Proust Fans Eagerly Await Trove of Letters Going Online

A painting of a snowman holding a rocket launcher in the window at the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association's office

Proust wrote thousands of letters, but the project, led by Illinois, will focus on about 200 letters that he had written to his younger brother, Robert, who had fought during the war. (Proust, weak and bedridden, never made it to the battlefront.)

And for those seeking more instant gratification, on Oct. 30, the fifth copy of the first five special-edition copies of “Swann’s Way” — the first volume of the seven-volume “Remembrance of Things Past” — will go on auction at Sotheby’s in Paris.

Sotheby’s said Proust had dedicated the copy to Louis Brun, a director at Grasset, the French publisher of his work, and had last been placed on auction in 1942. “Swann’s Way” was published in French on Nov. 8, 1913, and initially floundered before attracting wide acclaim and transforming Proust into a global literary star.

“The cult of Proust remains as strong as ever, and any documents that shed light on the writer invariably attract his many ardent followers,” Benoît Puttemans, a books and manuscripts specialist at Sotheby’s in Paris, said by phone on Thursday.

In 2013, the last time one of the first five editions of “Swann’s Way” went on sale, the first copy — written on Japanese paper — was sold for $708,000 to a book dealer, before ending up in the collection of Pierre Bergé, co-founder of the fashion label Yves Saint Laurent, who recently died.

The fifth copy, which Sotheby’s estimates could be sold for as much as $711,000, has generated particular attention because six letters by Proust setting out his strategy for marketing “Swann’s Way” were bound by Mr. Brun at the back of the book.

The letters show that Proust wrote and collected breathless, adulatory reviews of his own work and then paid for them to be published in newspapers such as Le Figaro.

The letters reveal that the writer had an adeptness for self-promotion and public relations worthy of the future digital age. All the more impressive, perhaps, he orchestrated the PR operation from his sickbed.

Displaying an amour propre that appeared to know little bounds, Proust cited a review by his friend, the painter, Jacques Émile-Blanche, who had lauded “Swann’s Way” as a “little masterpiece” and wrote that “like a gust of wind blows away the soporific vapors” of the other works available on the literary marketplace.

Proust wrote the letters in longhand and they were typed up by his publisher, in an apparent attempt by the author to conceal their origins.

Noting that he had been compared to Dickens, Proust also cited Mr. Émile-Blanche’s estimation that the book suggested “the fourth dimension of the Cubists.”

“What Monsieur Proust sees and feels is completely original,” he wrote, noting that his writing had been praised as “almost too luminous for the eye.”

Mr. Puttemans said the self-aggrandizement reflected the fact that Bernard Grasset, the head of his publishing house, had agreed to publish Swann’s Way, only on the condition that Proust pay for its publication — and promotion — himself.

The book had already been rejected by other publishers, he explained, and Proust was determined that the book be a success, and to show his literary merit.

“I wouldn’t say Proust was narcissistic, as it was not so uncommon in that era for writers to write positive reviews of their own work,” Mr. Puttemans said. “It was a cunning thing to do, but Proust had a large network and he used it in a very modern way. He was ahead of his time.”

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