Marcel Proust: Une vie de lettres et d’images by Pedro Corrêa do Lago July 18 2023

When an author spends forty years of their life putting together a book that is as much labor of love as it is academic text, you know it’s going to reach a wider audience than a new life of Proust might otherwise do. 

Only a part of Pedro Corrêa do Lago vast collection of autographs, the author details a selection of priceless Marcel Proust memorabilia – manuscripts, photographs, books, drawings, and other documents – and this total immersion in Proust’s world makes for a unique book. With many of the items never seen before by the wider public, to trace a life like this is something new.

Marcel Proust - Una Vie de Lettres et d Images

Currently only available in French, the inspiration behind Corrêa do Lago’s book can be seen from the excitement he describes in a 2018 interview with Sotheby’s on spotting an important reference in a letter in a Paris auction in 2016.

[IMAGE] Front Cover of Corrêa do Lago's "Une vie de lettres et d’images"

In this letter from a young Proust to his father, in which he gently suggests that diplomacy might not be his most natural academic pursuit, the 18-year-old writes ‘tout autre chose que les lettres et la philosophie est pour moi du temps perdu’ (anything other than literature and philosophy, for me, is lost time). To see that phrase in writing, a full 16 years before Proust would start writing A la recherche du temps perdu, gives a tantalizing suggestion of the author’s ability to see significance and interest in these documents, and how to bring them to a wider audience.


Divided neatly into sections which cover the various stages of Proust's life, the book organizes the images chronologically with a progression that is never less than captivating, and often moving. A useful chronology begins each section, giving both context to the images in terms of the events surrounding each year of Proust’s life, and of the wider world in general; all things that hugely influence the output of any artist.

The major personal events – his ill health through childhood asthma and the birth of his brother Robert – are captured in the images; a boy with a drawn face who doesn’t look well, and his lively looking brother, their parents, the extraordinary ruins of the Hotel des Finances, underling the wider events of the Paris Commune in 1871. A photograph of Proust’s rhetoric class at Lycée Condorcet and another of his philosophy class give a tantalizing insight into his schooling.

Marcel Proust - Una Vie de Lettres et d Images

An Internal view of Corrêa do Lago's "Une vie de lettres et d’images"

There are also glimpses into his friendship with Jacques Bizet (son of Georges Bizet, the composer, and his wife Marie-Geneviève Raphaëlle Halévy-Bizet-Straus), and his attendance at Mme Straus’ salons. She became the inspiration for the Duchesse de Guermantes and Odette de Crécy in his 1913 novel A la recherche du temps perdu. We get letters from this period that are works of art in themselves, the writing angled for maximum word-count per page, a hastily-penned postscript wedged in elsewhere – these are the flavor of a man who wrote as he spoke and thought, and a further insight into the writer. Proust is still undecided on his future, currently enjoying salon life, and an 1891 studio portrait of him, Robert, and their mother gives an air of a fashionable family.

Photographs and letters through the last decade of the 19th century continue to offer snapshots of a period of relatively recent history steeped in artistic interest, and with an immediacy that brings Proust closer to the reader.

We also get flashes of Proust’s relationships, not least with Reynaldo Hahn, the composer. First meeting in 1894, when Proust was 22 and Hahn 19, the meeting changed both their lives, and as the author suggests, afforded Hahn a posterity he might not otherwise have enjoyed. A letter from December of that year from Proust to Hahn is notable for its emphatic underlining in places.

Another huge strength of this pictorial collection is to put ‘faces’ to Proust characters, or rather to the people – particularly women – who inspired them. The author treats us to photographs and caricatures of some of the women no doubt contributed characteristics to Mme Verdurin later on; Madeleine Lemaire, Mme Aubernon de Nerville, Mme Arman de Caillavet. This wealth of background is something readers and enthusiasts are rarely treated to.

Marcel Proust - Una Vie de Lettres et d Images view

An Internal view of Corrêa do Lago's "Une vie de lettres et d’images"

Rarely seen items, such as visiting cards (such as the collection midway of composer cards) also give a sense of a time close by, but out of reach. Tantalizing snippets of music that served as inspiration to Proust offer connections of their own to readers looking for a deeper dive into a life of Proust.


If there is any criticism to be made of Pedro Corrêa do Lago’s book at all, it’s that there is almost too great a wealth of material here to feast on in one sitting. It is a book that for both enthusiasts and the casually interested alike, will provide something new to discover on each subsequent reading.

It can only be hoped that other language versions will follow - “Une vie” is currently only available in a French language edition.


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