Marcel Proust was born to bourgeois parents living in Paris. His father was a doctor and his
mother came from a rich and cultured Jewish family. Beginning in his childhood and continuing
throughout his life, Proust suffered from chronic asthma attacks.
His literary talent became evident during his high school (lycée) years. He began to frequent salons such as that of Mme Arman, a friend of Anatole France. Under the patronage of the latter, Proust published in 1896 his first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, a collection of short stories, essays and poems. It was not very successful.
Proust had begun in autumn 1895 a novel which he later abandoned in autumn 1899 and never finished. It was finally published in 1952 as Jean Santeuil.
After this second setback, Proust devoted several years to translating and annotating the works of the English art historian John Ruskin. He published a number of articles on Ruskin, as well as two translations: La Bible d'Amiens in 1904 and Sésame et les Lys in 1906. The prefaces to these early works anticipate Proust's subsequent stylistic and esthetic development. "Sur la lecture", the preface to Sésame, contains themes which recur in Du Côté de chez Swann.
Overcome by the death of his mother in September 1905, Proust set aside his literary pursuits for a few months.
In February of 1907 he published in Le Figaro an article entitled "Sentiments filiaux d'un parricide", in which he attempted to analyze two elements which would be fundamental to his future psychological approach to literature: memory and guilt. Other articles which appeared during the period 1907-1908 are considered to be preliminary to his novel, into which they were later incorporated.
Early in 1908 Proust wrote for Le Figaro a series of pastiches in which he imitated the style of Balzac, Michelet, Flaubert, Sainte-Beuve and other prose writers of the nineteenth century.
During this time he began his novel, although he fully intended to continue to write essays of literary, artistic and sociological criticism. One of these was supposed to be devoted to Sainte-Beuve. Gradually, however, all of his planned projects became part of a single larger work. During the summer of 1909 Proust developed the essay entitled "Contre Sainte-Beuve" into a novel which he would continue to write for the rest of his life. In May of 1913 he adopted for this novel the title À la recherche du temps perdu.
The first part, Du Côté de chez Swann, was published in November 1913. War delayed À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs until June 1919, but it won the Prix Goncourt in December of that year. For the last three years of his life Proust never stopped working on the novel, and it was during these years that three more volumes appeared: Le côté de Guermantes I (October 1920), Le côté de Guermantes II - Sodome et Gomorrhe I (May 1921), Sodome et Gomorrhe II (April 1922).
Proust died of pneumonia on November 18, 1922. The remaining volumes of his novel, which he had finished but not completely revised, were published by his brother Robert, with the help of Jacques Rivière and Jean Paulhan, directors of La Nouvelle Revue Française. These volumes were La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine disparue (1925) and Le Temps retrouvé (1927).
In his own lifetime the merit of Proust's novel was debated by those who perceived its brilliance and those who claimed it was unreadable. Today it is recognized as one of the major literary works of French expression.