Saba Ahmed reviews Letters to His Neighbor by Marcel Proust

Translated from the French by Lydia Davis (New Directions, 2017)

In his editor’s foreword, Jean-Yves Tadié describes Marcel Proust’s Letters to His Neighbor as “a real novel in miniature,” a phrase which perfectly captures the liminal nature of life-writing. There is some attentiveness to form here, and to the polite conventions of twentieth-century letter writing, but there is fluidity, too—some element of lived experience that cannot be shaped into the narrative arc of a novel or bound by the stylistic rules of poetry. On the face of it, these letters written between 1908 and 1918 are a series of noise complaints addressed to Proust’s upstairs neighbor Mme Williams and occasionally to her husband, an American dentist whose practice was two floors above the mezzanine of Proust’s building, directly above his bed. Published by Gallimard a few years ago, and now thoughtfully curated in English by New Directions with a scholarly and rigorous afterword by translator Lydia Davis, the letters are inflected by fine observations and moments of deep empathy. They are suffused with the intimate textures of daily life—flowers and fragrance—and allow us an insight into the larger social context of the time, with reports of the wounded returning from war. Thematically, they are often concerned with art, poetry, and ruins. As a collection, they obliquely chart the passing of seasons as well as the publication history of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

It is difficult, nonetheless, to put together some kind of story here without access to Mme Williams’s responses, so Proust’s letters are fragments of a whole, a voice that speaks over hers, an interlocution marked by absence. They rely on the reader to do the imaginative work of piecing together an extraordinary relationship between two individuals who shared a wall, and yet were known to each other largely through notes sent by mail, or via messengers traipsing up and down the stairs of 102, Boulevard Haussmann. Proust’s correspondence dwells on this simultaneous closeness and unbridgeable distance, conveying both the intensity of his urge to see Mme Williams and his regret for his invalid body: “You give me so great a desire, and almost your permission, to see you: and then at the very moment that I receive the letter, you have left!”

Tonally, the letters are elegant, charming, tender; occasionally hastily scribbled with heavy underlinings, as seen in the facsimiles; sometimes accompanied by tasteful gifts of books, roses and carnations, even pheasants. Proust pays tribute to Mme Williams’s beautiful words and aesthetic sensibilities, reflecting them back in his own lovely metaphors and images:

you, with your pictorial and sunlit words, have brought color and light into my closed room . . . I know nothing of the sun but what your letter tells me. It has thus been a blessed messenger, and contrary to the proverb, this single swallow has made for me an entire spring.


I thank you deeply for the letter that has brought me I assure you a vision more enduring than a bouquet and as colorful. One after another lovely verses written in all periods to the glory of the autumn roses . . . I have assembled in my memory a bouquet of all the written roses. Now yours seemed to me worthy of being added to them, and your prose of residing as neighbor with their verse.

Elsewhere, they are full of promises and polite protestation:

I had ordered these flowers for you and I am in despair that they are coming on a day when against all expectation I feel so ill that I would like to ask you for silence tomorrow Saturday. Yet as this request is in no way conjoined with the flowers, causing them to lose all their fragrance as disinterested mark of respect and to bristle with nasty thorns, I would like even more not to ask you for silence.

Hypersensitive to any source of potential noise, Proust preemptively apologizes for “the voice of my housekeeper, very sharp,” beseeching Mme Williams to “[prescribe] for me certain modifications in my ways of doing things, I cannot express to you the intimate pleasure that you would give me.” This turns out to be an artful and elegant response to a noisy neighbor. In other letters, he negotiates with her to arrange allotted times for loud interruptions to coincide with his fumigations. According to Proust’s housekeeper Céleste Albaret, Davis tells us, his sickbed was perpetually cast with the ghostly light of his green lampshade and the smoke from his opium-based Legras powders—the dark rooms crammed with heavy furniture and oriental screens, towels wedged in between the cracks of windows and doors to muffle any sounds from the outside world.

It is extremely touching to read in Proust’s letters his dual role as both clinician and patient, analyst and analysand. He attempts to diagnose his aversion to noise:

What bothers me is never continuous noise, even loud noise, if it is not struck, on the floorboards, (it is less often no doubt in the bedroom itself, than at the bend of the hallway). And everything that is dragged over the floor, that falls on it, runs across it.

Here, Davis catches the parenthetical, punctuated breathlessness of Proust’s prose where a sentence expresses a single thought in its entirety. He prescribes an amended sleep pattern for himself “in order to be able to experience a little daylight,” one which must always be in sync with the sounds of the building—the violent throbs of the maid’s carpet-beating in the adjoining courtyard, the “little tiny raps” of the valet de chambre, the dentist’s clients who mistakenly ring Proust’s doorbell—and the avenues below. Every interruption becomes material for his art, rich with the potential to be observed, and imaginatively transcribed:

As they are repairing the Boulevard Haussman at night, redoing your apartment during the day and demolishing the shop at 98bis in the intermissions, it is probable that when this harmonious team disperses, the silence will resound in my ears so abnormally that, mourning the vanished electricians and the departed carpet-layer, I will miss my Lullaby.

