Marcel Proust (1871–1922)Cahier 28, 1910, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais 

In a small square room off the main court of The Morgan Library and Museum in New York is an exhibition titled “Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way: 100th Anniversary,” on view through April 28. The exhibition is the latest addition to what is turning out to be a dazzling year for centennials. With the opening of the famed Armory Show, the construction of Grand Central Terminal, the publication of Proust’s Swann’s Way, and the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, it is looking more and more like 1913 was, in James Panero’s words, not only “the unofficial start of the twentieth century” but also “the highpoint of both European and American cultural innovation.”

The Proust exhibition is small and tightly focused, featuring notebooks, preliminary drafts, and other documents from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s comprehensive Proust collection. While it seems to cater more to those already familiar with the writer, the exhibition ultimately succeeds by giving lovers of Proust new insight into their favorite moments of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), a seven volume novel that brilliantly explores the workings of time and memory against the backdrop of Belle Époque France.

The exhibition starts with the writer’s mother, Jeanne Proust, whose presence looms over so much of her son’s life and work. A photo shows maman, a dour looking woman, seated between her two rakish sons. Marcel, on the left, looks fairly respectable, standing upright, tense but composed; his brother Robert, on the right, appears far more louche, languidly lounging behind his mother like a jaguar on a branch. It is ultimately the “crushing grief” that Proust felt after his beloved mother’s 1905 death—he was thirty-five years old—that prompted him to write the great work this centennial exhibition celebrates.


Marcel Proust and his mother and brother Robert, ca. 1895 Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY 

Proust’s earliest musings for his grand novel appear in four improbably shaped notebooks given to him by composer George Bizet’s widow Geneviève Straus on New Year’s Day 1903. Tall and thin like a box of long stick matches, with art nouveau caricatures of society types on their covers, these ludicrously impractical notebooks contain the early sketches of his sprawling masterpiece. Among some preparatory notes and character sketches, we see Proust ask fundamental questions about his work, then in its embryonic stage, such as “should it be a novel,” or a “philosophical essay,” and, more to the heart of the matter, “am I a novelist?”


Marcel Proust (1871–1922)Carnet 1, 1908–1911

Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais 

Other Proust related bric-a-brac makes up the rest of the exhibition. There are beautiful postcards depicting locations where key parts of the novel take place such as the Champs-Élysées gardens, the 8th arrondissement of Paris, and Illiers, Proust’s ancestral home and the inspiration for the fictional town of Combray. There are photos of Giotto’s frescoes of “Vices” and “Virtues” from Padua, which, the exhibition tells us, inspired Proust’s novel. And there is an amusing photo titled “Marcel Proust and friends” that depicts two princesses, a countess, a marchioness, two princes, and plain old Marcel Proust standing shyly in the background.

But of greatest interest is a 1909 letter from Proust to French editor Alfred Vallette, where he describes his novel-in-progress thusly: it is “a genuine novel and an extremely indecent one in parts. One of the main characters is a homosexual.” It is the word “homosexual” that stands out most starkly among Proust’s hurried scribbles, being clearly and carefully spelled out, though out of boldness or hesitancy one can’t be sure. It’s a word that is very un-French, very modern, and quite scandalous for the time, which, come to think of it, is how one might describe the novel as a whole. Unsurprisingly, Vallette turned the book down. 

The exhibition does a good job of communicating important facts about Proust the writer. One only has to glance at any of the pages on display to see just how hard he worked to refine his craft. The notebooks are covered with strikethroughs, re-writes, doodles, and scraps of paper pasted in at all sorts of odd angles. The manuscripts are full of corrections, insertions, and what were likely agonizing deletions, including the excision of several sentences at the very start of Swann’s Way, leaving only that now famous opening, “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” And one may be surprised to learn that the famous “madeleine incident,” where a madeleine dipped in tea resurrects the narrator’s childhood world, was, in 1909, a toast incident, and, in 1910, a biscottes affair.

In this light, In Search of Lost Time appears to be the result of Proust’s patient perfectionism, a modern classic that one might say was secreted, rather than written, over a long thirteen-year period, before illness forced him to stop.

What ultimately gives Swann’s Way its continued resonance is its relationship to the year it was published. Like the other works of 1913, it was created without the knowledge of the terrible centenary that followed it. In his effort to recapture and understand his own past, Proust unknowingly created the definitive monument to the earnest and innovative modernism of a world not-yet-broken by the horrors of modern war. 

“Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way: 100th Anniversary” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through April 28.