Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Zany' for Proust: Brazilian builds a massive manuscript library

Pedro Correa do Lago's sprawling collection includes documents penned by Newton, Mozart, Darwin, Picasso and Einstein. But his "absolute fetish," he says, is early 20th-century French novelist Marcel Proust

Published: Mar 13, 2023 05:08:28 PM IST
Updated: Mar 13, 2023 05:15:37 PM IST

'Zany' for Proust: Brazilian builds a massive manuscript libraryBrazilian art collector and writer Pedro Correa do Lago poses at his house in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image: Mauro Pimntel/ AFP©

Stepping through the piles of books and fireproof document cases that line his overflowing three-storey home library, Brazilian collector Pedro Correa do Lago is the first to admit his life's passion is a bit crazy.

"I ought to be in a straightjacket," laughs the 64-year-old art historian as he gives a tour of his house in Rio de Janeiro, home to what he says is the world's largest private collection of manuscripts.

"It's a virus, an illness... My wife says manuscript sellers are my 'dealers,'" he says, showing a visitor around the home in the upscale Gavea neighborhood where he recently moved, along with the more than 100,000-piece collection he has spent his life amassing.

"You're here with a zany man, in a bit of a strange house with an incredible mess. It's the result of a more than 50-year passion," adds Correa do Lago, a large, bearded man, speaking flawless French.

Correa do Lago's sprawling collection includes documents penned by Newton, Mozart, Darwin, Picasso and Einstein. But his "absolute fetish," he says, is early 20th-century French novelist Marcel Proust.

The imposing library is 11 meters (36 feet) tall, with an internal staircase and dehumidifiers to protect its contents.

It is built on an "outlandish ambition," says its owner: "to reflect Western culture for the past five centuries."

$200 letter

A diplomat's son, Correa do Lago started collecting at the age of 12 or 13, he says.

He bought his first Proust letter at age 20, when he was living in New York.

He had $500 to live on for the month, he remembers. He paid $200 for the letter, which he found in a shop.

"It was an extraordinarily important letter written to Grasset," the French publishing house, at a time when Proust was looking for a publisher, he says.

Today, Correa do Lago has no fewer than 90 letters penned by Proust, who was known for his voluminous correspondence—an estimated 80 percent of which has been lost.

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Correa do Lago went on to become auction house Sotheby's representative in Sao Paulo for 26 years, head the national library in Rio de Janeiro and found the art publisher Capivara with his wife, Bia, daughter of late Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca.

Along the way, he wrote some 20 books of his own.

Meanwhile, his collection grew and grew.

In 2018, the Morgan Library in New York dedicated an exhibit to his collection, putting 140 of his documents on display, including a Michaelangelo drawing, a letter from Gustave Flaubert to Victor Hugo, another that Mozart wrote to his father, manuscripts by Einstein, Newton and Darwin, and a 12th-century parchment.

The show also included a draft first sentence of Proust's masterpiece, "In Search of Lost Time—before he had settled on the famous, "For a long time, I went to bed early..."

"It's the first time they've displayed a private manuscript collection," Correa do Lago says proudly.

A fancy car

Last year, for the 100th anniversary of Proust's death, Correa do Lago lent several pieces to the national library of France.

He also made "a lot of friends among the Proust-lovers" by publishing a book based on his collection in October, featuring 450 mostly unseen documents and photographs.

"I was a bit nervous—a little unknown Brazilian writing a book on Proust," he says.

Correa do Lago has zigzagged the Earth following his passion and attending auctions.

"I always have something to do, wherever I am in the world," he says.

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He continues to throw financial caution to the wind in the name of his passion.

His biggest impulse buy? The manuscript of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Library of Babel."

"It cost the price of a fancy car. I paid it off over four years," he says.

"I don't have a personal fortune or anything. I've put everything I've earned in my life into my collection."

He has no regrets.

"Maybe I could have spent that money on my family. But they've never complained," he says with a laugh.