Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 14, 2010

Jack and Marcel, Conclusion

In the previous entry (CLICK HERE) I observed that two influential writers of the early 20th Century, Marcel Proust and Jack London, lived and worked at the same time. Proust was born about 4-1/2 years before London, and survived him by 6 years. I detailed a few of the facts of their early lives that were almost comletely different from one another: The circumstances of their families and upbringing were completely different, they had radically different educations, spoke different languages (although Proust did later achieve some level of skill in reading English), and almost certainly had never read one another’s writing. As their lives unfolded, Proust rarely traveled outside of France, or even more than a day’s journey from Paris. London, on the other hand, signed on for an adventurous sea voyage on a sealing ship when he was 16, and later in life ranged abroad and lived a strenuous, if short life.

Proust was always somewhat sickly and asthmatic, possibly because his notion of exercise consisted of getting out of bed and dressing for dinner, but also perhaps stemming from the fact that his mother was pregnant with him during the famine caused by the Prussian siege of Paris. London, too, had serious illnesses as he grew older, exacerbated, it seems clear, by alcohol and also by mis-prescribed or abused medications (which may be what actually killed him at age 40). That, however, is not enough to hang any serious correspondence upon, since the shelves of libraries are replete with works by ailing writers, in every age.

What I think joins these two men together is that they composed stories based on their own lives, and did so in a way that made them the implied heroes of their own work. As a result, even though neither one of them are widely read by the general public now, a hundred years after their publishing days, they still hold places as distinctive, vivid personalities, even for people who are only slightly familiar with their writing.

Proust is, in a way, the most obvious. The 3,000 pages of A la recherche de temps perdu tell the story of how an unnamed protagonist’s life follows a trajectory toward becoming a writer that is similar to many of the details of Proust’s progress. Many of the events are obviously autobiographical, and a significant number of the scores of characters who appear in the novel are derived from individuals Proust himself knew, including his parents, grandmother and other family members. However, although a relatively small number of readers have actually made their way through the seven books of the novel, a much larger number of people cold tell you that Marcel Proust was a French writer who spent years living an invalid existence in a cork-lined Parisian apartment while frequenting — between bouts of illness — a glittering series of social engagements and acquaintances. Proust set out in his book to accomplish an extremely arcane and sophisticated goal: to describe the very core of what it is that leads an individual to become an artist, and to depict through the accretion of a vast amount of detail the entire life story that leads to the moment of creation itself. Certainly French readers will know Proust better than we in the U.S., but even they may be more aware of Proust the man, filtered through his own fictionalized account of his life, than with the work itself.

London had no such lofty goals in his fiction, although, it’s true, he did have an axe to grind: his conviction that the capitalist economy ground workers under its heel to enrich the greedy and impoverish those who labored. One can read a lot of London adventure stories, though, and not be aware of his socio-political views. London started writing for one purpose: to make money. He was driven to escape the future he saw for himself as a young man with no particular skills, no access to capital, and with no position in society.

At a critical moment in his life, when he was assiduously reading every book or article that came to hand, he became convinced that he could step into a space of influence and potential reward as a writer. He worked hard at it, and he was willing to write anything that would sell; he wrote poems and humorous sketches and magazine articles and stories. He pawned some of his clothes to buy a typewriter (which, in turn, he occasionally pawned when money was scarce). His adventure stories of the Klondike and life at sea and in the gold fields of the West sold, and that became his metier.

Here’s the point: his own life having had a certain robust, roustabout character, which informed many of his stories, he was never shy about allowing the public to associate all the adventures he described in his writing with his own persona. If the notion was floating about that Jack had trod a Horatio Alger-like path from starvation to wealth, from near illiteracy to writing greatness, he did not object. His was, by all accounts, a charismatic and powerful personality, and he did not mind if his public persona was based as much upon elements of his fiction — the extreme world of “The Call of the  Wild” or “To Build a Fire” — as upon actual biography. He told great stories and he was enormously successful in his day, in translation as well as in English. He was the Tom Clancy or John Grisham of his day. But I’m betting that you know Jack London as a kind of dimly remembered adventurer, and not a successful writer who owned 1,000 acres of prime Sonoma County land.

Plenty of writers became superstars before Proust and London: from the generation before them, Twain and Dickens come immediately to mind. But we still read those latter writers regularly, and we know their writing well. It would be interesting to compile one’s own list of writers whose work we don’t really know, yet who are household names. This achievement of fame based upon one’s own self-aggrandizement that provides the link between M. Proust and Mr. London, and perhaps  it says something about the growth of “celebrity culture” at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Do pick up the books when you get a chance.

Photos in this blog accessed from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons guidelines for noncommercial application.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016


  1. Forget Jake and Marc, check out Herm and Nate:


  2. Nice surprise. I expected……well, I do not know what I expected, but your connection between London and Proust makes sense, is straightforward and looks to be right on the mark. Most of all, it was fun to read. Thanks.


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