In the winter of 1912, the leading publishing houses in Paris were offered a 900-page first novel, Les Intermittences du Coeur. The manuscript, too heavy for one man to lift, was rejected by all of them, the bluntest of whom complained: "My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." The novel was eventually printed at the author's own expense. He was Marcel Proust.
The long-lost, revised galley proofs of this work, which we know so well as the first two volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, recently went up for sale at Christie's and were estimated to fetch as much as £900,000.
They make fascinating reading. The heavily revised first galleys reveal, in a blizzard of Proust's own handwriting, how he changed the title of the first book and the composition of its famous opening line. The evidence of these crucial changes of mind has been hitherto unknown to scholars. When Proust died, in 1922, he bequeathed his entire literary archive to his brother, Dr Robert Proust, whose daughter sold it en bloc to France's Bibliotheque Nationale in 1962. At some time in the interim, however, Dr Proust's widow, Marthe Dubois-Amyot, separated these first galley proofs and other important material from the archive, since when they have been lost in the obscurity of an unknown private collection.
The 52 oblong broadsheets date from the spring of 1913, when Proust paid Bernard Grasset 1,750 francs to publish the first half of what was then envisaged, before the hiatus of the First World War, as a two-volume novel, subtitled Le Temps Perdu: premiere partie and Le Temps Perdu: deuxieme partie. Proust was provided with three sets of identical galley proofs, which he obsessively reworked into a single master text to serve as a printer's copy for the final page proofs. The revisions were so extensive that Proust paid Grasset an extra 595 francs to cover the mountain of additional work he gave the compositors.
Sheet 1 contains the most momentous of these corrections. Les Intermittences du Coeur is summarily crossed out and replaced with A Le Recherche du Temps Perdu. The title of volume one, Le Temps Perdu, was replaced, first by Charles Swann and then by Du Cote de Chez Swann. The first sentence, "Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure" - not quite in the class of "Call me Ishmael", but still one of the most famous openings in literature - was another casualty. But then Proust had second thoughts about "Pendant bien des annees, chaque soir" ("For a good many years, each evening . . ."), and reverted to the original.
Were these changes for the better? William C Carter, whose recently published Marcel Proust: a life is the first major English-language biography of the author to appear since the 1960s, certainly thinks so. He considers the subdivision of the novel into Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way as the perfect structure for Proust to explore the contrasting values of bourgeois and aristocratic society.
"I really do think it's a better title," he says. "It tells us the two most important things about the novel: that it's a quest, and that the dominant theme is time."
The irony is that the wonderfully evocative title may owe more to necessity than inspiration. No one knows exactly when Proust crossed out Les Intermittences du Coeur on his proof, but it might have been in May 1913, when he wrote to Grasset nervously noting that a fellow Parisian writer, Gustave Binet-Valmer, had recently published a novel called Le Coeur en Desordre.
It is tantalising to think that, but for the publication of a now forgotten novel by a third-rate contemporary, Proust's masterpiece would have joined The Journal of Malte Laurids Brigge, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Little Dorrit among the ranks of books by seriously good writers with seriously flaky titles.
But at least it would have been easy to translate. One of the problems that English-speakers have with A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, apart from its length and seriousness of intent, is the untranslatability of its title. Temps Perdu means both "time lost" and "time wasted", a nuance impossible to convey in English, as is the mysterious quality of A la Recherche, meaning both "search" and "research". If Scott Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past was a piece of Shakespearean cod, D J Enright's In Search of Lost Time has all the resonance of a Tannoy announcement.
We Anglophones should spare a thought for Paul Ollendorff and all the other Paris publishers who rejected Proust's great novel. Posterity might have made fools of them, but how many publishers today would take a punt on a 900-page first novel that began "Sometimes I used to go to bed early" and had a title like "The Intermittencies of the Heart"? On second thoughts, didn't A N Wilson publish a novel called Incline Our Hearts? But then, who's read that?