Human, More Human: Proust Reincarnated
Jean-Marc Quaranta

On the centenary of the death of Marcel Proust, in a new essay written for Electra, renowned specialist Jean-Marc Quaranta shows how the work of the great French writer and all the investigations he has generated force us to see his life through other eyes, changing the very literary status of the author. It is, therefore, an authentic and original ‘reincarnation’. Jean-Marc Quaranta is a university professor and member of the Proust team. He is the author of Un amour de Proust. Alfred Agostinelli (1888-1914) and it was he who prepared, established, presented and annotated the edition of the novel Le Temps Perdu, which constituted a first version of the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, published for the very first time in 2021.

proust nadar

Marcel Proust, 1887

All images: Paul Nadar


A century after his death (1922), and just over one hundred and fifty years after his birth (1871), Marcel Proust is now recognised as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. His unique mode of novel writing paved the way for the Nouveau Roman, while the way his life fed his desire to write and enriched his work also make him a precursor of autofiction. Writers refer to it frequently and columnists are wont to quote it, sometimes without even having read it; the episode of the madeleine1 arises in the most banal broadcasts, newspapers and conversations, illustrating the singular experience of a memory that resurfaces involuntarily by means of a sensation. Proust has become a name that does the rounds, an episode familiar to all, a novel that is read – in part2 –, certain stereotypes: long sentences, the madeleine (again), homosexuality, jealousy, snobbery, the chronicle of a society undergoing a metamorphosis; Proust is at the same time a landmark, a model, a reference: a brand.

Our depiction of the writer, stemming from the Enlightenment and Romanticism, leads us to see in him a style, a universe, an essence, a pure spirit, indeed everything but a man. Structuralism, by teaching us to detach the text from its very source and from the context in which it was written, has transposed the ‘elocutionary disappearance of the poet’ into literary criticism and literature studies3. To this can be added the distinction that Proust himself makes between the social self and the creative self in certain drafts published under the title By Way of Sainte-Beuve: ‘A book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices’4.

However, in recent years, and particularly on the occasion of his two anniversaries, the great French author has been reincarnated. Metempsychosis is one of the metaphors for memory and the continuity of the self in the incipit of In Search of Lost Time5, but it is not a question here of the reincarnation of a soul in a new body, but of a ‘resurrection of the flesh’ of the author and of everything that surrounds the writing of the text, to the point of contradicting the idea of the ‘death of the author’6. Older, and indeed more recent, publications illustrate this reincarnation of the writer which, without questioning the importance of the text, redeems a place for the life of its author and for everything else surrounding its creation.


Sarah Bernhardt in Izeïl, 1894


"An examination of Alfred Agostinelli (driver and then secretary), who served as the main model for Albertine, the young woman, allows us to understand how the writer’s emotional life shapes the novel and accompanies its genesis."

This movement, now widespread, dates back to the late 1980s. By including a considerable number of preparatory drafts of the work, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition7 began to impress, among the educated general public, the idea that this exceptional text did not simply emerge fully formed from its author’s imagination, but was rather the fruit of a complex genesis spanning several years. This was confirmed around the same time by the publication of a hitherto unknown typewritten version of Albertine Gone8, in which the writer had, shortly before his death, crossed out a large part of his text, his intentions remaining a mystery.

By combining these genetic elements with what is known about the life of the writer and his entourage, the first academic biography of Proust9 contributed to placing the novel in the context of its author’s life. Focusing on Jeanne Proust, Evelyne Bloch-Dano10 explored his mother’s significance in shaping the future writer’s self and her role in his emergence as a writer. It also brought to light Marcel Proust’s ‘Jewish side’, to use the title of Antoine Compagnon’s recent book, which expands on and enriches these discoveries11. The writer’s ‘mental soil’12 is also a product of the atmosphere in which he grew up, and the various questionnaires that Proust answered, and which eventually bore whis name, provide a means of understanding the environment the young Marcel experienced13.

This spotlight on the future writer’s family and social milieu reveals the figure of a young man from a bourgeois background, part of the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie (like Swann), who frequented republican circles with advanced social ideas. This portrayal of the author of In Search of Lost Time makes it possible to reread the text with different eyes. The young Proust’s republican background helps to explain the novelist’s social concern, for example when the wealthy diners at the Grand Hôtel are seen as the inhabitants of a ‘wonderful aquarium against whose wall of glass the working population of Balbec, the fishermen and also the tradesmen’s families […] pressed their faces to watch’, with the narrator asking himself the ‘[…] important social question […], whether the wall of glass will always protect the wonderful creatures at their feasting, whether the obscure folk who watch them hungrily out of the night will not break in some day to gather them from their aquarium and devour them)’14.

In this novel of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, the unexpected attention paid to the common people and domesticity – whether it be Françoise, the hero’s family maid, or the Balbec lift man – is also explained by writings about the servants who surrounded the writer. Céleste Albaret’s biography15 testifies to the role of the servant in the imaginary and material elaboration of In Search of Lost Time and reveals Proust’s intimate space; Céleste Albaret’s book of interviews16 appears, moreover, to be a precursor of the writer’s reincarnation, which may explain the lukewarm reception it received upon publication.



Stéphane Mallarmé and Méry Laurent, 1896


1. Marcel Proust, In search of lost time, vol.1 Swann’s way, trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2013.
2. Nicolas Ragonneau, Proustonomics, cent ans avec Marcel Proust, Mazères, Le Temps qu’il fait, 2021, pp. 67–108.
3. Stéphane Mallarmé, Divagations, trans. Barbara Johnson, Cambridge (USA): Harvard University Press, 2009.
4. Marcel Proust, By way of Sainte-Beuve, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner, London: Chatto & Windus, 1958.
5. Marcel Proust, op cit., 2013.
6. Roland Barthes, 'La Mort de l’auteur', Le Plaisir du texte, Paris: Seuil, 1973.
7. Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, Jean-Yves Tadié (ed), Paris: Gallimard, 4 vols., 1987–89
8. Marcel Proust, Albertine disparue, Nathalie Mauriac (ed.), Paris: Grasset, 1987.
9. Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust, Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
10. Evelyne Bloch-Dano, Madame Proust: A biography, trans. Alice Kaplan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
11. Antoine Compagnon, Proust du côté juif, Paris: Gallimard, 2022.
12. Marcel Proust, op cit., 2013.
13. Evelyne Bloch-Dano, Une Jeunesse de Marcel Proust, Paris: Stock, 2017.
14. Marcel Proust, In search of lost time, vol. 2 In the shadow of young girls in flower, trans. James Grieves, London: Random House, 2005.
15. Laure Hillerin, À la recherche de Céleste Albaret, Paris: Flammarion, 2021.
16. Céleste Albaret, Monsieur Proust, as told to Georges Belmont, trans. Barbara Bray, London: Harper Collins, 1976.