What is Proust? A novelist? No.... it is a world of perception, sensitivity and insights into the human psyche, and especially: insight into the meaning and value of art.
In his great 7-volume novel: 'In search of lost time' (published 1913-1927), there is much talk about art, and an entire philosophy of art is developed.
Here follow some important quotes.
How should an artist, i.e. a serious one, begin his development?
'Do voluntary pastiches, in order to become original again afterwards, and not produce involuntary pastiches the rest of one's life.'
So, knowingly copy those who you admire, so that they don't creep into your work without you knowing it. Namely, knowingly copying the artists you admire does two things: 1) you learn from their craft; 2) you begin to find-out where you don't agree with them. In nr 2 you find something of your own authentic Self. Maurice Ravel gave exactly this advice to the few students he was prepared to teach a bit - reluctantly, it seems; and this goes entirely against the grain of 20C artistic ideologies. But this was also the method of the three greatest musical explorers of the early 20th century: Debussy, Schönberg, and Stravinsky. Even Debussy, who singlehandedly appeared to throw away the entire Western musical tradition, said so himself: I have produced nothing new, I simply took things I found with others and used them to my own taste. But that was the heart of the matter: his own, authentic taste, his real Self, his authenticity.
'Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves.'
As no other writer, Proust describes the many geological layers of the human psyche as they are developing one over the other, through time: layers of experience, growth, pleasure, suffering. By digging deep into the layers, we can find parts of our Self which are still there and which still influence the layer of the Present, which will in the future become one of the layers of the Past. This is the theme of his great novel. Also, by understanding how our Self developes through all those layers of individual experience, we can better understand other people who go through different experiences; it is here that art helps us, through trajectories of the imagination, to sympathize with other people and thus, to bridge differences and to realize that under the surface level of humanity, there is very much common ground. Reading good novels, looking at good paintings, listening to good music, opens doors to experiences other than our own. This has been extensively described by Proust in his famous novel, and along the way, he discovers one of the most important meanings of art in human life: it defeats time and its eroding effect upon the Self, and thereby overcomes the obstacles that Time lays before us.
In this way, art is a means to create new insights into ourselves, and to understand the world, and to let part of our psyche engage with timelessness, with eternity.
The man was simply right. He knew what art is for.