Proust did not intend for his correspondence to be published. His letters were above all a means of communication, and many of them have an informal quality similar to telephone conversations or electronic mail messages. Because Proust was more preoccupied by human relations than by practical concerns, he often felt the need to provide long and subtle explanations for the most ordinary of his actions, such as inviting someone to dinner. Some of his letters are full of humour, while others express deep distress. In them he appears to us as he did to his contemporaries: sensitive and intelligent, often charming, sometimes exasperating. Once he began to withdraw into long periods of seclusion in order to write his novel, his letters became a means by which he maintained emotional and social contacts.
Because Proust never kept a journal, his letters have become the most important source of information about his life and his career as a writer. They give us a glimpse into the real-world inspirations for his literary works and show us how those works subsequently evolved. Proust had a large and varied number of correspondents, and for this reason his letters constitute a significant source of information about Parisian life and French culture at the turn of the century. Among the many people, events and topics reflected in the correspondence are the Dreyfus Affair, the trial of Oscar Wilde, the separation of church and state in France, the first World War, Richard Wagner, the Russian ballets, the Dada movement and the theory of relativity.
After Proust’s death his brother Robert published six volumes of letters (Correspondance générale de Marcel Proust, Paris: Plon, 1930-1936). Other correspondents, such as Lucien Daudet and Georges de Lauris, also made public letters which they had preserved. Philip Kolb recognized the need for a rigorous and systematic reappraisal of the entire correspondence. He attempted to assign dates to the largely undated letters and to faithfully reproduce the text from each original. He first published several separate collections: Correspondance avec sa mère (1953), Marcel Proust et Jacques Rivière: Correspondance (1955), Lettres à Reynaldo Hahn (1956), and Lettres retrouvées (1966). In 1970 Plon issued the first volume of Correspondance de Marcel Proust, edited, dated and annotated by Philip Kolb. The twenty-first and last volume appeared in 1993, only a few months after Kolb’s death. In the volumes the letters are arranged in chronological order. One or two years are covered by each volume, except for the first two, which span the years 1880 to 1901.
Philip Kolb achieved his life’s work, but realized that he had only collected part of Proust’s letters. A certain number, belonging to the heirs of correspondents or to collectors, remain unpublished. Today Proust’s letters are highly valued in sales of original autograph documents in France. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and certain other European and American libraries possess collections of letters by Proust. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign holds approximately 1100.