French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is remembered almost entirely for just one work, but that one work has been enough to cement his reputation. His mammoth novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu—translated into English as either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past—remains one of the great literary works of the twentieth century.
Proust benefited from a wealthy upbringing in Paris and received a thorough education in both literature and law. He moved in heady social circles from a young age, active in the belle epoque salons of the Parisian elite. After publishing his first short story collection in 1896, Proust worked on an autobiographical novel, Jean Santeuil, that would serve as the foundation for his later masterpiece.
Amid deteriorating health and lingering grief over the death of his parents, Proust began work on A la Recherche in 1909. The novel is truly gigantic, more than 3,000 pages long and featuring a cast of more than 2,000 characterts. Published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927, it was unlike any novel the world had ever seen; indeed, several publishers rejected its first installments, unsure of what to make of it.
A la Recherche is essentially autobiographical, following the development of a young man as he searches for what has made him who he is, recaptures and relives memories from his youth, and ultimately prepares to write a novel. It is as much a philosophical and psychological work as a literary one: Along the way, the narrator muses on love, identity, sexual ambiguity, aesthetics, art, and other topics. Although most people see the narrator as a stand-in for Proust, he leaves the questions of whether the reader should indeed view the author and narrator as one and the same ambiguous.
As its title indicates, the novel is deeply concerned with time and memory. Proust conceives of time as a flowing, amorphous whole rather than an ordered, linear progression of moments. Often, previously lost memories come rushing back to the narrator as the result of some sensory cue. In one famous passage, the narrator vividly remembers experiences from his childhood upon tasting a madeleine, which he used to eat dipped in tea. This experimentation lived on long after Proust’s death, as countless other modernist authors built on his exploration of memory and time in their own landmark works.