It should perhaps be a thing of shame that I pride myself on how many books I have read during my lifetime, but that I have never picked up anything by Proust. I’m not quite sure why this is; I am interested in his novels, and know just how inspirational his work has been to a great deal of other writers. He is regarded by many as one of the best, if not the best, writers of the twentieth century.
I can say that Proust has always been a writer on my radar, but I just didn’t know of a good starting point, and was perhaps a little intimidated by his seven-novel series, In Search of Lost Time. When I saw the beautifully designed Letters to the Lady Upstairs though, I knew that I had found the right path into his work.
Twenty-three of the twenty-six letters in this relatively short collection were written by Proust to his upstairs neighbour, Madame Marie Williams, between 1909 and 1919. the others were penned to her husband. They have been translated from their original French by Lydia Davis, and were first published in English almost a century later, in 2017. The letters were not originally dated, so these have been guessed at to the best of the ability of those working on the book. Due to new information coming to light, the order of the letters in the English edition is different to that of the French; here, they are shown ‘in the way that seemed the most logical’.
The letters here reveal ‘the comings and goings of a Paris building’; to be precise, 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, where Proust lived and wrote for over a decade. Marie Williams lived in the apartment above with her American dentist husband, whose practice was also in the building. A great deal about Proust’s correspondent is not known, although sadly, she committed suicide in 1931. Her responses to Proust have also been lost.
Much can be found in these letters about the day-to-life of Proust. He complains constantly, although strangely very politely, about the noise which surrounds him, and which always stops him from sleeping. There is much, too, about the characters in Proust’s fiction, which he is thrilled that Madame Williams enjoys; in the autumn of 1914, he tells her: ‘At least I would have the joy of knowing that those lovely lucid eyes had rested on these pages’. Having not read any of his fiction yet, I must admit that this meant relatively little to me, but I’m sure it might be something I come back to in future once I have finally delved into his oeuvre.
This volume also includes an afterword written by the translator, and a foreword by Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tabié. Tabié writes that some of these letters were curiously sent via the postal system, despite the proximity of sender and receiver. Tabié goes on to say that ‘the tone of the letters is that of friendship, of ever growing intimacy, between two solitary people.’
Like Proust, Madame Williams was something of a recluse, and was also suffering from an unknown ailment. In the second letter, for instance, Proust – who seems to find real pleasure in talking about how ill he is – writes: ‘It saddens me very much to learn that you are ill. If bed does not bore you too much, I believe that in itself it exerts a very sedative effect on the kidneys.’ He continues to ask her, throughout the letters which follow, what he can possibly do to alleviate her discomfort. In what is estimated to be the August of 1909, he says: ‘I am saddened to learn that you, too, have been suffering. It seems natural to me that I should be ill. But at least illness ought to spare Youth, Beauty and Talent!’
Proust comes across as an extremely gentle correspondent, aware of what is going on in Madame Williams’ life, and offering her one kindness after another. If I were Madame Williams, I must admit that I might have found his letters a little annoying at times, given the amount of time he spends being preoccupied about noise and illness. He is also rather pedantic, and there is something about him which I found rather prickly, and holier than thou. He writes to her in November 1915, for example, ‘I am a little sorry that you have not received my last letters (though they were addressed I believe quite correctly)’. He seems keen to let her know how accommodating he is as a neighbour; in the same month, he is far too ill to attend a concert, but ‘when by chance a musician came to see me in the evening, I stop him from making music for me so that the noise may not bother you.’
Although we only get to see one side of their correspondence, it is clear that there is a tenderness which Proust holds for his neighbour, and their connection does visibly grow as time passes. I personally really enjoy one-sided correspondences, and have read quite a few of them to date. I like watching how one writer’s letters change over time, and what becomes more and less important to them as years pass. It is interesting, too, to imagine what might have been included in the responses. The two seem to rarely have met in person; Proust makes veiled excuses throughout as to why he cannot meet her physically, due primarily to his ‘attacks’.
Proust is certainly an interesting figure, and one whom I would like to learn a lot more about. I enjoyed Davis’ comments offered about the building in which Proust lived, which is now part of a bank building. She writes that this was the first place in which he ever lived alone, and that when he first moved in, ‘he considered the apartment to be no more than a transitional residence.’ She goes on to say that Proust was ‘well-liked by his neighbours, on the whole, for the same qualities so evident in his letters to Mme Williams: his grace, eloquence, thoughtfulness, sympathy, gestures or gratitude.’
Letters to the Lady Upstairs is a revealing volume, which takes little time to read, but which lingers in the mind for a long time afterward. Proust captures so much of the city, despite largely staying indoors with his illness and the noise, and he relays everything – even his complaints – quite beautifully. As Davis says, ‘Follow every reference in these letters, and Proust’s world opens out before us.’
I am keen to pick up more of his work in the near future, and so would highly recommend this as a good starting point. I’m sure that if you are already familiar with Proust’s novels, this will hold appeal for you too. Overall, Letters to the Lady Upstairs is quite fascinating, and introduces one to two very interesting historical figures – one whom a lot is known about, and another who has faded quite into obscurity.