Marcel Proust paid for good reviews of his masterpiece in newspapers
The French writer Marcel Proust paid for glowing reviews of the first volume of his Remembrance of Things Past to be put into newspapers, letters by the great author reveal.
The novelist wrote the notices himself and sent them to be typed up by his publisher “so there is no trace of my handwriting” to distance himself “absolutely from the money that will change hands".
The letters have come to light with an extremely rare copy of Swann's Way which is expected to go for around half a million euros (US$580,000) when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Paris next month.
They make it clear that Proust orchestrated the operation himself from his bed, promising his editor at the publishers Grasset that he would “of course, pay him back in full”.
The wealthy writer paid 300 francs - around €1,000 today - for a flattering reference to Swann’s Way to appear on the front page of the Figaro, then, as now, one of France’s leading dailies.
He paid a further 660 francs for another much larger summary of a glowing review by a friend of his to similarly appear on the front page of the Journal des Debats. Both notices were favourably edited versions of an already highly laudatory review his old friend the painter Jacques Emile-Blanche - whose portrait of Proust hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris - had written on the first part of his monumental masterpiece. The letters to his editor Louis Brun show that Hollywood marketing hucksters had little to teach Proust when it came to the dark arts of hype and selective editing.
“Swann’s Way”, he wrote, is a “little masterpiece” which “like a gust of wind blows away the soporific vapours” of everything else currently on sale.
Comparing himself to Dickens, he declared: “What Monsieur Proust sees and feels is completely original”.
Indeed, his writing was “almost too luminous for the eye... This books suggest almost the fourth dimension of the Cubists”. Proust tried to get three other publications to carry the highlights of his friend’s review, although he was only prepared to offer money to sweeten their passage to one of them, the Gil Blas daily.
The letters also record his fury at the Figaro - for which he sometimes worked -- for editing out a reference to him as “the eminent Marcel Proust”.
Proust’s desperation for publicity by fair means or foul was partly because he was having to pay for the book’s publication himself, experts said.
A string of publishing houses had turned it down before Brun persuaded his boss Bernard Grasset to take it in 1913 - but only if the author paid all the costs. Even so Grasset had no great hopes for it, telling a friend to whom he gave an advance copy: “It’s unreadable”.
However, within weeks of its publication some critics saw it as a work of genius.
“The publisher Gaston Gallimard would later write to Proust saying that turning it down was the biggest mistake of his career,” said Benoit Puttemans of Sotheby’s. Ever the aesthete, Proust had a special edition run off to celebrate in expensive “Japan tissue” made from the bark of mulberry trees.
Only four copies still exist - one of which he gifted to Brun for the delicate operations he undertook on his behalf. It will now go under the hammer with the letters on October 30. “It’s a copy to die for,” said Proust’s biographer Jean-Yves Tadie. Sotheby’s estimate it will go from between €400,000 and €600,000.
Puttemans said that paying for good reviews “did happen at the time. And Proust did it magisterially. He was never very direct.
“He was acting as his own press agent, passing off little articles about his book that he had written himself but which he wanted to make out were written by other people.”
Consumate society player that he was, “he wrote that a great painter has written an article about a wonderful book, distributing compliments to everyone along the way,” said Puttemans.
“Proust wanted to please everyone.” The man described by Graham Greene as the “greatest writer of the 20th century” had earlier used his considerable society contacts to land a string of interviews to promote the book, holding forth from his bed in a room lined with cork to shield him from the sound of the city outside his mansion’s doors.