular and distinctive in her toilette. In The Guermantes Way , the narrator tells us of her appearance at the opera with a single egret feather in her hair and a white spangled dress, designed to make her companion and cousin, the Princess, seem over-dressed. It is she, as well as Odette, to whom the narrator turns in The Captive when he wants help with the selection of clothes for his mistress, Albertine.

Indeed, it is Oriane's Fortuny gowns that Albertine is seen to covet. Dress, fabric, texture, and detail are seen as vital factors in the evocation of memory so germane to the novel. In the very last pages the narrator speaks of discerning the different threads woven together in a fabric of which he can now perceive the overall design. Although other writers have been fascinated by fashion, Proust is among the first to mention designers by name and to award them equal stature with painters and composers.

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Perhaps no author before him described an outfit, jewels, or accessories in such careful, minute detail. In the twenty-first century's celebrity-dominated culture, this seems peculiarly pertinent. Adams, William Howard. A Proust Souvenir. New York : Vendome Press, Balsani, Leo.

New York : Oxford University Press, New Haven , Conn. Co-founder of Le Banquet, Military service: French Army, ; served in infantry. Scott-Moncrieff published as Cities of the Plain, A. Scott-Moncrieff published as The Captive, A. The English translations by Frederick A. Wingate London, England , Also author of Portraits de peintre poetry , , and of prefaces to other volumes. Marcel Proust is generally considered the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century.

Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art by Leo Bersani (Paperback, 2013)

His reputation, which derives almost exclusively from the importance of his multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past also translated as In Search of Lost Time is that of a dazzling stylist, analytical thinker, and social observer. His novel is founded on his powers of meticulous recollection and his ability to shape those memories into a compelling—some might even say exhausting—account of one man's search for his past. This search leads the narrator, and reader, into a world of charm and deceit, virtue and perversion.

Forster, in his Abinger Harvest, called Proust's novel "an epic of curiosity and despair," while Edmund Wilson wrote in Axel's Castle that Remembrance of Things Past was "one of the gloomiest books ever written. Proust was born in of bourgeois parents. His father was a noted physician who had distinguished himself in his efforts to combat the spread of cholera from Persia, and Proust's mother was a highly educated Jewish woman known for her charm and humor.

As a child Proust enjoyed significant attention and affection from his mother, and more than one biographer has remarked on their seeming inseparability. Aside from sharing similar interests such as reading and taking walks, Proust and his mother were bound by consideration for his tenuous health. He continually suffered indigestion, and at age nine he experienced the first of innumerable asthma attacks. The sources of these attacks seemed countless: anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia, as well as more familiar causes such as dust, dampness, and smoke.

Young Proust, moody and obsessive, learned to manipulate his parents, particularly his mother, with his health problems, exploiting their reluctance to administer punishment for tantrums or defiant behavior. Once in school Proust distinguished himself with honors despite his often poor health. In his early school years he was frequently mocked by classmates for his feminine features and delicacy, but he eventually won the admiration of some of these same students for his literary precocity. He graduated from the Lycee Condorcet in with distinctions in composition and classical languages.

Among his closest friends there were Daniel Halevy and Jacques Bizet, the latter the son of the famed composer Georges Bizet. In Proust and his two friends collaborated on the journals La Revue verte and La Revue lilas, with Proust serving as contributor as well as scathing copyeditor for his less talented friends. His own contributions to the journals, which included an autobiographical account of contemplation, revealed an early penchant for ornamentation and inquisitive thinking.

His interest in the latter continued during his final school year when he studied idealists such as Immanuel Kant.


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  4. For Proust, Kant proved inspirational, prompting speculations on metaphysics and human behavior. Biographer Richard H. Barker has even suggested in Marcel Proust that during this time the impressionable Proust "formed mental habits that were to remain with him for the rest of his life. But first he had to fulfill his military obligations. Laws at the time stipulated five years of service for eligible Frenchmen, but exceptions were made for educated citizens willing to purchase their own equipment.

