Happy birthday to a timeless classic: Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time turns 100

No publisher would touch Proust's book in 1913 so he had to pay his own printing costs, says Boyd Tonkin

Although he sometimes mocked the "Anglomania" of Parisian high society, Marcel Proust owed a huge debt to English literature. This, after all, was a writer who had abandoned his own fiction to spend the half-decade after 1900 on a quixotic project to translate the works of Victorian prophet-critic John Ruskin into French. He undertook what he called this "voluntary servitude" along with his beloved mother (whose English was actually better than her son's) and his Manchester-born friend, Marie Nordlinger.

Today sees the centenary of the publication – on 14 November 1913 – of Swann's Way. It was the first fruit of Proust's snail's-pace return to fiction and the opening volume of the seven books, and 4,000-plus pages, that make up In Search of Lost Time. At this anniversary season, Proust the literary anglophile would surely have been thrilled with the novel that has dominated British bestseller lists over recent weeks.

That book is Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy. Harris presents his fictional reconstruction of the Dreyfus Affair and its seismic consequences for French society through the voice of Colonel Georges Picquart – Proust's very own hero. Proust so admired Picquart that he compared the whistle-blowing intelligence officer – who revealed the forgeries, lies and cover-ups that had wrongly convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason – to Socrates. His unfinished novel Jean Santeuil has Picquart at its heart, not only the upright soldier who exposed the anti-Semitic stitch-up at the top of France's High Command but the ideal type of human being, a "poet and philosopher" who proved that conscience could change the world.

To mark the centenary of Swann's Way, much will be written about Proust as a peerlessly original stylist whose minutely calibrated observations of sensations and emotions, memory and time, changed the course of global fiction. All true, even though Proust insisted that the exquisite artifice of his slo-mo, close-up prose reflected a whole philosophy of involuntary memory rather than just overwrought nostalgia. Given that pure aesthetes – then and now – routinely claim Proust as their own, the anniversary should perhaps allow the spotlight to shift.

In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair lends In Search of Lost Time its moral spine. For Proust the Dreyfusard, who organised a petition in support of the tormented prisoner on Devil's Island and avidly attended the 1898 trial of Émile Zola for criminal libel after he published his famous denunciation "J'Accuse", attitudes to Dreyfus not only split the social milieu he depicts down the middle. They test and define the mettle of his main characters. To the Proust scholar Malcolm Bowie, the case gave Proust his "great experimental laboratory". It runs like a live wire through those seven volumes.

Even close to the end, in Time Regained, a memorable passage explores the ways in which heretical minority views – such as speaking up for Jewish "traitor" Dreyfus – in hindsight become what every respectable person has always believed. "It was no longer 'shocking' [in English, in the original] and that was all that mattered. People hardly remembered that it had once been thought so".

So Proust, who saw his own brave backing for an unpopular cause evolve into conventional wisdom, would have been delighted to see Colonel Picquart's exemplary courage hailed in a modern British bestseller. Mind you, in late 1913, the wealthy but spendthrift invalid and semi-recluse of 102 Boulevard Haussmann was still something of a lost cause himself. Look at the unproductive 42-year-old's career record to date: one elegant but slight volume of sketches (Pleasures and Days); those obsessional versions of Ruskin; the abandoned Jean Santeuil; the as-yet unpublished critical essays that became Contre Sainte-Beuve. Unsurprisingly, the Paris publishers who in 1912 learned that this artistically-inclined socialite and dilettante hoped to publish a gigantic novel, apparently about the grand but narrow circles in which he had moved, did not all rush at once.

By the end of 1912, Proust still had hopes of two publishing houses, although he was reconciled to paying the printing costs himself: Fasquelle, and Gaston Gallimard's cutting-edge Nouvelle Revue Française. In turn, both disappointed him. Fasquelle gave Swann's Way to a reader, the hack writer Jacques Normand. But Proust had gently mocked him in Pleasures and Days. The result – a scathingly dismissive refusal – was all too predictable. Even more hurtful, the eminent André Gide at NRF merely skimmed Swann's Way before turning it down.

For most of 1913, Proust engaged in a tortuous pas de deux with yet another publisher, Bernard Grasset. After an elaborate to-and-fro of his labyrinthine galley-proofs, Swann's Way at last appeared on 14 November in an edition of 1,750 copies (for which Proust paid more than 1,000 francs). A familiar kind of literary myth would suggest that, after a difficult birth, such a groundbreaking work must sink without trace. On the contrary.

The week before publication, Proust had cannily given interviews to sympathetic journalists from his cork-lined bedroom. Even then, one of them called the book "a masterpiece". Jean Cocteau, far from alone, would also hail a "masterpiece". By the end of the year around 20 pieces, mostly favourable, had greeted Swann's Way – including praise from The Times Literary Supplement in London. Over the ensuing century that acclaim has never faded. But Grasset, the long-suffering publisher, failed to join the chorus. "It's unreadable," he told a friend. "The author paid the publishing costs."

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones