April 25, 2017
Proust the Envious, Hugo the Spiritualist, Flaubert the Obscene: canonical French authors’ lesser literary letters go to auction
by Chad Felix
Good news, wealthy book lovers! Jean Bonna, the Geneva-based antiquarian book collector known by those in the know for possessing the greatest goddamn collection of French literature in the world is, according to the Guardian’s Danuta Kean, looking to trim the fat, and putting up for sale a collection of a hundred rare manuscripts. This collection includes correspondence and journals from Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and others, as well as an incredibly rare first edition copy of Galileo’s Discorsi (more exactly and in English, The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences). The seventeenth-century polymath’s final scientific testament, written in 1638, is the single-most valuable manuscript in the collection and is expected to sell for over $750,000 on its own.
The Discorsi, Bonna told the Guardian, is “the best copy I have ever seen, but it does not belong in my collection because it is a scientific book and not French literature.” Hey, fair enough. Bonna is a discerning collector who knows what he wants: for example, a rare 1555 edition of poems written by French Renaissance poet (and feminist pioneer) Louise Labé. Last time the volume, which was published in 1555, went up for sale, Bonna was narrowly outbid. He’s keen to not let that happen again; the €3,000,000 ($3,200,000) the 100 manuscripts are expected to bring in will help with that.
Some of the other items for sale, unlike the Discorsi, would seem to be perfectly at home in Bonna’s collection, having quite a bit to do with French letters. Nevertheless, they must go. A letter written by Flaubert in defense of Madame Bovary, sometimes called the greatest novel ever written, will be of great interest to scholars of French literature and other collectors. In the letter, sent but never published (his publisher forbade him), Flaubert responds to the accusations that his latest work is “obscene.” “I did not write for young girls, but for men, for literature,” he writes, citing other so-called “obscene” authors before him.
Also up for grabs are Victor Hugo’s musings on plate-spinning and conversing with the dead. As it turns out, the Les Miserables author was fascinated by the dark, spiritualist arts — a fact that his family, fearing for his reputation, sought to suppress. About the lot, Kean writes:
“It is extraordinarily interesting and rare, but not literary,” said Bonna. “It was probably rather boring in Guernsey at the time—it still is, actually—and he turned to spiritualism to distract himself. The diary shows he was quite impressed by all the table turning,” he added.
Having little to do with a particular work, the writings, however interesting, will too be let go.
Marcel Proust’s cameo in the auction, a letter, is more of a strange novelty than anything else, which is doubtless why Bonna has included it in the sale. Nonetheless, it’s a damn delight: In it, the famously reclusive, asthmatic modernist complains to his landlord’s son not about the volume of his neighbors’ sex, but its “frenzy,” about which he is jealous. Marcel, you are a sad and brilliant dream, and I’d buy your letter.
The sale is on in Paris, at the Hôtel Drouot, on April 26th. Meet me in the lobby. Give me some money for the sad Proust letter.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.