How Proust lost the ‘plot’ and nudged literature into the future

Thursday 30 March 2017

There was a time in literature when authors lost the plot. This was signalled by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, one of the most important novels to shift literature’s emphasis away from plot to a more subjective exploration of perspective and emotional responses.

Its seven volumes about memory, mortality and art, the belle époque, and the leisured and aristocratic classes of Paris, have enthralled lovers of literature for the last century, while its signature image of a madeleine dipped in tea now signals the idea of involuntary memory —the ‘Proustian moment — around the world.

This spring the School of Advanced Study at the University of London will recreate some of the most memorable ideas and scenes behind this novel about memory with its ‘Marcel Proust and the belle époque’ event at Senate House, London, on 11 May (6.30–10pm).

Part of its Living Literature series, designed by Professor Sarah Churchwell, ‘Marcel Proust and the belle époque’ is an immersive exploration of the historical, literary, technological, political and artistic dimensions of the French author’s most famous novel, and a celebration of Proust’s writing.

“If you’re trying to design an immersive event inspired by a book that is rich in sensory impressions, there is no more iconic work in the Western tradition than Proust’s Recherche,” says Professor Churchwell, public engagement chair and professorial fellow in American literature at the School’s Institute of English Studies.  

“It has it all: memory, taste, painting, music, food (more food), fashion, desire, as well as the coming of modern life and all it entails. It is, in one sense, a book about leaving the 19th century behind, so it seems fitting that we will try to create an event that brings that pivotal turn-of-the-century moment up to the present, joining it with cutting-edge research into how the senses and memory work together—ideas that Proust intuited, and have now been borne out by science.”

The Living Literature public engagement initiative aims to bring iconic works of art to life using research expertise and immersive settings. At May’s Proust event leading researchers in Proust and memory will highlight key aspects from the book in pop-up talks, while an authentic Magic Lantern show will recreate 19th-century entertainment.

The relationships between tastes, smells, sounds and memories will also be explored with visitors. Senses expert Professor Barry C Smith will lead a number of workshops exploring memory, smell and association, while throughout the evening composer Dr Paul Archbold will present classical recreations of Proust’s imaginary Vinteuil Sonata through compositions believed to have inspired the author, including César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns.

And to consider the influence Proust’s sexuality had on his writing, Dr Dominic Janes, a specialist in the histories of gender and sexuality, will give a ‘performative’ lecture on the use of floral metaphors in the novel and their relation to gay desire and identity in 19th-century France.

The Senate House event will seek to explore how cues encountered in everyday life can evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort — in much the same way that Marcel Proust pioneered back at the turn of the last century.

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Notes to Editors:

1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653  / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk.

2. Living Literature is a new series of events from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, bringing an iconic work of art to life by using research expertise to shape an audience’s experience. Based on the model of immersive theatre, these immersive lectures will break down the barriers between audience and lecturer, and between audience and work of art, by creating dynamic, participatory avenues for audiences to discover key ideas, themes, histories, and contexts. Find out more at http://livingliterature.org.uk/.

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2015-16, SAS: welcomed 786 research fellows and associates; held 2,007 research dissemination events; received 24.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,145 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities: Being Human. Find out more at http://www.sas.ac.ukor follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The University of London is a federal university and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the university is recognised globally as a world leader in higher education. Its members are 18 self-governing institutions of outstanding reputation, and nine research institutes. Learn more about the University of London at http://www.london.ac.uk.