Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new trove of correspondence with his upstairs neighbors reveals Marcel Proust’s charming but desperate pleas for quiet.
It’s a messy business, being neighbors. For all the convivial block parties and stoop-sitting, there’s also no shortage of more teeth-gnashing (or generally mystifying) behaviors: the neighbor who blithely ignores any plea to curb her dog, for instance, or the one who seems to always haul a clunky armoire across the floor at the inkiest hours, rattling the walls.
Before subtweets or passive-aggressive griping on a neighborhood listserv, complaining about your neighbors required diplomacy and delicacy. A forthcoming volume of correspondence suggests that no one did it better than Marcel Proust.
Letters to His Neighbor, newly translated into English by Lydia Davis, compiles a trove of the author’s notes to Mme. Marie Williams and her husband, Charles—a dentist whose chair lay directly above Proust’s bedroom in the building on Boulevard Haussman where the writer lived from 1907 to 1919. The 23 letters are charming and clever, replete with finely observed turns of phrase. (Of writing a multi-volume work, he notes: “One must resign oneself to not being understood, since the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.”) The letters also turn out to be a spiritual precursor to a 311 call about excessive noise. Proust elevated grumbling to an art.
Urban life is notoriously ungenerous to neurotics, and Proust, unfortunately, crumpled in the face of so many stimuli. He was spectacularly sensitive to sounds and prone to bouts of illness, and famously passed the last few years of his life in a cork-lined room, trying to muffle the clamor of the street. And though he seemed fond of the Williamses—the letters, Jean-Yves Tadié notes in the introduction, betray a sense of “ever-growing intimacy between two solitary people”—he also singled the couple out as the main source of his misery.
“I have had a great deal of noise these past few days and I am not well,” Proust wrote in the summer of 1915. Charles was hammering crates to cart his belongings on a trip to Paris. Would it be possible, Proust wondered, to limit that work to later in the afternoon, and to undertake it in a part of the couple’s apartment that wasn’t so close to the writer’s bedroom?
Throughout, Proust makes an effort to ingratiate himself to the couple, plying them with gifts as he begs them to keep it down. “I hope that you will be willing to accept these four pheasants with as much simplicity as I put into offering them to you as neighbor,” he wrote to Charles around 1909. The writer bristled at any whiff of unctuousness: “I had ordered these flowers for you and I am in despair that they are coming on a day when against all expectation I feel so ill that I would like to ask you for silence tomorrow Saturday,” reads one letter to Madame Williams. Then, all that dispensed with, he slathered on just a thin coat of it: “Yet as this request is in no way conjoined with the flowers, causing them to lose their fragrance as disinterested mark of respect and to bristle with nasty thorns, I would like even more not to ask you for this silence.” Elsewhere, he adds: “I hope that you will not find me too indiscreet and I lay at your feet my respectful regards.”
He sometimes skips the florid portions. “This one is just a quick note from a neighbor,” Proust writes in one that quickly tumbles into a rant about a noisy weekly ritual. Sundays, he writes, “usually offer me the opposite of the weekly repose because in the little courtyard adjoining my room they beat the carpets from your apartment, with extreme violence.” He begs, politely, for a reprieve.
Some letters, like that one, take aim at specific sounds; others are focused on cacophony that’s harder to isolate. One derides the valet’s habit of knocking with “little tiny raps,” which Proust finds even less tolerable than louder noises. And when an ongoing construction project concludes, he writes, “the silence will resound in my ears so abnormally that, mourning the vanished electricians and the departed carpet-layer, I will miss my Lullaby.”
Altogether, the letters shed light on a reclusive writer trying to barricade himself from the sounds that tormented him without severing all connections from the world. They’re a peek into the windows of one building, and at the dynamics—still so unruly, a century later—of managing both sanity and civility in close quarters.
Letters to His Neighbor is available in August from New Directions.