The book that changed the world
The Oldie Magazine|July 2021
On Marcel Proust’s 150th anniversary, A N Wilson praises his masterpiece, an exquisite comedy with no parallel
A N Wilson

Those of us who survived lockdown might not have been aware that the idea for it was invented by a Parisian professor of medicine, who coined the phrase cordon sanitaire to fight the typhoid that devastated 19th-century European cities.

It was Dr Adrien Proust whom we have to thank for the containment and eventual elimination of this terrible plague. In À la recherche du temps perdu, we realise that the narrator’s father is a distinguished man of medicine, but of far more interest is the fact that his family apartment is next door to that of the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Proust is, without any rival, the greatest novelist of the twentieth century and we can all rejoice in his existence. It is 150 years since he was born on 10th July 1871. If you have never read him, do so. Some people are deterred by the length of his novel, but if you put all the Bertie Wooster stories end to end they would take up more room on the shelf.

Proust is as funny as Wodehouse. He is the classic example of art being the philosopher’s stone which turns all to gold. If you had met this prickly, vain little man, you might well have found him tiresome, snobbish and camp.

When Harold Nicolson met him, Proust asked, ‘Give me an imitation of an English duchess. She is standing at the top of a staircase welcoming her guests. How does she display, with some subtle flicker of eyelash, some tone of voice, that she recognises that some of her guests are Jewish; some are commoner than others?’

Nicolson primly, and surely inaccurately, replied that no English lady would allow such distinctions to ‘show’ in her social behaviour. Proust incredulously squealed, ‘Vous vous moquez de moi!’

Yet the funny little (five-foot-six) snob, who, until he reached middle age, had accomplished very little except his national service in the army (which he had greatly enjoyed – all those gorgeous vicomtes in uniform) and the composition of articles for Le Figaro in purplish prose, was carrying within him, like the Madonna at the Visitation, a world-changing phenomenon: a book without any parallels or rivals.

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