Magazine article The Spectator

'Letters to the Lady Upstairs', by Marcel Proust, Translated by Lydia Davis - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Letters to the Lady Upstairs', by Marcel Proust, Translated by Lydia Davis - Review

Article excerpt

Why would a writer like Marcel Proust, who quivered and wheezed at the slightest sensation, decide to live surrounded by neighbours in one of the busiest parts of Paris? In 1906, at the age of 35, shortly after the death of his mother, he moved to a first-floor apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. 'I couldn't bear to live in a place that maman never knew,' he explained.

For this ghostly comfort, he paid a heavy price. Petrol fumes and tree pollen -- to which he was almost fatally allergic -- drifted up from the boulevard. In the absence of maman's goodnight kiss, he sedated himself with valerian and heroin, but there was no escaping the blaring of klaxons, the thud of demolition and the renovation of his neighbour's toilet: 'She keeps changing the seat -- probably having it widened.'

These 26 recently rediscovered letters were written by Proust to another neighbour, Marie Williams, the French wife of an American dentist who lived above him on the second and third floors. In their excruciating politeness, they take us to the heart of his sensory hell. Touch, taste and smell are the senses usually associated with Proust: the episode everyone remembers from his seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, is the spongy madeleine which, dipped in a cup of tea, resuscitates the past by the miracle of involuntary memory. But the narrator's ears -- 'anxious' and 'hallucinating' -- are just as active in the story as his nostrils and tongue.

Settling in to the apartment where, incredibly, he lived for more than 12 years, trying to write his novel, Proust faced the common dilemma of what the translator Lydia Davis calls 'a noise-phobic'. He could either try to ignore or try to stop the noise. But if either attempt should fail, the noise would become even more intolerable. The nailing of packing crates, the arias of house painters, the inexplicable tap-tap-tapping of the servant upstairs would be laced with imagined malice and amplified by indignation.

Before the arrival of Dr and Mrs Williams, heavy hints seemed to be the best option. Dr Gagey, whose building work blighted Proust's first weeks in the apartment, was asked up from the floor below to give his medical opinion. Proust had inserted something in his ear to stop the noise; the plug had stuck, and his ear (still otherwise functioning) was now infected. With the neighbours above, he tried a more subtle approach: he would smother the 'admirably talented' and 'charming' Mrs Williams, who played the piano and the harp, with flattery and flowers. …

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