Proust, Marcel. “Letters to His Neighbor”, translated by Lydia Davis, New Directions, 2017.
A Recent Discovery
Neighbors come in all types, sizes and nationalities and most of us have little if any choice as to whom they will be. Some of us never see our neighbors and have no contact whatsoever but this was not the case for French author, Marcel Proust who had the misfortune of having a very noisy neighbor. A trove of letters to his neighbor was recently found and we see Proust’s torment and humor in what he has to say (wonderfully translated by Lydia Davis).
If you have read Proust, you know that he has the ability to illuminate pain and we really see that in this collection of letters. He was already dealing with as much noise as he thought he could stand in his home when his neighbor, Dr. Williams married a widow with young children.
Proust wrote most of the letters to Mrs. Williams and they were always polite and often accompanied by flowers, compliments, and books, even pheasants. In actuality, the letters are very funny since Proust knew how to hide his ire by writing graciously.
Proust was famous for his digressions and here we see the true brilliance of that when speaking about neighbors. Proust says that there are only charming neighbors even though according to Montesquieu they are the most horrible nuisance of all.
Proust does make fine distinctions among the noises that bother him. “The valet de chambre makes noise and that doesn’t matter. But later he knocks with little tiny raps. And that is worse.”
Lydia Davis in her translator’s note, traces much of what we can know about “Proust’s perpetually dark room; she details the furnishings as well as the life he lived there: burning his powders, talking with friends, hiring musicians, and, most of all, suffering”. Letters to His Neighbor is richly illustrated with facsimile letters and photographs— catnip for lovers of Proust”. The book also includes an Introduction by Jean-Yves Tadié.
Anyone who has ever had a noisy neighbor will immediately sympathize with Proust. Whenever I read something about or by Proust, I am taken back to the first time I managed to read all of him that I could. I remember and even relive some of the frustrations I felt then so I can just imagine how the recipient of these letters felt. Here is Proust at his most desperate yet charming to the extreme. I was charmed by both the letters and the translation. The language is pure Proust in its “winding and musing on everything from the properties of imagination.” You no longer have to wonder what Proust sounds like when he hears “the sounds of frolicking children on the other side of his bedroom wall”. He likes noise as much as we do thus making him more human than ever.