Temps perdu: a 1900s Paris street scene. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Bouquets and billets-doux: letters from Proust to his neighbour

Propped against a multitude of pillows in his dark bedroom, Proust maintained his connections with the outside world through a blizzard of letters.

Lettres à sa voisine 
Marcel Proust. Edited by Estelle Gaudry and Jean-Yves Tadié
Gallimard, 88pp, €14.50


On 27 December 1906, the novelist Marcel Proust moved from 45 rue de Courcelles to 102 boulevard Haussmann. All house moves are trying but for Proust, then 35, the displacement was particularly enervating. The rue de Courcelles, where he had lived with his parents since 1900, was a quiet street in a genteel quarter near the Parc Monceau – an ideal professional address for Proust’s father, Adrien, a distinguished physician. But Dr Proust – the scourge of European cholera and star of the 1885 International Sanitary Conference in Rome – died of a stroke in November 1903 and Proust’s adored and resented mother, Jeanne, succumbed stoically to uraemia two years later.

A year after her death, the lease on the rue de Courcelles apartment expired. Retreating to the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles, Proust left his younger brother, Dr Robert Proust, to deal with the removals and commissioned his friends to find him a new flat.

“In the end,” he wrote to a confidante, Mme Straus, “I couldn’t make up my mind to go and live in a house that Mother had not known, so for this year . . . I have rented an apartment in our house in the boulevard Haussmann, where I often went to dinner with Mother, where together we saw my old uncle die in the room that I shall occupy. Of course I shall be spared nothing! Frightful dust, trees under and against my window, the noise of the boulevard between the Printemps and Saint-Augustin!”

After trying the patience of his saintly brother and sister-in-law with a virtuoso display of selfishness over the family furniture, Proust moved in, still complaining bitterly. “I remember it as the ugliest thing I ever saw,” he wrote.

Proust had already begun what his biographer George D Painter called his “long farewell to friendship”. While he continued his summer excursions to the Normandy coast of his childhood holidays and occasionally tottered out to see Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (he was underwhelmed by Nijinsky), Proust had, in essence, embarked on the nocturnal life of hermetic seclusion in which he spent the rest of his life composing his great novel.

Propped against a multitude of pillows in his dark bedroom, swathed in pullovers, the air dense with the fumes of the bronchial powders he burned as a remedy for his asthma, dosing himself alternately with caffeine and Veronal and supported by his devoted but fractious servants, Proust maintained his connections with the outside world through a blizzard of letters.

Of all his voluminous correspondence, perhaps none is more eccentrically touching than an exchange of notes with Mme Williams, his upstairs neighbour at 102 boulevard Haussmann. Unpublished until now, only Proust’s side of the correspondence survives; but these 23 letters, written between 1908 and 1916, form a haunting portrait of a friendship both evanescent and intense between two people who lived within earshot of one another, separated only by a few inches of plaster and floorboard, but who scarcely ever met.

The circumstances of their acquaintance were not propitious. It began with a complaint about noise. The racket at 102 boulevard Haussmann was evidently even more hellish than Proust had anticipated. In the flat below, Dr Gagey had commissioned cacophonous renovations. Next door, Mme Katz was busy installing new water closets within inches of his pillow. “She’s changing the seats,” wrote Proust in snide exasperation. “I suppose she found they weren’t wide enough.”

In 1908, Charles and Marie Williams moved in upstairs and began their own extensive building works. Proust’s then housekeeper, Céleste, recalled “the extraordinary Mr Williams, an American dentist. He was sporty and went off with his chauffeur every Saturday to play golf.” Dr Williams was Mme Williams’s second husband. Born Marie Pallu in 1885, she had a four-year-old son by her first husband, whom she divorced in 1908. She played the harp, wore a great deal of scent (to which Proust was allergic) and had friends in common with the novelist.

Arranged in speculative chronological order by the editors, the letters are occasionally businesslike: “Since you are kind enough to ask, allow me to tell you quite frankly that yesterday around 7.30am and today at 8am I was rather troubled by noise . . . I was trying to sleep off an attack [of asthma]. But at 8am, the tapping on the parquet was so distinct that the Veronal didn’t work and I woke with the attack still raging.”

More often, the plea for quiet came wrapped in fantastical layers of courtesy: “Madame, I had ordered these flowers for you and I am in despair that they will arrive at a moment when I feel, quite unexpectedly, so ill that I must beg you for silence tomorrow. To connect the plea for quiet with the flowers seems somehow to rob them of their scent of disinterested admiration, and make them bristle with sharp thorns . . . ”

On other days, he felt strong enough for satire: “Your painters, unique among their trade, don’t sing. Generally house painters insist on cultivating the art of Reszke [the Juan Diego Flórez of his day] at the same time as that of Giotto . . . I hope that on your return you will find yourself surrounded by nothing less than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel . . .”

A couple of years later, with the enticing prospect of an end to the refurbishments in sight, he reflected, “Since they are repairing the boulevard Haussmann at night, redecorating your apartment by day and demolishing the shop at 98 bis in the intervals, it seems likely that when this harmonious ensemble of electricians and carpet-fitters disbands, the silence will ring in my ears so strangely that I shall miss my lullaby.”

