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THE death of Marcel Proust in Paris on November 18, 1922, and the manner in which the news of his death was, by no means numerously, reported in London, brought into question the extent of his rumoured rather than defined influence over readers in this country. This question it was natural that I should ask myself, for I had recently published an English version of the first part of his great novel, Du Côté de chez Swann, and was then about half way through the translation of its sequel, A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs. The writer of a savage, though evidently sincere attack on Proust which a London newspaper published within forty-eight hours of his death seemed to assume that he had already a considerable (if misguided) following here, and it occurred to me that I might obtain, from writers who were my friends, and from others who had expressed their admiration of Proust in English periodicals, a body of critical opinion similar to that which, I learned, was being collected in Paris by the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française. To test the worth of my idea, I began with the seniors. Mr. Saintsbury—who (in this respect only) might have served as the model for the Marquis de Norpois, whose promptness in answering a letter “was so astonishing that whenever my father, just after posting one to him, saw his handwriting upon an envelope, his first thought was always one of annoyance that their letters must, unfortunately, have crossed in the post; which, one was led to suppose, bestowed upon him the special and luxurious privilege of extraordinary deliveries and collections at all hours of the day and night”—replied at once, and Mr. Conrad soon followed, with letters of which each correspondent authorised me to make whatever use I chose.
So, I must add, did Mr. George Moore, but in a letter expressive only of his own inability to stomach Proust, the inclusion here of which, even although it might make this volume a prize to collectors of first editions, would compel the excision of the word “tribute” from title-page and cover. Mr. Walkley, the doyen of English Proustians as he is of dramatic critics, and Mr. Middleton Murry put me at liberty to use articles which they were publishing in The Times and its Literary Supplement; Mr. Stephen Hudson, the most intimate English friend of Proust’s later years, consented to write a character sketch; and on this base my cenotaph was soon erected.
That it is not loftier must be laid to my account. I have doubtless refrained from approaching many willing contributors, from a natural and, I trust, not blameworthy reluctance to interrupt busy persons with whom I am not acquainted. At the same time, I found among those whom I did approach a widespread modesty which prevented a number of them from contributing opinions which would have been of the greatest critical importance. “We do not,” was the general answer, “know enough of Proust to venture to tackle such a theme.” This and the pressure of other work have kept silent, to my great regret, Mrs. Virginia Woolf, Miss Rebecca West, Mr. J.C. Squire, Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie, Mr. Aldous Huxley, and that most reluctant writer Mr. E.M. Forster.