Marcel Proust was born on 10th July 1871 in Auteuil, near Paris, to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. His father, Adrien Proust, was a successful doctor, famous for promoting the cordon sanitaire as a means of combating cholera. Marcel was born during a particularly turbulent time in France, following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and shortly after the Paris Commune (March-May 1871). His mother, Jeanne, blamed his delicate health on the stress and scarcity of food at the time of his birth.

Despite this dramatic beginning, Proust led a peaceful and relatively uneventful life. Unlike his younger brother Robert, who became a doctor, Proust never had a job, other than writing; his parents supported him with an allowance. He lived in Paris, where he was an active participant in the cultural and social scene of the Belle Époque, attending literary salons and hosting dinners at his parents' house (Oscar Wilde was so overcome at the presence of Proust's parents at one of these fashionable dinners that he spent the evening hiding in the bathroom). Proust was fascinated by the decadent world of the upper classes and worked hard to gain acceptance with them.

As a child Proust had spent his summers in the village of Illiers (now Illiers-Combray) in North-Central France. When he grew older he made two trips to Venice, inspired by his passionate interest in Ruskin, and visited Belgium and Holland, seeing Vermeer's View of Delft. He also spent two summers in Cabourg, on the Normandy coast. These travels had an important influence on his writing.

 

Proust by Blanche
Public DomainProust by Blanche

 The death of his mother in 1905 left Proust bereft of his closest companion. This loss, combined with his worsening health, made him retreat from the fashionable world, concentrating more on his writing. In 1908 he began work on an essay, Against Saint-Beuve. Saint-Beuve, a critic, thought it was important to study a writer's biography to gain insight into his work. Proust disagreed and set out to prove it in an essay which eventually, fourteen years and 3,700 pages later, became the semi-autobiographical In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

Proust was homosexual, and had a number of affairs, including a brief but passionate relationship with his chauffeur and secretary Alfred Agostinelli, who left him in 1914 and died shortly afterwards in a plane crash. It is thought that Alfred is the model for Albertine in In Search of Lost Time.

Having published the first volume of the Search, Swann's Way, at his own expense in 1913, the rest of the novel was delayed in publication by the First World War, despite having been a critical success. During the war Proust kept working on his manuscripts, expanding the trilogy he first anticipated into more volumes until the work consumed the rest of his life. He slept during the day and wrote at night, famously lining the walls of his apartment with cork in order to muffle the sounds of Paris outside. Proust died of pneumonia in 1922, halfway through the publication of his novel; the rest was published posthumously.

 

The last page of Proust's manuscript of the Search for Lost Time
Public DomainThe last page of Proust's manuscript of the Search for Lost Time

 Since his death, Proust has become a legendary figure, a byword for epic literary length, to the extent that Monty Python constructed a sketch around the idea of summarising Proust - once in a bathing suit and once in evening dress.

Despite this, many people have tried to summarise Proust quite successfully:

In his novel, Proust writes that the novelist Bergotte lives on after his death in the books he has written. In this modern world, it seems that despite the length of his novel, Proust has survived his death not only in his books, but on Youtube and Twitter as well, becoming a legendary part of modern culture.