I’m sure a lot of you have not considered the problem. I understand. It’s something that might not leap to your mind as a serious problem, and perhaps it’s archaic of me even to worry about these things. But I don’t think so. I believe this is a crisis of our century, too. Just because we have Facebook and Angry Birds now doesn’t mean we don’t face some of the same dilemmas as our ancestors.
Let me backtrack. Over the past several weeks, the Book Fair has been the mostly grateful recipient of one of the largest collections of works by, about, or just somehow related to Marcel Proust in the Upper Midwest. More than one person has stared at what has come out of the boxes and bags so far and cried, “I didn’t know there were that many books about Proust in the world!” We have biographies of Proust and we have analyses of Proust; we have Proustian cookbooks and Proustian travel guides, we have books by everyone who ever met Proust or met someone who met Proust. We have the memoirs of Proust’s valet, and a modern reprint of a book written by Proust’s father. We have Proust postcards, Proust DVDs, and of course we have any number of editions of A la recherché du temps perdu, in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Bohemian, and Polish…so far. There’s plenty of work to do in unpacking.
The late owner of these books was not so very limited as you might think. Though Proust was his passion, I have also turned up a couple of boxes of solid packed Virginia Woolf, including even a copy of the rare volume “Virginia Woolf Meets Charlie Brown”, which is one of the top ten titles of this month.
It’s nice to get such a focused collection in, even if it is melancholy to think the collector behind it is gone. (I have this vision of him asking questions of Proust in Heaven and being told, “Sorry, mon vieux; I just don’t have much remembrance of things past.”) The sorting of a hundred books on Proust takes very little time. But Marcel Proust had a problem which was shared by Virginia Woolf and which I suspect may be your problem as well, dewy-eyed blog reader.
PLEASE, if you intend to be really, really famous one day, make sure you leave LOTS of portraits for the use of biographers. Yes, I KNOW everybody has a camera about their person these days, but how many of those pictures will be around when an author comes to call? You have to prepare. It’s not that much work to make a computer file “Portraits for Biographers”. Do one of yourself cheerful, one mournful, one pensive, one aggressive: whatever mood you feel will look good on the cover of a book.
See, two out of every three books on old Marcel uses the same photo for the cover. Sometimes, for variety, they print it backwards, or they get an artist to draw a version of it. I know he had other pictures taken, because the insides of the books are full of these. But everyone wants that pensive Proust, two fingers on his cheek, two on his chin, and the thumb in shadow. Three buttons on his cuff, curl in the middle of his forehead. I checked Wikipedia a second ago for the prepositions in the title of his book (My French does not extend to prepositions) and guess what picture leads off the article?
Maybe I don’t know enough about Proust. Maybe he donned that same jacket and struck that same pose whenever he had his picture taken. But it’s the same with Virginia Woolf: one picture strikes so many people as the quintessential Woolf that they can’t do without it. Emily Dickinson doesn’t have this problem, and there’s only one known photograph of HER.
So put it in your will now (right after that bequest to the Book Fair) that biographers will be required to take turns using different photographs in your file. Do it as a favor to me. In return, I won’t pass along those pictures you left in that copy of Swann’s Way.