Proust Archives Come to Auction

PARIS.- It is extremely rare to see the archives of a great writer appear on the market. One of those events is the auction on 31 May at Sotheby’s Paris of the collection of the great-grandniece of Marcel Proust, Patricia Mante-Proust.

This moving collection takes book lovers into the intimate world of a brilliant writer through over 120 photographs, books, manuscripts and letters, all shedding light on his work, friends and love life.

Designed as a reference work, the catalogue prefaced by Jean-Yves Tadié, extensively documented and illustrated, presents all lots in chronological order: it is a true biography of the writer.

Photographs

Through these photographs, Proust's entire life unfolds before our eyes: as a child of around 11 with his young brother Robert (estimate: €2,000-3,000); his beloved grandmother, who inspired one of the characters in A la recherche du temps perdu (estimate: €1,000-1,500); his parents, of course, and himself as an adult.

The collection includes one of the most famous portraits of Marcel Proust (estimate: €4,000-6,000). A notorious portrait of three friends by Otto shows the writer with Lucien Daudet, gazing languorously at Marcel, and Robert de Flers. At his parents' insistence, he had to collect up all the prints to prevent the picture from circulating (estimate: €5,000-8,000).

Books & Manuscripts

The first book published by Proust, Les Plaisirs et les jours in 1896, grouping together all the novellas published since 1892, also features. His brother Robert's copy contains a touching declaration of brotherly love: "O brother dearer than the light of day!" (estimate: €10,000-15,000).

John Ruskin, a specialist in French religious art, inspired two drawings by Proust – among his best. Unlike Victor Hugo, Proust was not at all a gifted draughtsman, but never lost his humor.

One of his most sophisticated drawings, probably from between 1901 and 1904, is of the Amiens Cathedral (estimate: €10,000-15,000). He gave it to Reynaldo Hahn, his closest friend, whom he met in 1894. The passion of their early years developed into an unshakeable friendship that lasted until the writer's death in 1922.

The first edition of Du côté de chez Swann opens with a long signed autograph envoi, part of which has never been published, to Walter Berry, dated July 1916. "Sir, you probably think, as I do, that the wisest, most poetic and best people are not those who put all their poetry, goodness and knowledge into their work, but those who, with a skillful and prodigal hand, also put a little into their lives." (estimate: €20,000-30,000). The envoi alludes to the volume with the Guermantes coat of arms Berry had given to Proust.

The remarkable galley proof of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs [1914-1919], hitherto unknown, and mostly written by hand, sheds considerable light on our understanding of the novel.

With many crossings-out and corrections, in extremely spontaneous writing, this galley shows us how the author wrote as the words gushed out, with all his subsequent changes of mind.

After the publication of Du côté de chez Swann in 1913, Grasset had begun on that of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs in 1914, but the war delayed it. Proust took advantage of this to correct his text: working on the printed proofs, he considerably changed and added to it.

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs won the Prix Goncourt, and Proust soon began to explore the idea of a luxury edition of the novel, perhaps for financial reasons (estimate: €20,000-25,000).

Correspondences

The letters Proust exchanged with his father and brother Robert are some of the most moving, and there are very few.

The most precious, dated 1893, is one of only three known letters to his father, who did not consider literature a profession. Marcel Proust submits to his father's wishes while asserting his calling: "For me, anything… but literature and philosophy is a waste of time." The writer's determination can be discerned, just as we can guess at the fierce arguments he must have had with his father (estimate: €10,000-15,000).

The 1896 letters to Reynaldo Hahn are the most appealing of this extraordinary correspondence. In them, Proust lays his heart bare, as he does nowhere else. Three extremely moving letters feature in this collection:

The first is a long six-page letter in which Proust tells Reynaldo Hahn that he is "truly the person I love the most in the world, together with my mother" (estimate: €15,000-20,000).

In the second, he expresses his bitter jealousy and sadness in the middle of the break-up with his beloved. However, they remained friends until the writer's death in 1922 (estimate: €20,000-25,000).

The third is the last letter Hahn wrote to Proust, a month before his death. At the request of his brother Robert, he tries to persuade the writer to get some serious medical treatment: "I know [...] that I can do nothing for my dearest friend, one of the people I have loved most in my life" (estimate: €8,000-12,000).

Photo above: Studio Hermann & Cie. Marcel et Robert Proust enfants. [Vers 1882]. Photographie originale. Estimate: 2 000-3 000 €. Photo: Sotheby's.