Letters to His Neighbor

Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis
New Directions ($19.95)

by David Wiley

Marcel Proust, author of the world’s longest and perhaps greatest novel, In Search of Lost Time, was a near-invalid who sequestered himself during most of his masterwork’s composition inside a cork-lined, shuttered bedroom, banishing pollen, noise, sunlight, people, and everything else in the world other than his own voluminous memories. Stories of his reclusiveness have become so legendary and proverbial that inside views of his life—such as his housekeeper Céleste Albaret’s profoundly illuminating memoir, Monsieur Proust—read like gospel to pilgrims in search of more shards of the true Proust. He didn’t write any memoirs himself, unless you count his roman à clef as a memoir, but his epic correspondence forms a kind of double mirror to his endlessly refracting novel. Thus, when any new artifacts documenting this monster of neurotic hermeticism come to light, it’s like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran. The latest discovery of twenty-six of his letters to his upstairs neighbor, written over a decade during the composition of In Search of Lost Time, will delight any Proustian and will tide the faithful over until new relics come to light.

An American dentist named Charles Williams lived and worked in the flat just above Proust’s—a nightmare for any sensitive person, let alone one who only slept during the day—and nearly all of the letters in this volume are hilariously labyrinthine requests for quiet. Three are addressed to Dr. Williams himself, while the twenty-three others are addressed to his wife, Marie, who like Proust also had ongoing health problems and whose sensitivity and intelligence very slowly made their mark on her complaining neighbor’s empathy. Some of these letters are simply ingenious in how they wend their way toward their true purpose—quiet, please!—but Proust couldn’t help becoming connected to his fellow sufferer upstairs. Although he almost never actually came into contact with her, he nonetheless gave much of himself to her, and he received perhaps just as much in return. Responding to a letter she wrote to him while she was on vacation, he revels in her perceptive descriptions and reflects his own crepuscular experience right back at her:

You, with your pictorial and sunlit words, have brought color and light into my closed room. Your health has improved you tell me, and your life become more beautiful. I feel great joy over this. I cannot say the same for myself. My solitude has become even more profound, and I know nothing of the sun but what your letter tells me.

Gradually recognizing each other’s finely attuned minds, the two eventually began exchanging books—always through intermediaries, despite being a floor apart; in fact, he even sent some of his letters to her via the mail—and early on he began offering her published samples of his ongoing novel, despite his qualms about their level of polish and completion. Sending her magazine excerpts of what eventually became the work’s second and third volumes, he illuminates his expansive method as he subtly impresses her with why she and her husband need to give him the quiet that his labors require:

But will these detached pages give you an idea of the 2nd volume? And the 2nd volume itself doesn’t mean much; it’s the 3rd that casts the light and illuminates the plans of the rest. But when one writes a work in 3 volumes in an age when publishers want only to publish one at a time, one must resign oneself to not being understood, since the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.

Those Daedalian keys eventually took seven volumes to become almost integrated into the novel’s full ground plan. Proust’s fully articulated vision halted just short of completion when he died eight years later, his revisions and expansions having ballooned the three volumes that he mentions in this 1914 letter into seven nearly perfect halls of mirrors.

Renowned Proust translator Lydia Davis reproduces the author’s idiosyncratic usage and orthography faithfully, mimicking the improvised quality of these dashed-off letters with a slashing verve (this volume’s reproductions of many of the letters attesting to their slapdash nature). The original French editors Estelle Gaudry and Jean-Yves Tadié contribute helpful endnotes, which Davis translates, expands, and emends to great effect, although Davis unfortunately has her hands tied with Proust-biographer Tadié’s labored foreword. Davis’s afterword also indulges in a few too many of her own peccadillos, such as way too much information about what the bank that occupies Proust’s former apartment looks like now. The real magic of her afterword comes in its coda, which tells the story of the grandson of a Norman florist reading extracts from these letters online and subsequently disclosing Proust’s flower-buying habits and etiquette with the Williamses and others, noting the thirty-two times that he visited the shop between 1908 and 1912. Unearthing these intricately revealing records is the true Proustian pursuit, redeeming Davis’s mini-gospel of its few apocryphal lapses and elevating this volume’s host of testamentary material to nearly the level of the letters themselves. A tiny reliquary, this book’s illuminated codex now serves as a minor pilgrimage for all true Proustian communicants.

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