July 10, 2012

Happy birthday, Proust. Buy The Lemoine Affair for $5, today only


Happy birthday, Marcel Proust. He was born 141 years ago today. In celebration, we’re selling The Lemoine Affair, his hilarious early work, for $5 — that’s half the list price of $10.

In 1905, Henri Lemoine met in Paris with Sir Julius Wernher, the owner of the De Beers diamond company. Lemoine had a very valuable secret to share: he had discovered how to make diamonds from coal. After a demonstration — including a naked appearance to prove that he wasn’t carrying any diamonds in his clothes — Lemoine was deemed to be telling the truth: he really had created several small but perfect diamonds. Over the next three years, Wernher sent him cash totaling $100,000. One Marcel Proust, along with many other members of Parisian high society, had stock in De Beers.

The bubble burst in 1908, when a Parisian jeweler admitted having sold to Lemoine several small diamonds exactly like those seen by Wernher. Lemoine was brought to trial, and though he stood by his story, was sentenced to six years in prison.

Worried about his own losses in De Beers, but inspired by the story, Proust composed a set of literary pastiches in reaction to the scandal, and together these works form The Lemoine Affair. It’s brief, hilarious, and a joy to read. Proust writes as Balzac, as Flaubert, as Saint-Simon and the Goncourt brothers and more, in a great display of wordplay and a charming survey of early twentieth-century French letters. Here he is as Flaubert:

The heat had become stifling, a bell chimed, some turtledoves took flight, and, the windows having been closed by the order of the presiding magistrate, a smell of dust spread. He was old, with a clown’s face, wore a gown too narrow for his girth, and had pretensions to wit; his twin sideburns, which a trace of tobacco stained, gave something ornamental and vulgar to his entire person. Since the adjournment of the hearing was prolonged, private exchanges started up; to enter into conversation, teh irritable ones complained out loud about the lack of air, and, when someone said he had recognized the Minister of the Interior as the gentleman who was going out, a reactionary sighed, “Poor France!” Taking an orange out of his pocket, a black man won esteem, and, out of a desire for popularity, offered segments of it on a newspaper to his neighbors, excusing himself, first to a clergyman, who stated “he had never eaten anything so good; it is an excellent, refreshing fruit”; but a dowager lady took on an offended air, forbade her daughters to accept anything “from someone they didn’t know,” while other people, not knowing if the newspaper would get to them, sought to strike up an attitude: several took out their watches, a lady took off her hat. A parrot was mounted in it. Two young men were startled, would much have liked to discover if the bird had been placed there as a souvenir or perhaps out of some sort of eccentric taste. Already the wags were beginning to call out to each other from one bench to the other, and the women, looking at their husbands, were smothering their laughter in their handkerchiefs, when silence was restored, the presiding magistrate seemed to be absorbed in sleeping, and Werner’s lawyer began to utter his speech for the plaintiff.

Get The Lemoine Affair today for $5 by entering the coupon code: PROUST’S BIRTHDAY upon checkout.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.