In March 1896, Marcel Proust sat down to compose a letter to his first love and secret passion, the celebrated composer Reynaldo Hahn. The pair were the cultural beacons of their generation, but their relationship, known in their refined circle, was to remain secret from the public throughout their lives.
In his missive, in scrawled and often barely legible handwriting, Proust, then 24, writes: “I want you to be here all the time but as a god in disguise, whom no mortal would recognise.”
This week several of the never-before-seen letters between Proust and Hahn are to go up for auction in Paris as part of a sale of 70 lots of literary manuscripts, books and letters that shed new light on one of France’s most famous authors.
Until now the collection has been in the hands of Proust’s descendants. In the run-up to the books and manuscripts auction on Thursday at Sotheby’s in Paris, they are now on public display for the first time.
The love letter to Hahn was written when Proust was publishing his first book, Les plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of his early poems and prose. The edition included four piano works by the already established Hahn.
Other highlights of the sale include rough drafts of some of Proust’s greatest works, including parts of his seven-volume chef d’oeuvre In Search of Lost Time, his footnotes describing his disagreements with the British art critic John Ruskin, and a collection of 138 letters from Proust’s publisher Gaston Gallimard dated from 1912 to 1922, when the writer died.
In one letter, Gallimard shows an unusual devotion to his star author. “I have a jealous affection for [your work], as for you: so tell me bluntly what you want, and I will make every effort never to disappoint you,” he writes.
Benoît Puttemans, a deputy director of Sotheby’s Paris, said the Gallimard correspondence, valued at up to €150,000 (£132,000), was one of the most important lots. “Here we have 10 years of correspondence between Gallimard, who was France’s most important publisher of the time, and Proust, who was France’s most important writer.”
The collection belongs to Marie-Claude Mante, Proust’s great-niece and the daughter of the writer’s only niece, Suzy, who saw her uncle as a “kind of magician”, according to relatives, who say the adoration was mutual.
After Proust’s death, his estate passed to his younger brother, Robert, and then to his daughter, Suzy, a cultivated woman who sought to perpetuate his memory, encouraging publication of his work and correspondence, though often concealing anything that hinted at his homosexuality. In the 1960s she sold part of the collection to the French national library; the rest was shared among her three children when she died in 1986.
Proust met Hahn in 1894 at the beau monde salons of Madeleine Lemaire, a Parisian painter who illustrated his work. The writer, who never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, and Venezuelan-born Hahn, a musical child prodigy, shared a love of painting, literature and the French composer Fauré. Proust included Hahn as a character in his unfinished and posthumously published novel Jean Santeuil.
The auction lots also include a pen drawing of Hahn by Proust, and nine letters from Hahn to Proust, which Puttemans described as “extremely rare”.
In one of the handwritten letters between the two men, some of them originating from Hahn’s family, Proust advises his friend, sometimes referred to as “mon petit Reynaldo”, to be discreet. “Burn letter … at once,” he concludes, signing off with a simple “Marcel”.
In a long letter to Proust, Hahn details how the writer should spend his day, in a particular language that clearly amused them both, but is impossible to translate. He calls Proust “Marcelch”. It is signed “Sending tender and good things to my good Marcelch”.
In another letter to Proust dated 1898, after they have ended their relationship, Hahn reproaches his friend for not writing more often. “Everything in life is a question of misunderstanding; perhaps you think I can do without your news, it’s a sign that you can easily do without mine.
“But I will never give up as long as I have this great affection for you … please note, above all that there is no shadow of reproach in all this, loving you as tenderly as I do, you are the only being to whom I cannot blame for writing to me so little because I know all the reasons that stop you from writing to me more often.”
A corrected proof of The Guermantes Way, originally published in two parts in September 1920, and which makes up volume three of In Search of Lost Time, has a catalogue price of up to €20,000.
Fine Books Magazine, a publication for rare book collectors, described the auction as a “literary red letter day”. It said it was “once again inviting literature lovers and bibliophiles to see Proust’s work in a new light through 70 lots of literary manuscripts, letters and books with envois”.
Puttemans said being asked to handle the sale of the Proust documents had been an emotional moment. “The history behind this collection is very touching because it comes directly from the Proust family. With these letters and manuscripts and books we go straight into the intimacy of Proust and his family. Proust is my god and the writer I studied most at university, so this has been very moving for me,” he said.