Proust wrote too many letters: he thought so and so anyone might think, as Philip Kolb's expanding series of annual volumes edges towards the writer's death, in 1922. Sheer numbers would not have mattered had they been stronger letters, but Proust's correspondence is too much of it mechanical or emptily ingratiating, the one remaining exercise of the social virtues by a man who had taken to his bedroom (with occasional querulous sorties late at night to the Ritz Hotel) in order to be alone with his asthma and the prodigiously radiating manuscript of his novel. But as he declined bodily in his fetid hermitage, Proust came to worry about the hundreds of letters he had written in these years of rapt fictional creation; he was afraid, he told his housekeeper. Céleste Albaret, that once he was dead they would be published, or if not published sold at auction, and he even asked a lawyer whether he could stop that happening. He found he could not, and concluded morbidly that his letters would eventually become so many 'arrows returned against him'. But this black thought did not slow him down, because the iller and more unvisitable he became the more letters he wrote: the later volumes in Kolb's series are fatter by many pages than the earlier ones. In theory, Proust told Jacques Rivière (in a letter), he was un athée de l'amitié, an unbeliever in friendship, but one who yet 'practised it with far greater fervour than so many apostles of friendship'; and the evidence of this confessedly Tartuffian fervour is in the plenty and regularity of his correspondence, as he keeps company with a whole vivarium of big fish and small, with the titled hostesses of whose hollow world he had become the pampered adept when young, with the old literary friends and young literary protégés whose work he endlessly overpraises, with his publishers, and with the admirers and reviewers of his own work once that has begun to appear in its full extent after 1918.
LRB 25 June 1992 | PDF Download