I used to go to bed early
“Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure” (“For a long time I used to go to bed early”) … So begins the extraordinary story of a young boy on the verge of falling asleep, immersed in darkness, having to wait for his mother’s kiss and nursing a vivid imagination. This phrase is the first line of “Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust (1871-1922), published in 1913, the first volume of “A la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”), and it has become one of the most famous lines in the French language.
The caverns of unconscious
For numerous readers around the world it is a legendary book that addresses many intimate and often silent subjects that its author was able to articulate in remarkable ways. This fascination, which directly permeates the caverns of our unconscious, is enough to feed numerous possessive desires. Owning a piece of “La Recherche”, or a handwritten note by its author, can ignite passions.
A double catalogue
To fuel these passions, Parisian former bookseller Jean-Claude Vrain has just published a double catalogue dedicated to Marcel Proust. 3.5 kilos. 110 euros. This compilation of almost 900 pages of manuscripts, letters and photos has been lavishly assembled as a means of documenting the work itself but also the life and relationships of its author. The spectacular project, the result – according to Jean-Claude Vrain – of 40 years of collecting, resonates with no less than three exhibitions staged in Paris over recent months.
The first, “Marcel Proust, Un roman parisien”, took place at the Musée Carnavalet up until 10 April 2022 and mapped the cartography of the Proustian universe in the French capital, while also revealing fragments of his private life, such as the police report detailing his arrest at a men’s brothel. The institution was also able to reconstruct the bedroom where the man of letters, whose health was fragile, spent much of his time.
The second, which ran until 28 August 2022 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, entitled “Marcel Proust. Du côté de la mère”, examined the writer’s Jewish identity and multiple aspects of his life. And lastly the third, “Marcel Proust, La Fabrique de l’œuvre” which ran until 22 January 2023, analysed his writing technique while also taking up certain aspects from the two other exhibitions.
Texas’s University of Austin
The Bibliothèque Nationale has the largest archive of manuscripts by Marcel Proust. But contrary to expectations Texas’s University of Austin, thanks to the generosity of the collector Carlton Lake, an American former art critic (1915-2006), has a wealth of 78 notes written by Proust to his famous maid and companion, Céleste Albaret, along with a manuscript and fragments of text from “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs” (“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”).
Jean -Baptiste de Proyart
While the market for “relics” from his oeuvre is international, it is also, as bookseller and expert Jean-Baptiste de Proyart points out, a result of the fact that his work was superbly translated into German by one of the great intellectuals of modern art, Walter Benjamin, and into English by Charles Scott Moncrieff.
The death as a begining
Proust’s now legendary life, as we know it today, begins with his death. The doctor Robert Proust, the writer’s brother and great admirer of his work as well as a friend for a while of Marcel’s lover, the composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), orchestrated a true induction into posterity for the deceased writer by bringing photographers and artists to his deathbed, with the help of Jean Cocteau, among others.
On his death bed
The expert at Sotheby’s in Paris, Benoît Puttemans, described this event in the newsletter for the Society for the Friends of Marcel Proust in 2022. It took place when he was 51 years old, on Saturday 18 November 2022, after he had refused all care for some time in his bedroom on Rue de l’Amiral Hamelin in the 16th arrondissement. Friends continued to attend right up until he was placed in his coffin. Among them were various artists, including painters Paul Dunoyer de Segonzac, Paul-César Helleu and the photographer who was close to the Dadaists, the American Man Ray (1890-1976). “There are 18 artistic post-mortem interventions made by eight different artists who practiced drawing, etching or photography,” highlights Benoît Puttemans. The portrait by Man Ray is considered to be the most famous today.
“Occasionally I was asked to photograph someone on their deathbed. I accepted: it was repugnant,” he revealed, adding: “but it didn’t cause me any problems – no danger of the subject moving or having to be consulted about the result. It was like photographing a baby.” We recall that a photo in the surrealist spirit, signed by Man Ray, “Le violon d’Ingres”, sold for the record price of 11.9 million euros in May 2022. Jean-Claude Vrain is presenting a print of Proust on his deathbed for 25,000 euros. Seven have gone to auction since 1989, selling for up to 18,200 euros. However some are no longer attributed to Man Ray.
The Vrain catalogue contains a total of 68 images of Marcel Proust, many of which were made during his military service (5,500 euros) or in the latter days of his life on the Terrasse du Jeu de Paume (39,000 euros).
As for the rest, there are two schools of Proustian manuscripts: those that are fundamentally linked to his work and those that also fuel a certain fetishism for him as a person, an activity described as “Marcellisme” by the philosopher Roland Barthes.
In the latter category we find, for example, the avid fans of Proust’s drawings. The BNF catalogue specifies that “Marcel Proust in no respect counts among the writer-illustrators (…) Yet fifty-one out of the seventy-five notebooks for ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’, making up two-thirds, contain his pen and ink drawings.” The record in this respect, according to the Artprice database, is an ink drawing of a car accident which sold for 37,700 euros in 2012.
Dreyfus affair and love
Marcel Proust wrote prolifically throughout his relatively short life. Generally speaking, the most expensive handwritten letters are those that address his oeuvre, his private life, or his Jewishness during the era of the Dreyfus affair. In mid-July 1912 Marcel Proust suggested to Reynaldo Hahn that they live together. A handwritten note proves this: “And if you do not like it here then I shall move and we can go wherever you like. What do you think?” (13,500 euros).
Handwritten by Marcel
According to Jean-Baptiste de Proyart, a handwritten letter by Proust about a relatively banal subject trades starting from 3000 euros. He remarks, however, that “a major letter that deals substantially with the oeuvre itself sells for between 30,000 and 70,000 euros. As for the famous ‘placards’, the typed texts with abundant handwritten corrections, their prices start from 80,000 and 70,000 euros. They are remnants of the oeuvre as it was coming into being. They are very visual proof. The Bibliothèque Nationale also dedicated an entire room to them, very effectively.”
The first edition
Lastly, a Proustian collection wouldn’t be complete without an original edition (the first) of one of the volumes of “La Recherche”. The record price in this field dates from December 2018 for an original edition of “Swann’s Way”, printed on precious paper, Japan paper, which had belonged to Pierre Bergé (the famous partner of Yves Saint Laurent) with an inscription to the writer Léon Daudet, and sold for 1.5 million euros. The same volume in regular paper is presented, newly bound, in the Vrain catalogue for 9000 euros.
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