For the last three years of his life, asthma-plagued Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom, at 44 rue Hamelin in Paris, as he worked feverishly in his bed, strewn with notebooks and papers, hoping to finish his masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu. Undoubtedly he missed his cork-lined room, where he was sequestered from the noise and the dust of the outside world, at 102 boulevard Haussman, his home for many years until 1919, when his widowed aunt sold that property, forcing him to move. Medications for his worsening asthma, allergies, and bronchitis consisted of an enormous array of nostrums— stramonium (jimson weed) cigarettes, fumigations of carbolic acid, various therapeutic powders, heavy doses of caffeine, epinephrine, opium, morphine, and Veronal.
On one of the few occasions that he ventured from his room, he attended an opening night dinner party at the Hotel Majestic for the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Renard. Other guests included Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, and James Joyce. Proust wound up sharing a taxi with Joyce, but the two exchanged hardly a word, since neither had read anything written by the other.
Sickly from childhood, Marcel was born in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris on July 10, 1871, to a Catholic father, who was a distinguished pathologist, and literary-minded Jewish mother, who came from a wealthy family. Marcel was baptized and confirmed as a Roman Catholic, but never practiced that religion—nor did he ever consider himself Jewish. One biographer described his religious views in later life as those of a “mystical atheist,” spiritual but not believing in a personal God.
He suffered his first asthma attack at the age of nine, and at eleven was enrolled in the Lycée Condorcet, although his education was frequently interrupted by bouts of illness. Even so, he excelled in his studies and gained access to some of Paris’ prestigious literary salons. His father worried that Marcel was too effeminate, and when he was sixteen, gave him ten francs to visit a brothel and “become a man.” Marcel’s experience was not a happy one, as he wrote in this letter to his grandfather:
“My dear little grandfather,
I appeal to your kindness for the sum of 13 francs…Here is why. I needed so badly to see if a woman could stop my bad habit of masturbation that Papa gave me 10 francs to go to a bordello. First, I was so agitated that I broke a chamber pot: 3 francs; then, still agitated, I was not able to screw. So here I am, waiting desperately as the hours pass for 10 francs to help myself, plus 3 francs for the pot. But I dare not ask Papa for more money so soon and so I hoped you could come to my aid in a situation which, as you know, is not just exceptional but unique. It surely cannot happen twice in a lifetime that a person is too flustered to screw.”
Proust never acknowledged that he was, in fact, homosexual. When he was seventeen he attempted to cultivate an affair with a woman who was his uncle’s mistress—and, as Marcel later learned, also his father’s. He also had homosexual affairs with Jacques Bizet, the composer Georges Bizet’s son; Lucien Daudet, the writer Alphonse Daudet’s son; and the composer Reynaldo Hahn.
From its inception in 1909 until his death, Proust worked on his chef d’oeuvre, which was to consist of seven novel-length volumes. The first, Du côté de chez Swann, was rejected by numerous publishers (including André Gide), and Proust finally paid for its printing and distribution himself. It met with considerable success with the public and other volumes followed. The last three were published posthumously.
In one famous passage the hero experiences an epiphany of memory triggered by the taste of a madeleine biscuit dipped in tea. This was based on a real-life event in 1909, when Proust experienced the revival of a childhood memory set off by a biscuit—except that in reality the biscuit was a rusk, more like Melba toast or zwieback than a delicately sweet, almond-flavored madeleine.
By the early fall of 1922, Proust’s asthma worsened, his breathing became more labored, and he could hardly take any nourishment. Yet he continued to work on Le Temps retrouvé, the last volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. He knew he was near death, and in it he wrote:
"Undoubtedly my books, like my earthly being, will finally die. One must resign oneself to the notion of death and accept the idea that in ten years one's self, and in a hundred years one's books, will no longer exist. Eternal life is not promised to books any more than to men.”
The asthma developed into pneumonia and an abscess of the lung. His devoted attendant, Celeste Albaret, the wife of his chauffeur, attended to his needs, trying to coax him into eating an occasional croissant to keep up his strength. Proust’s brother, Robert, who was a prominent physician, remained with him during his last days and oversaw attempts to make him comfortable. Robert recommended that he have an injection to relieve his breathing, but Marcel refused. Instead he insisted on sending Celeste out for beer, which was supposed to be a bronchodilator. At 6:00 the evening of November 18, 1922, Proust died in the bedroom where he had done most of his writing. He was fifty-one.
A funeral mass was celebrated in the chapel of Saint Pierre de Chaillot in Avenue Marceau, and with his parents and other family members, Proust was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.