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.