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.
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.