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Preserving the words of a master

Illinois joins French partners to digitize war-era correspondence by Marcel Proust

Illinois is a key partner in a project to digitize the correspondence of prominent French novelist Marcel Proust. (Wikimedia Commons.)
Illinois is a key partner in a project to digitize the correspondence of prominent French novelist Marcel Proust. (Wikimedia Commons.)
The University of Illinois is a key partner in a U.S.-French initiative to fully digitize and post online thousands of letters to and from Marcel Proust, the author of "In Search of Lost Time," one of the great masterpieces of western literature. These letters were gathered into academia through the late Philip Kolb, a professor of French at Illinois.

The project will first focus on 200 letters that Proust (1871-1922) wrote related to World War I, with the goal of having them online by November 11, 2018, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. The U of I is collaborating with the University of Grenoble Alpes and the Institute of Texts and Modern Manuscripts.

"That will allow us to have a first display, with a coherent set," said François Proulx, professor of French and Italian at Illinois.

"We were not convinced that the letters from his youth were especially the most interesting to start out with," said Caroline Szylowicz, the Kolb-Proust Librarian and professor of library administration in charge of the U of I’s Kolb-Proust Archive for Research at the University Library.

Kolb (1907-1992), who taught at Illinois from 1945 to 1975, had an early connection to Marcel Proust, having met Madame Mante-Proust, Marcel Proust’s niece, whilst studying in Paris in 1936. In 1945, Kolb decided to come to U of I due to the rich resources of the University Library, deciding it would be a good place to continue his work on Proust’s correspondence.

In 1949, the University of Illinois Press published his first volume, "La correspondance de Marcel Proust, chronologie et commentaire critique," and following that, Madame Mante-Proust asked him to edit Proust’s entire correspondence, which Kolb immediately agreed to.

The late Philip Kolb, a former professor of French at Illinois, collected and published the correspondence of novelist Marcel Proust. (University of Illinois Archives.)
The late Philip Kolb, a former professor of French at Illinois, collected and published the correspondence of novelist Marcel Proust. (University of Illinois Archives.)
Kolb assembled and published all of Proust’s surviving correspondence—about 5,300 letters—in 21 volumes between 1970 and 1993. Every letter was dated, fully annotated, and presented in a chronological order, which was no small feat as the novelist almost never dated his letters. This meant that organizing his correspondence required Kolb to virtually reconstruct Proust’s life day by day, using clues in the letters and a variety of secondary sources, from newspapers to weather reports and diary entries by other correspondents. Several hundred more letters have since been identified.

Kolb's work remains an authoritative reference for scholars and biographers.

Proust, who was frail and of poor health, did not fight during World War I. However, his younger brother, Robert, was a doctor in the French army, and the two exchanged letters during the conflict. The handwritten letters posted online will include a printed transcript of the document.

"It helps decipher Marcel Proust's writing, which is not always easy to read," said Proulx.

The website will also offer various links, including press articles of the time that Proust refers to him the letters.The goal is to eventually post all of Proust's correspondence online.

Under Kolb's leadership, the U of I has acquired some 1,200 letters. Letters written by the French author are known to fetch tens of thousands of euros at auction. The university will continue to buy Proust letters, budget permitting, Proulx said.

Editor's note: This is an adapted story from Agence France-Presse. Logan Weeter and the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics also contributed to the report.

Agence France-Presse, Logan Weeter and the School of Literatures, Cultures, & Linguistics
10/26/2017

Related Topics

  • French and Italian
  • French
  • Faculty research
  • Humanities