Letters showing how Marcel Proust waged a charm offensive to win France’s top literary prize — and ensure his books got glowing reviews — will go under the hammer next month.
Like many an ambitious and well-connected writer after him, the cache lays bare how the author of “Remembrance of Things Past” pulled every possible string to make sure his books were hailed as masterpieces.
Proust roped in friends like Jean Cocteau and his young lover Lucien Daudet — the son of the celebrated novelist Alphonse Daudet — to make sure that his books got the praise he felt they deserved.
Sixteen letters that Proust wrote to the influential newspaperman Rene Blum between 1913 and 1916 form the core of the October 7 sale at Christie’s in Paris.
The correspondence, which runs to 90 pages, is expected to go for up to 300,000 euros ($331,000).
In it, the hypochondriac dandy goes to extreme lengths to ensure that “Swann’s Way”, the first part of his seven-volume magnum opus, is published exactly the way he wanted — by paying for the printing himself.
– Grand plans –
“If (the publisher) Monsieur Grasset agrees to take it” in the normal way, he wrote, “he will read it, make me wait, suggest changes and then put it out in little editions.”
But the wealthy Proust had grander plans for his book, wanting it to be published in a flashy luxury edition.
Before a publishing contract was even signed, he was already plotting how the book would win prizes.
If the publisher agrees, he wrote in February 1913, “I could put it up for the Prix Goncourt” — France’s premier literary prize.
When Blum convinced Grasset to publish the book, Proust was beside himself with joy, telling his friend that “you can ask me any favour and I will grant it with pleasure.”
When rival publishing house Gallimard began to show interest in “Swann’s Way” — which contains the famous madeleine moment as Proust eats a cake that takes him back to his childhood — he wrote again to Blum begging him to help him get out of his contract with Grasset.
Gaston Gallimard wound up buying all 200 unsold copies of “Swann’s Way” from Grasset in October 1917 and resold them under a different cover.
Eighteen months later, with World War I over, he republished it himself with the second volume of the saga, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”.
– Top prize –
It went on to upset the odds and win the Prix Goncourt in December 1919.
An autographed copy of the book which Proust sent to the critic and poet Henri Gheon as part of his charm offensive is expected to fetch around 12,000 euros in the Christie’s sale.
Bidding for a luxury edition of the book from the collection pianist Alfred Cortot could reach 120,000 euros, according to the auction house.
The sale comes as nine newly discovered novellas by the master, dating from the very beginning of his career, are set to be published in France.
The texts were originally to be part of Proust’s first book, “Les Plaisirs et les Jours” (Pleasures and Days), a collection of poems and short stories published in 1896.
“The Mysterious Correspondent and Other Unpublished Novellas” will come off the presses on October 9.
Original drawings by Antoine de Saint-Exupery for his children’s classic “The Little Prince” will also go under the hammer at the Christie’s sale, with a guide price of around 40,000 euros.