    For citizens such as these, the required period was reduced to one year, and it was for such a term that Proust enlisted in In the French Army Proust's poor physical health proved only a slight liability, and he avoided certain rigors by ingratiating himself with his commanding officer. During his service, however, Proust did suffer bouts of depression, including a particularly traumatic period following the death of his grandmother.

    But his health was generally favorable. And although he was stationed in Orleans, Proust indulged his interest in high society by occasionally accompanying a new friend, Gaston de Caillavet, to receptions and parties in Paris. Proust continued to patronize Parisian society after leaving the French Army in At this time Proust also frequented the circle gathered by Genevieve Straus, mother of his old schoolmate Bizet.

    Straus's husband was a wealthy lawyer who installed her among antique furnishings in a vast apartment on Paris's Boulevard Haussmann. Proust greatly admired Madame Straus, who was known for her cutting wit, and biographers such as Barker and George D. Painter have speculated that young Proust even entertained notions of a sexual relationship with his acerbic hostess. Other prominent Parisians visited by Proust were Madame Aubemon de Nerville, whose own salon had earlier featured Anatole France, and Laure Hayman, formerly mistress to one of Proust's great-uncles.

    Despite having only a modest allowance, Proust lavished gifts on Hayman, and some biographers acknowledge that his interest in her was sexual as well as social. His flirtatious, excessively complimentary manner—defined as "Proustifying" by his friends—sometimes angered de Caillavet. But by , when his two friends married, Proust had lost interest in other women and had shifted his romantic concerns, as Painter observed, to other men.

    During this initial period of extensive socializing Proust published his first writings in a modest magazine, Le Banquet, which he founded with Bizet, Halevy, and a few other friends. Proust's early writings are mostly anecdotes or short reviews focusing on Paris society, and they often reveal his intentions as an effusive social climber.

    His collaborators at Le Banquet sometimes protested Proust's use of the publication for overt pandering to hostesses such as Countess Adheume de Chevigne, whom he flatteringly portrayed in hopes of an introduction to the aristocracy. One such trite piece by Proust eventually prompted action from Le Banquet' s Femand Gregh, who published a brief notice disassociating the staff from Proust's comments.

    While writing for Le Banquet, Proust placated his concerned parents by studying law at the Sorbonne. After completing his studies, though, he avoided entering the field and began studying philosophy.

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    At this time Proust also wrote several fictional pieces for La Revue blanche, which had acquired Le Banquet 's staff. Proust's new writings—sensitive character studies with vaguely erotic overtones—showed a marked improvement over his earlier society reports. But he followed these writings with an article on the flamboyant Count Robert de Montesquiou, whose mediocre poetry was apparently prized by Proust.

    The article on Montesquiou was intended as the first in a series, but various editors rejected Proust's excessively flattering portrait, and he consequently abandoned the series. Proust began collecting his contributions to Le Banquet and La Revue blanche, and in he published these writings, along with additional stories, as Les Plaisirs et les jours. Despite a laudatory preface credited to Anatole France—it was actually written by Arman de Caillavet—the book's sales were minimal and even failed to return the cost of publication.

    Reviews were generally bland or negative, dismissing Proust's style as precious and his all-enveloping sentence structure as convoluted and confusing. But in retrospect, Les Plaisirs et les jours, which was published in English as Pleasures and Regrets, is considered prophetic of Proust's later masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past.

    In his biography Barker concedes that Les Plaisirs is "not entirely successful" but added that it contains "the raw material for a work of art," and Milton Hindus, in his Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust, was particularly attentive to themes of jealousy and sexual transgression in the stories of Les Plaisirs. These themes, dominant in Remembrance of Things Past, were first explored by Proust in tales such as "A Young Girl's Confession," which concerns envy and sexual indiscretion, and "Violante," which details the foul repercussions of high-society life and sexual indulgence.

    After publishing Les Plaisirs and an insignificant verse collection, Proust resumed work on a more ambitious literary project: a vast, autobiographical novel elaborating the themes of his earlier work.

    For the next few years Proust devoted himself to this work, ultimately writing more than one thousand pages.