Illiers Combray and Marcel Proust.
Paris. First years of the 20th century. In a bed, a man with a moustache is writing a book containing every remain that he could touch, feel and live when he was a child. This man constructed one of the most influence books in the History of Literature. We are talking about Marcel Proust and the little town of Illiers.
Marcel Proust was born in Paris, in Auteuil, a quartier near of the Bois of Boulogne, in 1871. His father, Adrien Proust, was a famous doctor who will leave him a solid scientific background, always present in his books. His mother was Jeanne Clemence Veil, a posh and protective woman, first responsible of the exquisite likes of the future writer.
The family used to go to Illiers in Easter. There, his uncles Jules Amiot and Elisabeth Proust had a house, a lost Paradise in his child’s imagination, where he was really happy.
Illiers was a village 25 km. from Chartres, a sea of wheat and corn, of peace and smells, of little streets and memories, source of inspiration to ‘In Search of Lost Time’, the giant biographic novel of Proust (seven volumes).
Then Illiers and his big church, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, will become the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ take place. In fact, in 1971 Illiers was renamed as Illiers-Combray (or Illiers Combray) to honor Proust, as a part of the centenary celebrations of Proust’s birth, and now has a Proust Museum located in the house of Jules and Elisabeth.
What did it happen? By the age of nine, Proust had his first serious asthma attack (he will be always considered a sickly child) and his parents will stop the holydays in Illiers. Time, where was his lost time? Where his childhood?
Illiers Combray, about four thousand people, a place full of tourists, where they take a cup of tea and a madeleine and remember the famous episode of ‘Swann’s Way’ is now turning into a modern place, and the post-industrial society is replacing that peaceful society of peasants.
Again: time, where is our lost time, our memories?
Marcel Proust portrayed Combray as an old-fashioned society of rigid social distinctions and long-preserved traditions, providing its people with a sense of comfortable safety and locking them in the past. Then, Proust associated Combray with his family (he started to write seriously after the death of his mother and his following personal depressive state). Paris in his novel is opposed to Combray because it was associated with the swift changes and excitements of Proust’s adult life: in spite of his bad health, he ran a very social life, regular at salons and cafes, friend with so many madams, artists and important people that the list could be endless.
The village is also associated with a pastoral, idyllic conception of the countryside, as seen in the two country walks, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, taken by Marcel Proust and his family. His wish to describe the beauty of the flowering hawthorns and scenery punctuated by distant church spires, it’s an important part of origin of Proust’s wish to become a writer.
Now we can take a look to Illiers Combray and we can feel the final joke of time, we can feel how Proust’s words about Illiers Combray have converted it into a touristic town surrounded with an emerging industrial district outside.
Once more, Proust was in true: time changes all and we can just feel the happiness of the childhood in our deepest remains.