Recently discovered letters from Proust to a Paris neighbor show the author’s kindness even when he complained about the noise.
One might wonder why a man as sensitive to noise as Proust chose to live in a Paris building where someone might set up a dental practice two floors above him. That’s what happened in the early 1900s, when a harp-playing artist named Madame Marie Williams and her husband, an American dentist named Charles, moved into Proust’s building at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Despite the noise, Proust and the Williamses developed a close friendship, as is documented in these letters written between 1908 and 1916. Proust may have soundproofed his apartment with “a marbleized, decorative cork,” as Davis writes in her translator’s note, but that wasn’t enough to keep out sounds of hammering or carpet beating. Yet it’s hard to imagine politer requests to keep it down: “If in the morning there is hammering above me it’s all over for the whole day for resting,” Proust writes in 1909, a request for silence that included a gift of four pheasants. The tone of these letters, as Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tadié notes in the foreword, is that “of ever growing intimacy” between Proust and Marie. He shows her sections of what would become Volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time and expresses sadness over the World War I bombing of Reims cathedral. Marie’s responses, thought to be lost, would have made the book more engaging, but Proust’s letters are as poetic as one might expect. They also show his self-deprecating wit. In 1911, he writes that, when repairs to Marie’s apartment are finished, “the silence will resound in my ears so abnormally that, mourning the vanished electricians and the departed carpet-layer, I will miss my Lullaby.”
A trove of charming correspondence from literature’s most famous “noise phobic.”