For Proust, cocooned in his bed, real time loses materiality. (Proust started his day late in the afternoon, breakfasting on coffee and croissants served by Céleste over gossip and the day’s letters and papers, then writing for hours through the night into the early morning.) He invents his own theory of narrative time, suspending memory, or living in the wishful potentiality of the subjunctive tense. Even his letters are exercises in nostalgia. They become out of date the instant Proust puts pen to paper, losing relevance to the present moment. “The real Truth,” he writes,

is that I always defer letters (which could seem to ask you for something) to a moment when it is too late and when consequently they are no longer indiscreet . . . one may presume that when this letter reaches Annecy, the beautifications of Boulevard Haussmann will be nearly done.

Elsewhere, he writes longingly of a time when he might be able to visit Mme Williams in person, and hear her play the harp.

As well as translating Proust’s prose, Lydia Davis reflects on it in her own writing. In her short story “The Walk,” she paints a fascinating backstory to her translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way (Viking, 2003). In typically elliptical prose, she writes from the close third-person perspective of an unnamed female translator who takes a walk with a male critic along the unfamiliar streets of Oxford. They have spent the day in a closed, stuffy room attending an academic conference on Proust, and now walk maintaining a respectful distance between them, evoking “some of the awkwardness of a first date.” The critic prefers C. K. Moncrieff’s lyrical turn of phrase; the translator, one attuned to clarity and faithfulness to the literal text. They wander, a little lost, and then, as she leads the way, they emerge suddenly from a street and she notices a familiar sight which reconfigures her bearings. It occurs to the translator that this scene re-enacts a passage from Swann’s Way where the young narrator’s father guides the family back home through the winding streets of Combray. Davis’s translation of the passage from Proust reads:

He would shrug his shoulders and laugh. Then, as if he had taken it out of his jacket pocket along with his key, he would show us the little back gate of our own garden, which stood there before us, having come, along with the corner of the rue du Saint-Esprit, to wait for us at the end of those unfamiliar streets.

It is a striking echo of the spatial metaphors Proust evokes in his correspondence. On his ambitions for the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, he reveals to Mme Williams: “it’s the 3rd that casts the light and illuminates the plans of the rest . . . the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.” It is almost as if Proust asks us to look at his work in close detail, and then step back to view it from a distance, constantly shifting between these two perspectives.

Of course, in Davis’s story, the critic doesn’t register the significance of this literary encounter, the translator decides not to point it out, and they part ways in separate taxis the next morning. But the narrative arc of “The Walk”—boredom, awkwardness, habit; and then, the jolt of the familiar seen in a new light, an instant that strikes like lightning and then is over in a flash—is rich with dramatic suspense. It is an ode, too, to the form and style of Proust’s work, which, like Davis’s, tugs perpetually at the bind between life and writing. After all, isn’t there a comparison to be drawn between the relationship Proust imagines with Mme Williams in his letters, and the one Davis evokes between the critic and the translator? In close physical proximity, and yet at risk of misreading one another. Even Proust’s compliments are tinged with a kind of empathic erasure which dissolves the boundaries between addressor and addressee, self and other: “Through the grace of generosity—or a play of reflections—you lend my letters some of the qualities possessed by your own. Yours are delicious, delicious in heart, in spirit, in style, in ‘talent.’” In another letter, Proust expresses condolence, absorbing Mme Williams’s grief:

And I have so much fallen into the habit, without knowing you, of sympathizing with your sorrows and your joys, through the wall where I sense you invisible and present, that this news of the death of Monsieur your brother has acutely saddened me. I always think of you a great deal.

What a silently earth-shattering admission of how little we can really know the people we claim intimacy with! Or perhaps it is a testament to the redemptive power of compassion, of how pain amplifies our understanding of others’ heartaches. Alongside the static black-and-white photographs provided in Letters to His Neighbor, a rich portrait of Mme Williams emerges as a strikingly stylish and sad protagonist, as if from a Guy de Maupassant story, as Tadié suggests in his introduction. Or even a minor character from In Search of Lost Time.

In her translator’s afterword, Davis recounts the response of a certain Monsieur Lerossignol to the original French publication of excerpts of Proust’s letters online in Le Nouvel Observateur. The grandson of a florist whose shop Proust patronized, Lerossignol drew on family records and transactions to reveal details of how often Proust sent flowers to Mme Williams and how often to her husband (since proper etiquette, in those days, required that flowers, to a married woman, were directed to her husband; he insists Proust’s behavior was always very correct). He also counts the number of visits Proust physically made to the flower shop in the seaside town of Houlgate (the inspiration for the fictional town of Balbec in In Search of Lost Time) before 1912: thirty-two. Davis’s afterword is a stunning instance of her pulling out the metaphorical key to Proust’s cork-lined room from her jacket pocket, one of many such moments in this perfect edition, which is surprisingly alive to revision, and which adds greatly to our understanding of Proust’s life and work.