Jessica Helfand | Critique

Fifty Shades of Cynicism

Detail of two of the letters recently discovered by Jean-Yves Berthault, in the cellar of a friend’s apartment.

The thrill of discovery is what fuels anyone trawling the archives of a library, browsing the dusty bins in an antique store—and for the truly intrepid—braving the cold winds of outdoor flea markets. If you’re lucky, you could be the next John Maloof. Or the less-known Jean-Yves Berthault, a French diplomat who stumbled not long ago on a treasure trove of anonymous, erotic letters from the 1920s, detailing a love affair between an aristocratic woman called Simone and her younger lover.

Their fascination lies in many things (not least of which is their anonymity) but also the fact that the letters illustrate a forgotten world—in this case, highlighting matters of class, degrees of taboo, life in Paris in the 1920s. That’s the magic of ephemera: long lost and now found, they present as inert bits of paper, but are, in truth, visual beacons of social history.

The letters will be published next year by Heinemann, a division of Penguin Random House. Century, another Heinemann imprint, brought us Fifty Shades of Grey, which still does not even begin to explain the unbridled sarcasm in the comments that follow the announcement in today’s Guardian. They’re mean, if comical (Simone is probably a 40-year old copywriter from Chiswick called Dave!), which may make you laugh, but has to make you wonder. When did we become so cynical—about ephemera?

Jobs | July 14