How to Celebrate Marcel Proust’s Birthday


Marcel Proust — or Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust, if you want to get technical — was born on this day in 1871. And even though there is really no such thing as a bad time to celebrate his life and work, this year is a tad more special than others, since 2013 happens to be the centennial celebration of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s extremely long life’s work, In Search of Lost Time.

As the above photo shows, Proust may or may not be one of the earliest air guitarists ever caught on camera. It’s stuff like that that makes the author more than just a French guy that wrote a classic novel that clocks in at over 4000 pages.

Very few authors are as synonymous with a food as Proust is with the madeleine, so if you want to celebrate his birthday without having to dip into his massive novel, a trip to your pâtisserie for a cup of tea and one of the little cakes should do the trick. But before you do that, maybe read Edmund Levin’s 2005 Slate piece on how much Proust actually knew about the tiny cakes. [Image via Full Stop]

There’s never a bad time to watch a Monty Python skit. Especially this one.

Proust has been translated into English by some of the best in the game. Most recently, the Lydia Davis version of Swann’s Way received a good deal of fanfare, as anything Davis is involved with should. But as Alexander Aciman noted at The Paris Review Daily, authors from David Foster Wallace to Sam Lipsyte might have had a different take on interpreting Proust’s opening sentences, “For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes close so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself ‘I’m falling asleep.’”

I’m pretty partial to the Bret Easton Ellis way of saying that: “I always go to bed early. That’s what mom tells me when she kisses me goodnight. She blows out my candle and says ‘you always go to bed early.’ Although I really am tired, I haven’t realized it yet and I try to stay awake longer. I do that until I see I am already sleeping.”

If Proust’s birthday or the anniversary of Swann’s Way’s publication does inspire you to make this the year you start reading his epic novel, maybe consider joining a group like the “2013: The Year of Reading Proust” Goodreads group that’s hosted by a fan with the excellent Proustian Twitter handle @Proustitute.

If you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, or you’re a very brave reader with a ton of time on your hands and want to give it a second go, consider reading up on Proust as a primer to understand the book, and the man who wrote it, a little better. You may want to start with Edmund White’s Marcel Proust: A Life, and also pick up Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein to better understand some of his characters and themes.

If you don’t have time for that (but you have time to read In Search of Lost Time???), maybe this will help: Proust, a closeted homosexual, was one of the first European writers to write about homosexuality at length in his work, but kept his love affairs secret until his death. Even though he was raised in the Catholic Church of his father, Proust’s beloved mother was Jewish. All that hiding and Jewish and Catholic guilt alone should tell you much of what you need to know about the man — and maybe also explains why the slogan “Proust Is a Yenta” became popular in the 1970s.