It may never be possible to declare any single novel the definitive work of its era, but Marcel Proust’s French-language classic, In Search of Lost Time, stands as the most frequently cited candidate for the early 20th century. The semi-autobiographical book, which stretches over seven volumes and a few thousand pages, follows an unnamed aristocratic narrator who weaves a meditation on love, loss, and the nature of memory that frequently doubles back on itself. Sights, sounds, and smells trigger recollections that inform the protagonist’s past and present; and by the end, both the narrator and reader have come to understand that memory—its reassurances, its faults, its emotions—is what shapes us all. Read on for some fun facts about Lost Time’s history and legacy.
1. Proust self-published the first volume.
Du côté de chez Swann
Swann’s Way; The Way by Swann’s
À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs
Within a Budding Grove; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
Le Côté de Guermantes
The Guermantes Way
Sodome et Gomorrhe
Cities of the Plain; Sodom and Gomorrah
The Prisoner; The Captive
Albertine disparue; La Fugitive
The Sweet Cheat Gone; The Fugitive
Le Temps retrouvé
Time Regained; Finding Time Again
Proust had published essays and short stories in magazines and newspapers before, and some of those short stories were even released in a book called Pleasures and Days in 1896. But getting someone to back the several hundred meandering pages that made up the first volume of Lost Time proved difficult. Proust first sent them to a well-known publisher named Fasquelle, who suggested so many edits that the author decided to look elsewhere.
The literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française passed in part because they considered Proust’s writing too aristocratic; and Marc Humblot, another prospective publisher, found it prohibitively verbose, explaining that he “just can’t understand why anyone should take thirty pages to describe how he tosses about in bed because he can’t get to sleep.”
In the end, Proust resigned himself to footing the bill, enlisting the help of an as-yet-unestablished publisher named Bernard Grasset to print the books. When the work drew acclaim, writer André Gide, who had encouraged La Nouvelle Revue Française’s original rejection, told Proust it was “the worst blunder they ever made.” Fortunately, the journal redeemed itself by publishing the following volumes.
2. The last three books were released posthumously.
Proust was born into wealth, which allowed him the freedom to focus on writing and partake in the salon-based intellectual society of the era. But asthma-related illnesses often interrupted him, and by the time he was looking for a publisher for In Search of Lost Time, he sensed he was nearing his end. “I have put the best of myself into it,” he wrote in one letter, “and what it needs now is that a monumental tomb should be completed for its reception before my own is filled.”
Proust wasn’t wrong: He died from pneumonia in November 1922 at age 51, before the last three volumes had been released. Though he had technically finished writing the manuscripts, he was far from the final sign-off; the last installment, Finding Time Again, hadn’t even been typed yet.
“Proust composed by an immensely complex process of writing and rewriting, weaving together passages sometimes composed years apart, filling his margins with additions and, when the margins ran out, continuing on strips of paper glued to the pages,” scholar Carol Clark wrote in a 2019 piece for Literary Hub. “After a time he would have a clean copy typed, but this by no means marked the end of the rewriting process, which might continue to the proof stage and beyond.”
So it seems safe to assume that Proust would have continued to work on the last three books had he lived longer. Instead, the editing fell to his brother, Robert Proust, and French writer Jacques Rivière, who, in Clark’s words, “ironed out a considerable number of inconsistencies and, as they thought, faults of style … to produce a readable text which would please critics and buyers.” Some of those changes have been reversed in recent editions as more of Proust’s writing fragments have come to light. But we’ll never really know exactly what the author would have ended up adding to—or omitting from—the final proofs.
3. Proust didn’t like the original English title.
In Search of Lost Time is a pretty direct translation of the novel’s original French title: À la recherche du temps perdu. When the work first appeared in English, however, it was under the title Remembrance of Things Past. Translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff had borrowed the expression from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, which starts like this: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”
Though Proust was very grateful to Scott Moncrieff for his translations—and he told him so in a 1922 letter—he didn’t fail to mention his disappointment about the inaccuracy of the title, especially the absence of the phrase lost time. He also pointed out that Scott Moncrieff’s rendering of the first volume’s title lacked clarity: Du côté de chez Swann had become Swann’s Way, leaving people to misinterpret way as “manner,” rather than “path.” “By adding to you would have made it all right,” Proust explained. Scott Moncrieff wrote back that he was “making my reply to your critiques on another sheet,” but that sheet is lost to history.
