Leland de la Durantaye in the Boston Review:
Just over a hundred years ago the first great novel of the twentieth century was published to absolutely no fanfare. After being turned down by a host of French publishing houses—including Gallimard, on the advice of André Gide—the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu was printed at Marcel Proust’s own expense in November 1913. Half a year later war broke out, paper was rationed, the lead used to set the book was melted down for munitions, and public attention was drawn far away from the miracles of memory related therein.
During the war Proust expanded his novel from a projected three volumes to seven. By 1919 Gide had changed his mind about this work in progress, and Gallimard proudly published its second volume. Within a Budding Grove promptly won France’s most prestigious literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt. National, then international, praise followed—in abundance. A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down to thank a friend for sending her a slab of nougat from Saint-Tropez, but, put in mind of France by the package, she soon found herself talking only of the novel. “My great adventure is really Proust,” she wrote, “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”
One of the most striking aspects of the reception of Proust’s work is how far and how fast that serenity and vitality stretched. One might think that a novel of more than 3,000 pages in which nothing of historical note happens would have a hard time finding an audience at home, and a still harder time abroad. But it did not.