Hours before Germany formally declared war on France in WWI, Marcel Proust penned a letter to his financial advisor that anticipated the horrors to come.
“In the terrible days we are going through, you have other things to do besides writing letters and bothering with my petty interests, which I assure you seem wholly unimportant when I think that millions of men are going to be massacred in a War of the Worlds comparable with that of [H. G.] Wells,because the Emperor of Austria thinks it advantageous to have an outlet onto the Black Sea.”
This letter, composed the night of August 2, 1914, and digitized in the online exhibition Proust and the Great War, offers a unique glimpse into the mind of one of France’s preeminent writers on the eve of war to end all wars. As part of a cross-campus initiative at the University of Illinois, this exhibition puts project-based learning into practice: a semester-long effort by François Proulx, assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his graduate students to curate, digitize, contextualize, and translate Proust war correspondence.
That exhibition provides a glimpse at a longer, ongoing digitization effort at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Thanks to a partnership with the French Cultural Services and Centenary Commission, faculty, staff, and students will make hundreds of rare letters written between 1914 and 1919 publicly available next fall in Marcel Proust’s World War I Letters: A Digital Edition. While this project will be a boon to Proust scholars and World War I historians, its stakes should interest a range of online learning practitioners and enthusiasts.
How can literature help us to commemorate, recollect, and reevaluate war? What should a scholarly edition look like in the 21st century? And how might that digital version exceed its print counterpart?
World War I often takes a backseat to World War II in American historical memory. This raises obstacles for those seeking to commemorate the centennial of US entry into the war (April 6, 1917). Bénédicte de Montlaur, cultural counselor of the French Embassy, acknowledged that challenge during our conversation about the Proust digitization effort.
“The First World War is not present in the public memory here as it is in France, but that’s why we think it’s important to focus on how this war shaped international affairs,” she explained. “It marks the beginning of the United Nations, and it’s when America became a superpower.”
The French Embassy has planned a host of events to commemorate the centennial, including concerts, conferences, film screenings, and, of course, the sponsorship of Marcel Proust’s World War I Letters: A Digital Edition.
The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which possesses one of the largest collections of Proust manuscripts, is a natural partner for the French Embassy as it seeks to reinforce ties between French scholars, intellectuals, artists and their American counterparts. (Montlaur noted that the embassy is also collaborating with Columbia University, Duke University, NYU, Texas A&M University, and UCLA on other centennial commemoration projects.)
“Proust is the French author everyone refers to. He’s our Shakespeare. He’s our Goethe,” explained Montlaur.
Commemorating World War I using Proust correspondence doesn’t just serve the interests of Proust scholars; it also mobilizes their interest to draw new attention to the war. Proust’s letters lend texture to the experience of war, and challenge mechanized associations with flashes of doubt, despair, and reverence.
In a March 1915 letter, Proust recollects: “I went outside, under a lucid, dazzling, reproachful, serene, ironic, maternal moonlight, and in seeing this immense Paris that I did not know I loved so much, waiting, in its useless beauty, for the onslaught that could no longer be stopped, I could not keep myself from weeping.”
In letter from that summer, he laments: “We are told that War will beget Poetry, and I don’t really believe it. Whatever poetry had appeared so far was far unequal to Reality.” (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Proulx’s graduate students, Nick Strole and Peter Tarjanyi, curated and translated these letters.)
Proust’s letters remind us of the human costs of warfare and articulate doubt that we rarely permit preeminent authors. A digital edition of that correspondence could help de-monumentalize Proust, making him more accessible to scholars, educators, and learners.
The Kolb Edition
To appreciate the digital edition to come, one must understand how Proust was studied before. The de facto edition of Proust is a 21-volume edition of letter edited by Philip Kolb, a professor of French at the University of Illinois. Published between 1970 and 1993—shortly after Kolb’s death—this edition represents his life’s work.
The Kolb edition is remarkable in its scope and ambition. In addition to collecting all of the letters available at the time of publication (more than 5,300), he also seeks to place them into chronological order. This is no small feat given that Proust didn’t date letters. (There was no need because letter writing was a daily activity and the envelopes included postage marks.) Kolb spent most of his professional life performing inferential detective work. For example, if Proust mentioned foggy weather in a letter, Kolb would find the weather report from the month in order to infer or at least narrow the date. He recorded all of this contextual material, what we would call metadata, on index cards—more than 40,000 in total.