Seventy years later, English publishers did swap Remembrance of Things Past for In Search of Lost Time. (And Du côté de chez Swann is sometimes translated as The Way by Swann’s.)
4. Proust’s evocative madeleine could have been toast.
When we first meet Proust’s narrator in Swann’s Way, he’s deadened by habit and inexplicably blocked from accessing most of his memories. That suddenly changes as soon as he tastes one tea-soaked morsel of a madeleine, which evokes a similar experience from his childhood and unleashes a torrent of memories. The scene both drives the story forward and alludes to one of Proust’s central themes: finding meaning through memory.
Though the author did base that pivotal moment on a real-life incident, the food in question wasn’t a madeleine. It was a rusk—a crisp, dry, twice-baked biscuit. In 2015, a set of newly published handwritten manuscripts revealed that Proust had initially intended the scene to mirror its source material more accurately. In his first version, the narrator eats a slice of toast with honey; in the second, he bites into a biscotte, or rusk. To think, readers may never have had the pleasure of hearing Proust describe a sweet, spongey madeleine as “the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds.”
5. That madeleine scene is referenced in The Sopranos and Ratatouille.
The episode with the madeleine is arguably the best-known bit of the entire seven volumes: It even inspired its own French phrase, madeleine de Proust, which can describe any sensation that unlocks a memory.
References have also appeared in at least a couple 21st-century Hollywood hits. In Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), one bite of the titular dish catapults fussy food critic Anton Ego back to the memory of his mother’s homemade ratatouille enjoyed in the rustic, sun-warmed kitchen of his youth. (After that, not even the revelation that the chef is a literal rat can dull Ego’s enthusiasm for the restaurant.)
And in season 3, episode 3 of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, identifies meat as a Proustian madeleine of sorts for Tony. It’s a common denominator in his panic attacks, including his first one as a kid, when the family’s meat supply was linked to mob-related violence. (“All this from a slice of gabagool?” Tony says.)
6. Many acclaimed 20th-century writers praised the books …
It’s tough to overstate the impact that In Search of Lost Time had on 20th-century writers. Graham Greene considered Proust the “greatest novelist” of the whole century, for example, and Tennessee Williams wrote that “No one ever used the material of his life so well” as Proust.
“His endowment as a novelist—his range of presentation combined with mastery of his instruments—has probably never been surpassed,” Edith Wharton wrote in The Writing of Fiction. And Virginia Woolf idolized him to the point of frustration. “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence,” she wrote in a 1922 letter. “Oh if I could write like that! I cry.”
7. … But not everyone was a fan.
That said, a few venerated authors from the era weren’t exactly campaigning to be president of the Marcel Proust fan club. Evelyn Waugh told Nancy Mitford in a 1948 letter that he found Proust to have “absolutely no sense of time.” D.H. Lawrence lambasted Proust—along with James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson—for trying to delay the demise of the “serious novel” by penning “a very long-drawn-out fourteen-volume death-agony.” Joyce failed to “see any special talent” in Proust, though he did admit that he himself wasn’t the best critic.
And if you’ve ever described Proust’s writing as “crushingly dull,” you’re in good company. That’s how Nobel Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro put it, excluding Swann’s Way. “The trouble with Proust is that sometimes you go through an absolutely wonderful passage, but then you have to go [through] about 200 pages of intense French snobbery, high-society maneuverings and pure self-indulgence,” he told HuffPost in 2015.
8. In Search of Lost Time is the longest novel ever published.
Though In Search of Lost Time is typically broken up into seven parts, it’s still considered a single novel—the longest one ever published, in fact, according to Guinness World Records. The record is based on character count: Proust’s magnum opus contains more than 9.6 million characters, including spaces.