The society figures on whom Proust modeled his characters were sportsmen, horse owners, polo players, riders to hounds. Sports are woven in and out of the 12 long volumes that make up the complete work, something down-to-earth in the midst of social intrigues and intellectual abstractions—fishing in the first two books, Swann's Way, golf and tennis in the next two, Within a Budding Grove, and so on, down through automobile touring in Cities of the Plain, and even flying, a new pastime of the French aristocracy in Proust's day, in The Captive.
More significantly, the central story that runs through no less than half the volumes is the love story of the narrator and Albertine, a young girl whose life is bound up with athletic pursuits, who relishes the outdoors, fresh air and exercise. Proust's marvelous portrait of her is the most human of his many brilliant characterizations, set as it is against his depiction of women of society and the boredom and sterile wit and insolence of the social world. The tale of this energetic girl and a gifted, frail, hypersensitive young intellectual is one of the more engaging love stories in modern literature, and one of the saddest.
There may always have been something wistful about Proust's interest in sports. He fished and swam as a boy and fenced and rode horseback as a young man, but never as much as he wanted. The source of the River Loir was only two miles from Illiers, and in his early years he was fascinated by "the bright and ever-flowing stream," longing for the time when he would be allowed to fish. Then, when he was old enough to go fishing with his brother, he envied a solitary angler in a boat and mused on "the pleasure...in fishing for trout, in drifting by myself.... I asked nothing more from life...than that it should consist always of a series of joyous afternoons."
Proust's mother, a quiet woman with literary interests, was the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. His father was a successful physician. Neither parent was inclined to encourage Marcel in any kind of roughhouse, let alone competitive athletics, especially after the boy suffered severe asthma attacks. There were often long intervals between such attacks, but after they first occurred when he was nine, Marcel's life was closely supervised. He went to school at the Lyc�e Condorcet, an old, fortresslike building near his home, where there were no organized sports. The students played marbles in the paved courtyard. Marcel left a record of his envy of a rich boy who sat next to him in class and who owned genuine agates, costing 5� apiece, while ordinary marbles were only two for a penny.
When school was out at three o'clock Proust raced with his schoolmates to the Champs-Elys�es, where they played prisoner's base and hide-and-seek with the girls who were taken there by their governesses. One of the girls was Marie de Benardaky, the daughter of a wealthy Polish tea merchant; at 15 Proust wrote of her rapturously to a friend, praising her exuberance and the fact that she fought with her fists. She also excelled at throwing snowballs.
Along the north side of the Champs-Elys�es there is a narrow line of trees and shrubbery, directly across from where the United States embassy is now located. It has been named All�e Marcel Proust in recognition of Proust's 50-page description in Remembrance of Things Past of the pleasure of playing marbles and prisoner's base there.
One of Proust's classmates at the lyc�e was Jacques Bizet, whose father was the composer of Carmen. Another was Daniel Hal�vy, whose father collaborated on the librettos for Offenbach's comic operas. Most were the sons of well-to-do professional people who took their accomplishments seriously and never got over their irritation at being remembered merely because Proust went to school with them. One of them wrote: "In our little group were future scholars, philosophers, industrialists, doctors, engineers, economists, politicians, barristers, generals and an ambassador." By those standards Proust did not amount to much. "There was something unpleasant about him," said Hal�vy after Proust's death. Asked if the boys had been severe with Proust he said, "Severe! That isn't the word. We were rough with him." Or, as George Painter translated it, "We were beastly to him."
Proust went to the lyc�e for seven years. He graduated in 1889 and at 18 enlisted in the army. He lived in the barracks of the 76th Infantry in Orleans, trained with other recruits, marched, exercised, swam, rode and fenced. He later described this period of his life as "paradise." He was assigned to clerical duty in division headquarters, but was sent back to the ranks because nobody could decipher his handwriting. Taking a training class to prepare for promotion, he placed 63rd in a class of 64. The only concessions the army made to his health were to exempt him from jumping ditches in riding exercises and from early morning parade, but Proust developed a passion for riding to hounds when off duty, found a chateau to rent in the fox-hunting country around Orl�ans and investigated the cost and upkeep of a pack of hounds. But as generally proved to be the case with his sporting ventures, nothing came of it.
In addition to his barracks companions, Proust came to know Gaston Arman de Caillavet, son of the yachting editor of the daily Figaro. International yacht racing at the time was entering its golden age, with the challenges of Lord Dunraven's Valkyrie and Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock for the America's Cup, and the vogue for the Royal Yacht Squadron races at Cowes. The Caillavets began inviting Proust to their home where each Sunday evening they entertained a literary gathering, including Anatole France. Invariably present was Jeanne Pouquet, a slim, round-faced girl, a rider to hounds and a tennis player. She was engaged to Gaston, but he was slow-moving about such things as getting married. Each Tuesday night Jeanne's mother held a dance at her house, beginning at 10 p.m., and Proust became a regular there as soon as he got out of the army. He also haunted a tennis court at Neuilly when he knew Jeanne was to play. There is no record of any Proust tennis successes. In fact, they are unlikely. Proust is remembered for bringing a picnic basket to the court, and while sturdier men were slamming the balls at each other he sat under the trees doling out food and drink to their girl friends. Jeanne feigned anger at Proust's overly conspicuous admiration of her, but was sufficiently flattered to tolerate it for more than two years until Gaston finally married her. It may have been in this period when he was close to the Caillavets that Proust became fascinated with sailing. At one time he even spoke of hiring a yacht. He apparently never got around to it.
Proust studied for three years at the Sorbonne after leaving the army. Two years later he passed a stiff competitive examination for an unpaid job as attach� to the Institute of France library. This was considered an ideal post for a writer of independent means. But Proust seldom went to work after getting the position, pleading ill health. The librarian tolerated the situation for three years though Proust's health seemed excellent and the duties were not heavy labor. Proust was more concerned with winning acceptance in Parisian society.