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


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.



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.

Will not talk on cell phone; will not eat smelly food

At the start of a train trip, people search for a good seat, and some of them take a careful look at the people nearby who have already chosen their seats, to see if they will make good neighbors. 

It might help if we each wore a little sign saying in what ways we will and will not be likely to disturb other passengers, such as: Will not talk on cell phone; will not eat smelly food.
Included in mine would be: Will not talk on cell phone at all, aside from perhaps a short communication to my husband at the beginning of the trip home, summarizing my visit in the city, or, more rarely, a quick warning to a friend on the way down that I will be late; but will recline my seat back as far as it will go, for most of the trip, except when I am eating my lunch or snack; may in fact be adjusting it slightly, back and up, from time to time throughout the trip; will sooner or later eat something, usually a sandwich, sometimes a salad or a container of rice pudding, actually two containers of rice pudding, though small ones; sandwich, almost always Swiss cheese, with in fact very little cheese, just a single slice, and lettuce and tomato, will not be noticeably smelly, at least as far as I can tell; am as tidy as I can be with the salad, but eating salad with a plastic fork is awkward and difficult; am tidy with the rice pudding, taking small bites, though when I remove the sealed top of the container it can make a loud ripping noise for just a moment; may keep unscrewing the top of my water bottle and taking a drink of water, especially while eating my sandwich and about one hour afterwards; may be more restless than some other passengers, and may clean my hands several times during the trip with a small bottle of hand sanitizer, sometimes using hand lotion afterwards, which involves reaching into my purse, taking out a small toiletries bag, unzipping it, and, when finished, zipping it up again and returning it to my purse; but may also sit perfectly quietly for a few minutes or longer staring out the window; may do nothing but read a book through most of the trip, except for one walk down the aisle to the restroom and back to my seat; but, on another day, may put the book down every few minutes, take a small notebook out of my purse, remove the rubber band from around it, and make a note in the notebook; or, when reading through a back issue of a literary magazine, may rip pages out in order to save them, though I will try to do this only when train is stopped at a station; lastly, after a day in the city, may untie my shoelaces and slip my shoes off for part of the trip, especially if the shoes are not very comfortable, then resting my bare feet on top of my shoes rather than directly on the floor, or, very rarely, may remove shoes and put on slippers, if I have a pair with me, keeping them on until I have nearly reached my destination; but feet are quite clean and toenails have a nice dark red polish on them.

Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t: Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition (April 8, 2014)

Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before

A Woman, Thirty

A woman, thirty, does not want to leave her childhood home.
Why should I leave home? These are my parents. They love me. Why should I go marry some man who will argue and shout at me?
Still, the woman likes to undress in front of the window. She wishes some man would at least look at her.


The Bad Novel

This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip—I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.



Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.


I Ask Mary About Her Friend, the Depressive, and His Vacation

One year, she says
“He’s away in the Badlands.”

The next year, she says
“He’s away in the Black Hills.”

Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t: Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition (April 8, 2014)