The Advent of Modernity

By Gabriel Blanchard

Proust shaped twentieth-century literature not only in his native France, but throughout the English-speaking world.

The nineteenth century was a period of immense political and social upheaval in France. In the wake of the Revolution, no fewer than seven different governments ruled the country, from monarchies to republics to empires; under Napoleon’s leadership in the early part of the century, they held hegemony over most of the continent, from Poland to Spain, besides colonies across Asia and Africa, and American satellites from Argentina to California. A hundred years later, France had been disastrously defeated in multiple wars by Russia, Great Britain, and Germany, and had only narrowly eked out a victory (alongside Britain and the United States) in World War One. The turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth had been accompanied by what was called the fin de siècle or “end of the age” sensibility, an atmosphere of gloom and decadence that, combined with the horrors of the war, cast a pall over the art and literature of the period. Political novels were conspicuously popular all over the continent at the time; this was the age of Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Baudelaire, and Henrik Ibsen.

It was into this chaotic France that Marcel Proust was born. Though continually troubled by poor health, Proust was a gifted child and a voracious reader, and was already publishing articles and columns in several periodicals before he had turned twenty. He aligned himself with the moderate, liberal center of the country’s politics—he was particularly notable (along with figures like actress Sarah Bernhardt, mathematician Henri Poincaré, and fellow writer Émile Zola) for being one of the Dreyfusards, an anti-racist faction formed around a court case that falsely convicted a prominent military officer of treason because he was Jewish. Proust was also a reader of radical and iconoclastic authors like Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot, whose moral, social, and religious beliefs flew in the face of the contemporary establishment.

By art alone are we able to go outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, whose landscapes would otherwise remain as unknown to us as those of the moon.

Proust’s own most famous work is, therefore, a little odd. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu—variously translated as Remembrance of Things Past or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time—is a novel that mostly departs from the narrative realism and political interests of writers like Tolstoy or Hugo, focusing instead on interior states, passive characters, and philosophical musings. In its way, it is reminiscent of the work of T. S. Eliot, especially the poetic cycle Four Quartets, which is chiefly concerned with the relations of time and salvation; and, also like Eliot, Proust stands at the head of the innovative literary techniques and interests that would come to be called modernism.

The book follows its narrator as he reflects on various episodes from his life, a mixture of conscious and consistent memories with suddenly-recovered, involuntary ones; much of the plot is taken up with the varying love-affairs of the large cast of characters (more than two thousand in total!), and frequently with the slow cooling of their passions, leading to melancholy reflections on love, time, sleep, and memory. The decay of the fin de siècle and the long decline of the French aristocracy shape the novel’s atmosphere—yet by the end, the narrator has a kind of gracious epiphany, seeing the flawed people around him with a perspective grounded in their whole history, and resolves to faithfully record what he has witnessed.

It is a meandering work, whose length would put Tolkien himself to shame: at over forty-two hundred pages, the seven volumes of À la Recherche amount to about four Lords of the Rings. Yet this has not doomed Proust to obscurity. À la Recherche has been celebrated by many critics as one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, including Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf; two major translations into English have appeared. Its interior focus and experimental tone, as well as its willingness to confront taboo subjects in some detail, set the stage for all subsequent twentieth century literature.


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like this discussion of the philosophy of time or this profile of Franz Kafka. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.

Page image of Claude Monet’s Impression of a Sunrise, painted in 1872.

Note: This author was included in a previous version of the Author Bank, but is not present on the current edition (though passages from his work may still appear on CLT exams). A discussion of the latest revisions to the Bank, courtesy of Dr. Angel Adams Parham, can be found here.

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