As Caroline Szylowicz, the Kolb-Proust librarian, curator of rare books and manuscripts and associate professor at the University of Illinois, explained it, Kolb effectively created a paper-based relational database. He created files for every person mentioned in correspondence, file identifiers for each letter, and even a complete chronology of Proust’s social life.
In the 25 years since the publication of the last volume, more than 600 letters have surfaced in auction catalogues, specialized journals, and books. (The collections at the University of Illinois have increased from 1,100 at the time of Kolb’s death to more than 1,200 today.) Those letters are valuable in their own right, but they also change the way scholars understand the existing corpus. For example, a new letter might include information that revises previous chronology.
It’s no longer feasible to produce an updated Kolb edition. For a number of institutional reasons, faculty are no longer encouraged to produce vast scholarly editions, no less work that requires decades to produce. Publishers aren’t eager to print multi-volume editions for a limited audience.
“With the steady appearance of rediscovered or newly available letters, a new print edition would be out of date within a few decades,” explained Proulx. “Also, a 20-volume edition would be prohibitively expensive for individual readers, and mostly only available in research libraries.”
A digital edition, on the other hand, doesn’t need a publisher, and it can expand to accommodate new letters and context as it becomes available. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library began the digitization process immediately after Kolb’s death: Szylowicz, in particular, marked up (using TEI) Kolb’s research notes and documentation to make them electronically available via the Kolb-Proust Archive. Marcel Proust’s World War I Letters willextend that work by digitizing hundreds of his actual letters.
Toward a Digital Edition
While the Proust Digital Edition won’t be available until next fall—sometime before the end of the centennial on November 11, 2018—readers can expect that it will look something like the Proust and the Great Waronline exhibition that I cited at the beginning of this piece.
Unlike the Kolb edition, which was published entirely in French, the digital edition will accommodate transcriptions and English translations, which Proulx and Szylowicz will solicit through an open-source crowdsourcing platform developed by their partners at the Université Grenoble Alpes. Whereas scholars used to transcribe the exact text on a page (what’s called a diplomatic transcription), today many scholars seek to reveal the process of writing by including marginalia and emendations (linear transcription). The crowdsourcing platform will accommodate both forms of transcription simultaneously, allowing readers to see the unfinished aspects of Proust’s writing. This technical choice may enable scholars to read his work differently: Proust often added or clarified his remarks in postscript that might not otherwise be available in a diplomatic transcription.
The digital edition will also allow readers to see Proust’s hand through scans of letters. In addition to conveying a sense the aura of a letter (as a material object), a digital copy allows a reader to attend to the conditions of his writing. “Proust’s letters are often somewhat messy,” explained Proulx. “His handwriting is frequently difficult to read, he sometimes scribbles in the margins or even between lines. Images, when they are available, give a better sense of the letter as its recipient would have experienced it: an often-hurried missive from a complicated man.”
“Proust’s penmanship evolves over time, from childhood letters, to his ‘dandy’ years, when he consciously starts to develop a distinctive hand, with curious c’s that extend under the following letters,” added Szylowicz. “In the last weeks of his life, Proust, who is then weakened by asthma and pneumonia, is unable to speak and reduced to writing little notes to [his caretaker] on scraps of paper or the back of letters, in a distinctly shaking hand.” (Reference an example here.)
The availability of images and different transcription practices provide new ways of experiencing Proust that undermine the notion of a monumental author, but also reveal, in the words of Proulx, a complicated man. Authors must be granted moments of frailty: to deny them that is to deny them humanity and to practice hagiography.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a digital edition invites new participants into textual editing. That is, while Kolb’s edition has served scholars well, the complexity of a digital edition demands new forms of expertise and participation: that of curators, researchers, and scholars, certainly, but also that of technologists, transcribers, translators, and students. Enlisting students in the editing process isn’t just a useful pedagogical exercise; it will likely produce new discoveries, as Proulx and his students demonstrate with their online exhibition.