He mentioned his brother, his books and, of course, the onset of World War I. Mostly, though, Marcel Proust complained about the noise.
“Letters to His Neighbor” is an entertaining collection of notes the author sent to a woman who lived in his building in Paris. Discovered in a French archive in 2013, the letters, from 1908-16, depict a person just begging for a few minutes of peace.
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” he said in 1915 letter, “a day which usually offers me the opposite of the weekly repose because in the little courtyard adjoining my room they beat the carpets from your apartment, with an extreme violence. May I ask for grace tomorrow?”
Accompanying essays by Lydia Davis, whose translation preserves Proust’s sparse punctuation, and Jean-Yves Tadie, Proust’s biographer, provide the requisite background. In these years, as he was writing his multivolume epic “In Search of Lost Time,” Proust lived at 102 Blvd. Haussmann (today it’s a bank, Davis says). He was a noted “noise phobic,” according to Tadie, and his letters were, in part, a means of securing some quiet time to work and rest.
All but three of the letters are addressed to a Madame Marie Williams. Tadie identifies her as “the wife of an American dentist,” but concedes that “we know very little about her.” Although his letters mention noise from the dental practice and Williams’ apartment, both located on floors above Proust’s 300-square-foot flat, the author was a thoughtful correspondent.
Proust had flowers delivered to Williams, and sent copies of Nouvelle Revue Française, which had recently published his work. Some of his gifts surely caught her by surprise: “I hope that you will be willing to accept these four pheasants with as much simplicity as I put into offering them to you.”
Proust also wrote vividly about the war, and about his worries for his brother, Dr. Robert Proust. In 1914, Proust informed Williams that Robert “is operating in the line of fire, has had his hospital bombed, the shells falling even on the operating table.” (He made it home alive.) The German bombing of the cathedral in Reims, France, he added, was “a crime rather coldly conceived.”
But Proust was never more detailed than when discussing his noise-related concerns.
“Would it be possible either to nail the crates this evening,” he wondered, having learned that his neighbors would be boxing up some items, “or else not to nail them tomorrow until starting at 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon?”
In a subsequent letter, he complained that his sleeping pills weren’t up to the job: “At 10 o’clock in the morning I was supposed to get up. But at 8 o’clock, the light little blows on the floorboards above me were so precise, that the veronal was useless and I woke.”
But when he was the loud one, Proust apologized. “I fear that the unexpected arrival this evening at midnight of my friend … who for the 1st time in 15 months was returning from the front and who entered in disarray may have occasioned some noise which would so ill have recompensed that which you are sparing me,” he wrote. “I was very moved to see him again.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
Letters to His Neighbor
By: Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Lydia Davis.
Publisher: New Directions, 128 pages, $22.95.
Event: Lydia Davis will be at Cowles Auditorium at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6.