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

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era