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U of I helping to digitize collection of Proust letters

10/26/2017  8:00 am

[Editor's note: This is an adapted story  from AFP (Agence France-Presse), a wire service]

The nearly 6,000 letters to and from the author of "In Search of Lost Time," one of the great masterpieces of western literature, are drawn mainly from the work of Philip Kolb, a University of Illinois professor.

Kolb, who died in 1992, assembled and published all of Proust’s surviving correspondence -- about 5,300 letters -- in 21 volumes between 1970 and 1993. Several hundred more letters have since been identified.

Kolb estimated the size of Proust's correspondence at some 20,000 documents, but most were lost or destroyed over the years.

Illinois joins French partners to digitize the collection, with collaboration from the University of Grenoble Alpes and the Institute of Texts and Modern Manuscripts.

The project will first focus on 200 letters that Proust 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.

"That will allow us to have a first display, with a coherent set," said Francois Proulx, Assistant Professor 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, Associate Professor of French and Italian and the Kolb & Proust Librarian in charge of the U of I’s Proust collection.

Proust, who was frail and of poor health, did not fight during World War I. However, his younger brother Robert served as 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.