'“For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes . . . my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say: ‘I’m going to sleep’ and half an hour later the thought that it was time to sleep would awaken me.”'
In those opening lines of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s best-known novel, In Search of Lost Time, the French writer (and neuroscientist) followed advice furnished time and again to young scribes — write what you know. Proust, who died in 1922 at the age of 61, battled insomnia from a young age. A recent paper on Proust’s tormented relationship with rest suggests that Proust wouldn’t have left the world with words we’ve since immortalized in hundreds of imprints and millions of tattered pages if not for his maladies.
While the “if not for…” argument may not hold up, the paper does supply some tell-me-more tidbits about Proust’s upbringing and sketch a telling portrait of late-19th century medical culture.
According to the paper, Proust “was considered a weak and sick child with a sensitive, insecure, and dependent personality that was probably due to a morbid relationship with his mother.” From as early as nine years old, he struggled with the twin pillars of his poor health, insomnia and asthma, as well as a “a list of diseases associated with a frail personality” including fever, headaches, stomach problems and joint pain.
The grab bag of medical issues landed him with an official diagnosis of neurasthenia, which 19th-century medical minds used as a term for nonspecific, fatigue-related complaints. Like today's poorly understood chronic-pain disorders, neurasthenia attracted skepticism, earning the nickname of “Americanitis” due to its popularity among disease-happy Americans.
Privilege bought Proust top-shelf doctors who dismissed his faltering health. (His doctor literally wrote the textbook on asthma, not that it did any good. In “The Hygiene of Asthmatics,” the guide to asthma, the doting Dr. Brissaud presented the disease as “pure neurosis.”) His family didn’t swoop in to reassure their young literary master, either. In a letter to his mother, Proust wrote, “Papa told everyone that my asthma is imaginary.”
Though it’s not apparent that neurasthenia predated Proust’s insomnia, the paper suggests that the distress of dealing with naysayers severely exacerbated his sleep issues. In his teens, Proust spent a six-week hospital stay in “semi-isolation” to improve his breathing and reset his increasingly irregular sleep patterns. But it didn't help. He grew older and sicker as well, as more anxious and sleep-deprived.
Personal setbacks, particularly the death of his mother, with whom he was somewhere between heartwarmingly and uncomfortably close, didn’t help. In Swann’s Way, he '“recounts his anxiety at leaving his mother at night and his attempts to force her to kiss him goodnight, because only this relieved his anxiety and let him rest comfortably. “The concession which my mother made to my wretchedness was... to give me the kiss of peace,” he wrote."'
Later in life, Proust tried self-treating his asthma (not like we could blame him) with stimulants, including caffeine and epinephrine. Over time, his sleep-wake rhythms shifted. In his final years, he submitted to his nocturnal ways. He slept by day and wrote by night, electing to wake up mid-evening and take his breakfast around 11 p.m. He may have been wired for life to begin with.
Proust’s lousy health, particularly his asthma and insomnia, the paper argues, weren’t merely pesky health problems. Quite the opposite. “Proust begins his journey through memory in In Search of Lost Time, starting from his insomnia,” paper authors wrote. “Probably, if Proust had not suffered from insomnia, he would not have left us such a great masterpiece.”