by Laura Furrer, graduate student in French
Letter from Marcel Proust to Louis Brun, 17 July 19181
This copy of a letter from Proust is in Céleste Albaret‘s handwriting. From 1914 until his death in 1922, Céleste was Proust’s devoted housekeeper. Philip Kolb notes that this copy was found among Proust’s papers after his death.2 Kolb explains that Céleste must have made it, on Proust’s instructions, before the original was sent to Brun. In transcribing the original letter, Céleste inadvertently skipped over an entire sheet.
Louis Brun was Bernard Grasset’s business partner. In 1913, Grasset had published Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, at the author’s expense. The letter provides insight into the difficulties faced by Proust as he attempted to get the remaining volumes of his novel published elsewhere. World War I slowed or halted most literary publications, including at Grasset, due to paper shortages3 and Bernard Grasset being drafted.4 By July 1918, Proust was working toward publishing his second volume.
Proust’s contract with Grasset was less than ideal. He made little money from it, and one publishing house in particular offered more prestige as well as better financial conditions: La Nouvelle Revue Française (the “New French Review” or NRF). This letter continues the process of rupture with Grasset, initiated approximately two years earlier, in July 1916.5 In a letter to Proust dated six days earlier,6 Brun states that he is aware that Proust is trying to get the second volume published elsewhere, and that there are two issues to be settled: first, the rights to the second and third printings of Swann’s Way must be purchased from Grasset, and second, compensation must be paid to the publishing house for the rights to its sequel.
In his response to Brun, Proust introduces Gaston Gallimard, a founder of the NRF, as “my editor.” Proust was unable to correspond with Gallimard on this issue as Gallimard was in the United States. He reports, however, that Gallimard had met with Grasset and had purchased from him the rights to print more copies of Swann’s Way, at what Proust calls “an elevated price.”
[…] I recently saw my publisher and friend Gaston Gallimard and, while chatting with him, I happened to allude to the question of indemnity.
Since Proust has brought his manuscript to the NRF, he states it would be “natural” for them to handle any compensation owed to Grasset, but he disputes Grasset’s claim to additional compensation for the rights to his second volume. The dispute was resolved by the end of the year. In 1919 Proust published his second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, with the NRF: the book would go on to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
This letter contains not only information on the publication of Proust’s novel, but also perspective into his personal experience of wartime realities. He states:
[…] for your kind offer to come chat with me. My health would make it very difficult, other than in the evening,
and in the evening, ever since the Gothas, the trip is difficult. Furthermore, since I do not leave my bed during the sirens, and since I live on an upper floor (or rather in a low building that has only three storeys) I do not want to invite you and have you either risk going down to the cellar without me, or risk a bomb in my bedroom.
The Gothas, German bomber planes, would later appear in Time Regained, the seventh and final volume of Proust’s novel.
Because Céleste omitted to transcribe a whole sheet of the original letter, this passage strangely follows another that has little to do with it:
[Gallimard] had left Paris to sail for America to meet Copeau. I knew he had plans to return there. But I did not think it would be so soon. I cannot7 for your kind offer to come chat with me.
World War I, as this letter shows, affected not only the publication of Proust’s novel, but played a key role in the development of the novel itself as it grew and changed in response to Proust’s wartime experience.