Reader Alli asks:
Um, Joe, exactly how old was little Marcel when his mommy was serving him those cookies and tea?
Funny question, Alli. It was actually his aunt, as reader Noel reminded me, but the answer is about 30. Truth be told, Proust was something of a…well what should I say here…a momma’s boy. He lived at home with his parents for as long as they lived, until he was in his early 30’s. His mother died in 1905 and after that he continued to live in his family’s apartment in Paris until his own death in 1922.
As I mentioned Proust was a sickly fellow since boyhood. A nervous type, he had just about every anxiety-related malady you can think of: athsma, indigestion (about which he took exhaustive notes for his mother each day) and depression. So he stayed home a lot, much to the chagrin of his father who was a very successful doctor (a pathologist). Probably because he was tired of being badgered by the old man, Proust went out and got a job as a librarian when he was 25, but spent most of his time applying for indefinite sick leave, which he eventually got.
So let’s just say Proust wasn’t exactly a man of ambition. He spent most of his younger life lounging around Paris, trying to meet famous people, writing a little here and there, and then being ill. It wasn’t until well after his parents died that he finally found enough discipline to start writing seriously. And then, lordy, did he ever. Who knew a guy who lived at home all his life could have so many fascinating insights into life? It’s hard to excerpt Proust since one of his sentences can go on for pages, but here’s a taste from the famous Madeleines passage:
When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the time and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
Quite a lovely way of saying, “whoa, that Madeleine sure takes me back!” Truly Proust was a remarkable fellow, one who exhibited a fascinating mix of character traits. He was an eccentric, no question, but some of the seminal sayings of the 20th century originated with him. Just read a few of his quotations in Bartlett’s some time. You’ll recognize just about everything. As he himself once said:
Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces.
I find that both alarming and comforting, which is probably how he intended it.