Marcel Proust exhaled his last breath of life in 1922 while struggling to finish his monumental 3,000-page, seven-volume novel, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
Proust's Deadline (University of Illinois Press) by Christine Cano, associate professor of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Case Western Reserve University, sets the framework of her first scholarly book around Proust's literal and figurative push to finish his book.
Proust had real publishing deadlines, but he also struggled with asthma long before modern-day treatments existed. His chronic illness made him think death was imminent years before it arrived, explained Cano.
The deadline became a symbolic structure for Cano's book. "In order for Proust to start writing seriously—to devote himself to his novel to the exclusion of everything else—he had to create an imaginary deadline. He had to give himself an obstacle to overcome, which was the feeling that time was running out," she stated.
Proust began the book around 1908, after spending much of his life deferring his deep-rooted childhood desire to write to his social ambitions—acceptance into the inner circles of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Parisian high society. He had already published newspaper essays and short stories, but was considered a dilettante rather than a serious author.
Cano stated that In Search of Lost Time is also about the deferral of writing. Proust's hero-narrator wakes up each day thinking today will be the day he starts his novel. But as the day progresses and other things occupy his time, he finds at the end of day that "yet another day has not come to pass." The thread that runs throughout the novel and holds together the thousands of pages is the desire to write, according to Cano.
Proust's nameless hero, Cano explained, has a "conversion experience" in the novel's final pages. At the Guermantes Ball, he looks around and discovers that the people he has gone through life with are now old—and realizes that he too is old and does not have much time left to write.
Proust may have experienced something similar in his life. The scene in the book might represent the point at which Proust begins to write seriously and continues until his death cuts short his writing career at the age of 51. Proust's critics and biographers have found other similarities between the novel's plot and Proust's life.
Proust's writing stands apart from that of other writers of his time. According to Cano, a novel of this length was aberrant at the beginning of the 20th century, when the typical novel was 230 pages. Proust's novel was also one of the first major works to tell a story from the perspective of a first-person narrator.
"It is unlike anything else you might read," said Cano. "It is like being inside someone's head—at the center of his desires, ambitions, sorrows and mistakes."
One of the questions at the start of Proust's Deadline had to do with the enormous span of time Proust spent writing. How could the book project he started out with be the same one that he ended up with? Cano explains that Proust insisted on the fact that his book project remained essentially unchanged over the years, whatever the intervening events, including the First World War. He claimed that since he wrote the beginning and end of the book first, the first and last chapters guaranteed that it was the same book—despite the thirteen years he spent writing.
The book Proust started with in 1908 was clearly not the same book he was working on at his death in 1922. It evolved over time and was fed by real life. But its final volume, Time Regained, does take the reader back to the beginning.
"When Proust's hero-narrator decides to write, we are allowed to think that the book we're holding in our hands is the book he eventually writes," said Cano. "Everything comes full circle."
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