Today is the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) (1913–27). It’s Proust’s own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth. The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood. That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a much humbler and less poetic piece of a rusk — a twice-baked, dry biscuit or cracker — rather than a madeleine that triggered the memories.
He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally he realized that he had to do two things first: he needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the philosophical underpinnings of the novel would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist’s task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his “rusk epiphany” in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June.