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Valentin-Louis-Georges-Eugène-Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871 - November 18, 1922) was a French intellectual, novelist, essayist and critic, best known as the author of À la recherche du temps perdu (lit. "In Search of Lost Time", translated as "Remembrance of Things Past").
Proust was born in Paris, the son of a famous doctor. His mother was Jewish, his father Roman Catholic; he was raised within a Catholic culture. His father's family was from the Beauce region, around Chartres, and throughout childhood he spent each summer in the village of Illiers. This would later be fictionalized in À la recherche as "Combray", and the village and the surrounding countryside is described extensively in the first two volumes. The village was renamed Illiers-Combray in honour of this on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.
At the age of 9 he suffered his first asthma attack, which nearly killed him. He became very sickly, and sometimes hypersensitive to light and noise. He spent most of his life in the bed of his Paris apartment because of his asthma and extremely sensitive skin and stomach. His curative trips to seaside resorts, most often Cabourg (Calvados), formed the basis of the fictional town of Balbec.
His principal work is the lengthy À la recherche du temps perdu. In "Jean Santeuil", Proust describes his portrait by painter Antonio de La Gandara whom he much admired.
Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" (À la recherche du temps perdu) is indubitably one of the greatest achievements of Western imaginative literature. This cycle of 7 novels, spawning ca. 3,200 pages and teeming with more than 2,000 characters, has provoked Graham Greene to say that Proust was the greatest novelist of the 20th century and Somerset Maugham to call it the greatest fiction to date. Proust's multifaceted vision is enthralling: he is both drastic satirist and the nanoscopic analyst of introspective consciousness; explorer of nuances of human sexuality and ethical wisdom writer; crucially, he is the creator of unforgettable major (more than 40) characters who are growing and corroding in the river of Time. But, above all: Proustian central message is the affirmation of life. Contrary to the opinion voiced by his decadent aesthetic contemporaries and critics galore, Proust's great work teaches that life's "purpose" is not to be sought in artistic artefacts: life is not fulfilled when a painting or a novel are left after the curtain had fallen down, but when it is transmuted, in the very course of quotidian living, into something "artistic" or spiritually mature and wise.
Proust died in 1922 and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Alexander Woollcott said, "Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else's dirty water."
Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life was published in 1997.