Your very respectful, MARCEL PROUST

[autumn 1914]

Madame, Forgive me for not having yet thanked you: it is I who have received marvelous roses described by you with “fragrance imperishable” but various which, in the evocations of the true poet that you are, cause the aroma, at every hour of the day, by turns, now to infiltrate the agatized chiaroscuro of the “Interiors” or now to expand within the fluent and diluted atmosphere of the gardens. Only … I have been so ill these days (in my bed which I have not left and without having noisily opened or closed the carriage entrance as I have it seems been accused of doing) that I have not been able to write. Physically, it was impossible for me. Keep the Revues as long as you like. — . By an astonishing chance Gide, of whom we were speaking, and whom I have not seen for 20 years, came to see me while we were speaking of him in our letters. But I was not in a condition to receive him. Thank you again Madame for the marvelous pages flushed with a smell of roses.

Your very respectful

MARCEL PROUST

The successor to the valet de chambre makes noise and that doesn’t matter. But later he knocks with little tiny raps. And that is worse.

(…)

[November 1915?]

Madame, I have been wanting for a long time to express to you my regret that the sudden arrival of my brother prevented me from writing to you during the last days of your stay in Paris, then my sadness at your leaving. But you have bequeathed to me so many workers and one Lady Terre — whom I do not dare call, rather, “Terrible” (since, when I get the workers to extend the afternoon a little in order to move things ahead without waking me too much, she commands them violently and perhaps sadistically to start banging at 7 o’clock in the morning above my head, in the room immediately above my bedroom, an order which they are forced to obey), that I have no strength to write and have had to give up going away. How right I was to be discreet when you wanted me to investigate whether the morning noise was coming from a sink. What was that compared to those hammers? “A shiver of water on moss” as Verlaine says of a song “that weeps only to please you.” In truth, I cannot be sure that the latter was hummed in order to please me. As they are redoing a shop next door I had with great difficulty got them not to begin work each day until after two o’clock. But this success has been destroyed since upstairs, much closer, they are beginning at 7 o’clock. I will add in order to be fair that your workers whom I do not have the honor of knowing (any more than the terrible lady) must be charming. Thus your painters (or your painter), unique within their kind and their guild, do not practice the Union of the Arts, do not sing! Generally a painter, a house painter especially, believes he must cultivate at the same time as the art of Giotto that of Reszke. This one is quiet while the electrician bangs. I hope that when you return you will not find yourself surrounded by anything less than the Sistine frescoes … I would so much like your voyage to do you good, I was so sad, so continually sad over your illness. If your charming son, innocent of the noise that is tormenting me, is with you, will you please convey all my best wishes to him and be so kind as to accept Madame my most respectful regards.

MARCEL PROUST

(…)

Excerpts from Afterword by Lydia Davis:

Because of his illness, Proust spent most of his time in bed, heavily dressed in — according to one account — two sweaters, socks, and long underwear, with a hot-water bottle at his feet that was renewed three times a day. A blanket folded in four hung over the large door to the room to protect him from drafts and noise. Both shutters and curtains were closed over the double-paned windows, so that no sound could be heard from the street. The chandelier that hung from the ceiling was never illuminated. A candle was kept burning, since he lit his powders using a folded paper rather than striking a match. He generally woke “for the day” at nine in the evening, and had his only meal at that time — coffee and a croissant which Céleste would bring to him when he rang.

When he felt well enough, Proust liked to have a friend come visit occasionally, as long as that friend followed certain rules: no cigarettes, of course, no perfume.

(…)

When he was feeling well enough, he talked without pause, and the person he talked to the most, because she was always available, was Céleste, an intelligent and responsive listener. He often rang for her after she had gone to bed, and she would come as she was, in her nightgown and robe, her hair “down her back,” as she says. He would talk to her for hours at a time, sitting up in bed leaning against two pillows, while she stood at the foot of the bed.

Gide describes, in his journal, Proust’s style of talking: “His conversation, ceaselessly cut by parenthetical clauses, runs on …”

The diplomat and Proust fan Paul Morand enlarges upon this: the Proustian sentence was “singsong, caviling, reasoned, answering objections the listener would never have thought of making, raising unforeseen difficulties, subtle in its shifts and pettifoggery, stunning in its parentheses — that, like helium balloons, held the sentence aloft — vertiginous in its length … well constructed despite its apparent disjointedness; … you listened spellbound …“

(…)

We are told that Proust wrote very fast. This, too, is apparent in the letters, in the sprawling handwriting, in the tendency to abbreviate, in the occasional missing word, and perhaps, though not necessarily, in the missing punctuation.

(…)

Houlgate was a neighboring town to Cabourg, where Proust liked to stay at the Grand Hôtel. Guests marveled, according to Philippe Soupault in his memoirs, over “how Monsieur Proust rented five expensive rooms, one to live in, the other four to ‘contain’ the silence.”

Marcel Proust, Letters to His Neighbor, translated by Lydia Davis, 2017.

This desire is not yours

You’re in a faraway nightclub. People can barely hear each other. They have to shout in others’ ears. You weren’t shouting. You were quiet. Letting the others around the table scream their heads off, deafening each other. In the space of the hour you had already spent there, your distress had intensified. Your exasperation, perhaps. But can one tell distress from exasperation, from melancholy?

Seated next to C, you weren’t looking at her. You were simply feeling the presence of her body to your left. Sometimes her perfume, in waves.

