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 author reveal.
The novelist wrote the notices himself and sent them to be typed up by his publisher âso there is no trace of my handwritingâ to distance himself âabsolutely from the money that will change handsâ.
The letters have come to light with an extremely rare copy of Swannâs Way, which is expected to go for around half a million euros (Â£438,000) when it goes under the hammer at Sothebyâs in Paris next month.
They make it clear that Proust orchestrated the operation himself from his bed, promising his editor at the publisher Grasset that he would âof course, pay him back in fullâ.
The wealthy writer paid 300 francs â around Â£900 today â for a flattering reference to Swannâs Way to appear on the front page of Le Figaro, then â as now â one of Franceâs 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 Ãmile-Blanche â whose portrait of Proust hangs in the MusÃ©e dâOrsay in Paris â had written on the first part of his monumental masterpiece.
The letters to his editor, Louis Brun, show that Proust had little to learn when it came to the arts of hype and selective editing. Swannâs Way, he wrote, is a âlittle masterpieceâ which âlike a gust of wind blows away the soporific vapoursâ of everything else currently on sale.
Comparing himself to Dickens, he declared: âWhat Monsieur Proust sees and feels is completely original.â Indeed, his writing was âalmost too luminous for the eye … This book suggests almost the fourth dimension of the Cubists.â
Proust tried to get three other publications to carry the highlights of his friendâs 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 Le Figaro â for which he sometimes worked â for editing out a reference to him as âthe eminent Marcel Proustâ.
Proustâs desperation for publicity was partly because he was having to pay for the bookâs 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 â 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: âItâs unreadable.â
However, within weeks of its publication some critics saw it as a work of genius, although others remained puzzled by it. âThe publisher Gaston Gallimard would later write to Proust saying that turning it down was the biggest mistake of his career,â said BenoÃ®t Puttemans of Sothebyâs.
Ever the aesthete, Proust had a special edition run off to celebrate in expensive âJapan tissueâ made from the bark of mulberry trees. Only four copies still exist â 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 30 October. âItâs a copy to die for,â said Proustâs biographer, Jean-Yves Tadie.
Sothebyâs estimate it will go from between â¬400,000 and â¬600,000.
Puttemans said that paying for good reviews âdid 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.â
Consummate society player that he was, âhe wrote that a great painter has written an article about a wonderful book, distributing compliments to everyone along the way,â Puttemans told AFP. âProust wanted to please everyone.â