A survey of professors of French literature conducted by the Modern Language Association about a decade ago indicated that more of these scholars—well over 500—considered themselves specialists in Proust than in any other French author. The publication of Proust's letters in English (the first volume appeared in 1983 with Doubleday, translated by Ralph Manheim) raises two issues: of how much interest is Proust to students of national literatures other than French, and how [End Page 634] great is the intrinsic interest of Proust's correspondence? Despite an abundance of excellent criticism in English (such as Roger Shattuck's masterful overview, Marcel Proust, in 1974) devoted to this author, Proust has remained an isolated monument, considered as a belated nineteenth-century author whose novel is too long to teach except in a seminar; who is inaccessible to most undergraduates; who exerted little discernible influence on later writers; and who was outdone by James Joyce.
Such a climate of opinion obviously affords rich opportunities for revision. The short story, "La Confession d'une jeune fille," for example, is eminently teachable. But the letters do a disservice to Proust's reputation, for they were definitely not written for publication. Critics have outgrown their early disappointment or embarrassment at finding in Proust the correspondent a social-climbing sycophant who awkwardly concealed his homosexuality and who maintained relations with anti-Semitic journals in hopes of being published, although his mother was Jewish. Nevertheless, these letters from the period during which Proust was discovering his artistic vocation are tediously preoccupied with his asthma (a convenient excuse for evading social obligations and visits). He flaunts his illness as Woody Allen flaunts his neurosis but without ever managing to exploit it as a source of humor. He focuses almost entirely on maintaining emotional relations with others, on expressing feelings and clearing up misunderstandings. The tone often is effusive and rhapsodic. Apart from aesthetic objects and high society, the external world scarcely makes itself felt. Topical Belle Epoque gossip predominates. Proust is at his most interesting (in this particular period) when he talks about Ruskin or reacts to the creative and critical works authors send to him. He keeps the elaboration of his novel to himself, jealously guarding his privacy even from intimates. As he wrote to Georges de Lauris late in 1909, "There will be time enough when my thoughts have run their course to allow free rein to the stupidity of others."
Philip Kolb has been publishing his definitive edition of Proust's correspondence with Plon since 1970. Fifteen volumes have so far appeared and six more should complete the set. Proust wrote about one letter every other day. Thirty per cent of these have been preserved in the English version. Both editions contain ample notes identifying persons referred to, suggesting sources for À la recherche du temps perdu in Proust's social experience and providing cross-references to other letters. The French edition adds to the scholarly apparatus notations of the kind of paper on which the letters were written; details about the forms of dating and about miswritings; references to studies by other scholars; quotations from poems to which Proust refers; and the facts of publication of the books he mentions. Baudelaire, Hugo, Maeterlinck, Montesquieu, Anna de Noailles, Racine, Ruskin, and the painter Whistler predominate.
The notes are impressively erudite. The selection and translation of the letters are uninspired. In a sampling of the eleven letters (of twenty-three) chosen from January 1907 (the numbers refer to the numbers of the letters in the English), three should have been omitted because they are routine congratulations (180, 184) or thanks (182). The last two lines of a post-scriptum are silently omitted (175). Italics (to indicate a colloquial expression) are omitted (175), and the punctuation is changed on four other occasions. False cognates are literally translated: invite becomes "invitation" rather than "solicitation" (177: Proust's point that [End Page 635] he is not...