Creative process: Marcel Proust; writing the novel

In an interview(1) with the Paris periodical, Le Temps, in 1913, the novelist Marcel Proust commented on his ultimately monumental novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdue (2), as follows: “I am like a person who has a tapestry too large  for the walls of his rooms and who has had to cut it.”

In the interview, Proust  was concerned with trying to explain how conveying the ephemeral nature of time and its passage was an important part of his objectives in writing this particular work.

He also made a distinction between two particular types of memory, and said this was a critical part of his approach to writing the novel, “…my work is dominated by the distinction between the involuntary memory and the voluntary memory.”

Of voluntary memory Proust said, “[it] is especially a memory exercised by intelligence and sight [and] gives us only false shadows of the past…” But with involuntary memory, “an odor or a scent recurring in completely different circumstances awakens the past in spite of ourselves and we realize how different this past was from what we imagined we recalled…”

An example he gave was a character in the novel experiencing the taste of drinking tea with a madeleine cake, and how that stimulated a memory of forgotten years, gardens, and persons.

“You see, I believe that it is almost solely from involuntary memories that the artist ought to take the central substance of his work because…they alone have the stamp of authenticity.”

Proust said that this approach was an important aspect of his writing style, and then defined style: “Style is in no way a decoration as some people believe; it is not even a matter of technique; it is, as color is with painters, a quality of vision, the revelations of the particular universe which each of us sees, and which others do not see. The pleasure that an artist gives is to make us know one universe more.”

(1) Portions of the interview were published as an essay in the book The Creative Vision: Modern European Writers on Their Art, edited by Haskell M. Block and Herman Salinger, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1960, from which the material for this blog post was sourced.

(2) Proust’s  novel was published in seven volumes (three posthumously)   and consisted of 3,200 pages or more depending on the publisher’s choice of formatting and the translation used

Dennis Mellersh

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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