In the epistolary spaces unoccupied by pained remonstrations about the din, a complicity developed – a piquant combination of physical remoteness and emotional intensity. To the frequent bouquets of roses were added gifts of pheasant, books and issues of the Nouvelle Revue Française in which extracts from À la recherche du temps perdu appeared (“I hope my book will give you as much pleasure as your letter gave me”).

In 1915, grieving his own wartime losses, Proust sent a note of condolence: “Without knowing you, I am so much in the habit of sympathising with your joys and sorrows on the other side of the partition behind which I sense your invisible presence that I am deeply grieved by the news of your brother’s death.”

The tantalising possibility of a physical meeting haunts the letters. The first surviving note begins with a reproach. “Yours are Parthian letters: you gave me a powerful desire – almost permission – to see you; but you had gone by the time your letter arrived.” Eight years later, the correspondence ends with a dying fall as Proust, pleading illness, declines the “delicious pleasure [of a meeting] offered by your letter” with a graceful reference to “the day you embellished with your visit”.

With that, the elusive Mme Williams vanishes. If there were more letters, they are lost. The Williams family left in May 1919. By October, Proust, too, was gone. He died three years later. The details of Mme Williams’s subsequent life are scant and melancholy. She married a third time, to the pianist Alexander Brailowsky. In 1931, she committed suicide, having survived by nine years the novelist in whose life she was a fleeting, poignant presence, characterised by the scent of roses and the sharp percussion of workmen’s hammers. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Show Hide image

How that deleted lesbian scene in Love Actually should have gone

If the film was made in a more utopian 2003, this is what it would have looked like.

Here are some things that “haven’t” made me cry in recent days: “She’s The One” by Robbie Williams coming on the radio in a 3am Uber; my cat farting on my boob; the deleted lesbian storyline in Love Actually. No, the recently unearthed segment of the schmaltziest film of an entire decade in which the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid) most definitely did not make me sob like someone’s recently divorced uncle spending Christmas Day in a Wetherspoons.

The posh older lesbian archetype, it turns out, is something I find quite affecting. Reid and de la Tour play one of those couples who have (probably…) overcome so many obstacles in order to be lesbians together. Poshness. Being at an all-girls boarding school in which lesbianism was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. More poshness. Section 28. Gazing longingly at each other while one tinkles Chopin’s Nocturnes on a dilapidated piano, in a crumbling stately home, and the other sips brandy from a chipped crystal tumbler; both daring not taste the forbidden fruit of the poetess Sappho, etc, etc. Radclyffe Hall. Horses. Poor hygiene.

Unfortunately, seeing as Love Actually was released in 2003 – roughly a decade before people began pretending to care about lesbians – Richard Curtis was forced to cut the one genuinely moving plotline (which actually contains none of the above, but I think heavily implies it) from his cinematic ode to bollocks. But perhaps, had the only non-hetero, non-fucking annoying couple been less of an afterthought and more, say, utterly crucial to the narrative, things could’ve been different. Here’s how, in a more utopian 2003, that might have been achieved:

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (seriously, how did these women get away with not being in Love Actually in the first place?) are militant communists. Judi Dench is a sculptor who used to drink schnapps with Ulrike Meinhof. In the 1980s, she moved to Cuba and became a professional recluse. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, is someone’s spinster great aunt. It doesn’t really matter whose but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that ginger guy who used to be in My Family and those BT ads. (Just a reminder, his actual character in Love Actually is the one whose entire personality is being a bit of a sexist virgin and having an English accent which eventually gets him laid by several American women.)

Anyway, Maggie Smith’s character, let’s call her Edith, has spent her whole life being both a secret lesbian and a secret communist. On holiday in Cuba, she bumps into Judi Dench’s character, let’s call her Annie, and they hook up. Graphically and repeatedly. And, before I’m accused of deus ex machina laziness, please be reminded that this is Love freaking Actually.

Edith and Annie decide that because they’re quite old and don’t care any more, they’re going to go back to London and assassinate the terrible Hugh Grant prime minister. Through yet more hilarious deus ex machina, they manage to sneak into No 10 late at night, with handguns. Hugh Grant is all, “Blimey, who are you.” Edith is all, “your worst nightmare, bitch”. Bear in mind the audience is now shitting itself laughing because an old posh lady just talked all gangster. Then Annie pistol whips him and he passes out in the most Hugh Grant way possible ie he says, “oh dear,” then hits the floor like an untalented, floppy haired douche. When he comes to, he’s tied to a chair in his office. At this point he remembers that he was supposed to turn up at Tiffany from EastEnders’s house and declare his love for her. He begs Annie and Edith to let him phone her. “As it’s Christmas”, they decide to let the fucker do one last really corny thing before he dies. There are no bodyguards or anything, by the way. Remember, this is a film in which – post-9/11 – a child (albeit a white one) runs through airport security and isn’t shot 17 times in the head.

So, the PM phones up Tiffany from EastEnders and says, “Look. I… there’s something I wanted to tell you. And I was planning on doing it in person but …gosh this is all so terribly inconvenient… I’m being held hostage by lesbian communists. I do hope you can forgive me.”

After some more “frightfully English” bumbling crap, Edith puts her gun to Hugh Grant’s head and pulls the trigger. Her and Annie then make out for like seven minutes. Eventually, a cockney policeman played by Timothy Spall shows up and decides to let the two women off, again, “as it’s Christmas.” Also, he mentions, “No one liked that tosser anyway.”

“She’s the One” by Robbie Willams begins to play.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.