You were attempting to measure, minute by minute, the tightening stranglehold of an exasperatedly physical desire, which you feel minute after minute becoming all the more unbearable, astonishing in its ability to grow, in its paradoxical ability to nail you there in a near-complete paralysis. You didn’t, and still don’t, remember having ever felt such a tyrannical desire. You were tracking its progress, its ascent. It had split your body in two: an abstract, imperceptible body, doubling another that was strained, steeled, exacerbated, a paradox of petrification and pulsation. You couldn’t steer your thoughts away from it, so much was this other body invading you. You witnessed, powerless, motionless, your own colonization by an inexplicable and obscene desire that your willpower was failing to keep in check, to contain, to purge.

This wave of inhuman desire was mounting, against you, against your better judgment. A night with C was not at all your intention. Hadn’t she already once made a pass at you, which you had declined? For you simply did not find C appealing at all. You had even sometimes felt repulsion toward her body.

But desire, like repulsion, is without reason and defies explanation. Nor does repulsion cancel out desire.

How can you feel such a pressing, devastating desire for a woman you don’t even find attractive? A woman who does not fit any of your types… Hence your distress.

You were now intent on looking at her, scrutinizing her, identifying all of the reasons to lose your hard-on. You told yourself that her mouth was unappealing, that her features were too coarse for your taste, that her body, though supple, did not have the naïve delicateness or the energetic grace that usually excited you, that her manner, her gestures lacked the neatness, the discretion capable of seducing you.

You sought out the defects, inventoried the adjectives that might vanquish your desire. But this damned desire remained recalcitrant to all your curses and even to your denigrations.

Therein lies your melancholy: this desire is not yours. This desire cares nothing for you. Unrelenting, blind, deaf, brutal, offering no way out. A desire rising against your body’s will, and your body itself the traitor thwarting its own defense.

Then, maybe, could you divert it? You had started cultivating the hope that C was only the accidental object, not the source, of this desire. And even then, still interchangeable. You had looked around for other women. Asking yourself, of all of them, which would hold the greatest likelihood of being attractive to you. None. So pick at random, any one of them. Then you could begin to think of this other woman, to apply yourself to this task, to draw this unknown woman toward the center of gravity of the desire preoccupying you. So that her image would be caught in its magnetic field. But no, nothing. Not the least pull of attraction. The gaze and the flesh do not belong, it seems, to the same body: the image of the unknown woman and the pulsing of desire, each the center of different galaxies or parallel universes.

Anne Garréta, Not One Day, trans. by Emma Ramadan and the Author, 2017.

Yvonne

Kąpała się i kładła na słońcu. Ja, wzorem mych orientalnych przodków, wolałem cień. Wczesnym popołudniem wracaliśmy do Hermitage’u i do siódmej, ósmej wieczorem nie wychodziliśmy z pokoju. Był tam bardzo szeroki balkon, Yvonne kładła się na pośrodku. Sadowiłem się obok niej w korkowym kasku na głowie – jednej z nielicznych pamiątek po ojcu, do której przywiązany byłem tym więcej, że razem go kupowaliśmy. Było to w sklepie Sport i Klimat, na rogu bulwaru Saint-Germain i ulicy Saint-Dominique. Miałem osiem lat, a mój ojciec wybierał się właśnie do Brazzaville. Co zamierzał tam robić? Nigdy mi nie powiedział.
Schodziłem do hallu po czasopisma. Ze względu na zagraniczną klientelę mieli tu większość tytułów europejskich. Kupowałem wszystkie, jak leci: „Oggi”, „Life”, „Cinémonde”, „Der Stern”, „Confidential”… Pobieżnie przebiegałem wzrokiem wielkie tytuły w dziennikach. Ważne wydarzenia w Algierii, ale także w metropolii i na świecie. Nie chciałem wiedzieć. Czułem ucisk w gardle. Wolałbym, żeby chociaż w ilustrowanych magazynach nie mówiono o tym wszystkim aż tyle. Nie. Nie. Nade wszystko unikać tematów poważnych. Znów ogarniała mnie panika. Żeby się uspokoić, łykałem w barze jedną alexandrę i z plikiem magazynów wchodziłem na górę. Czytaliśmy je, leżąc na łóżku albo na podłodze, naprzeciw otwartych drzwi balkonowych, pośród złocistych plam ostatnich promieni słońca. Córka Lany Turner zasztyletowała kochanka matki. Errol Flynn zmarł na zawał serca i zdążył jeszcze swojej młodej przyjaciółce, która zapytała go, gdzie może strząsnąć popiół z papierosa, wskazać otwarty pysk wypchanego lamparta. Henri Garat umarł jako kloszard. A w wypadku samochodowym koło Suresnes zginął książę Ali Khan. Innych, szczęśliwych wydarzeń już nie pamiętam. Wycinaliśmy parę zdjęć. Przypinaliśmy je na ścianach; nie wyglądało na to, żeby dyrekcja hotelu jakoś specjalnie się tym przejmowała.
Puste popołudnia. Wolno płynące godziny. Yvonne często wkładała czarną, jedwabną podomkę w czerwone grochy, miejscami podartą. Nie zdejmowałem z głowy mojego starego korkowego kasku.
Podłogę zaścielały na wpół podarte czasopisma. Wszędzie poniewierały się butelki z mleczkiem do opalania. W poprzek fotela leżał pies. A na starym adapterze Teppaz puszczaliśmy płyty. Zapominaliśmy zapalić lampy.

Patrick Modiano, Willa “Triste”, tłum. Joanna Polachowska, Kraków 2014.