Beat the carpets later!

Michael Wood

‘It’s really a miniature novel,’ we read in the introduction to this collection of Marcel Proust’s newly discovered letters, ‘C’est un vrai petit roman.’ It’s such a perfect novel that it looks like a hoax. Twenty-six letters from Proust to his upstairs neighbours at 102 boulevard Haussmann, none of the letters heard of before, many of them complaining about the noise: how could this not be a parody? And isn’t it too broad a stroke to make the husband a dentist? The wife a delicate, suffering lady who plays the harp? Please.

Marie Williams at the harp.
Marie Williams at the harp.

Jean-Yves Tadié is enchanted by these artistic possibilities. In the letters, he says, Mme Marie Williams ‘appears to us as if she were a heroine in a novel by Maupassant, Notre coeur for example’. She appears to us even more clearly as if she were a heroine in a work by Proust, ‘an epistolary novel where each of the two writers competes stylistically’, although we have to guess at Mme Williams’s part in the competition. No matter, we can reconstitute her voice, Tadié says, this dialogue has ‘the beauty of … broken statues’. Tadié also knows that Mme Williams ‘must not be very happy with her husband’ – that’s why Proust is such a soulmate.

The letters are not a hoax, it seems. They reside in Paris in the Musée des lettres et manuscrits, opened in 2004 on the rue de Nesle, relocated (and reopened) in 2010 on the boulevard Saint-Germain. But the presentation of them and the French literary world’s response are cloaked in the piety that now surrounds Proust’s reputation, which does give an air of fiction to the whole show. The piety was not created by last year’s centenary of the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, but was certainly solidified by it. Celebrations were in order, of course, but piety is not quite the same as respect or understanding. Piety’s effect is to refuse questions, and in this case to muffle the recurring one about Proust’s career: how did the brilliant, mannered, socialite dilettante become a great ascetic novelist?

It’s not much of a question if we know he was writing his way towards greatness even when it looked as if he was just flattering and fussing. All we need is hindsight, and a sense of superiority over all those early readers, like André Gide, who got things so hopelessly wrong. Gide was part of a group of editors who turned Swann down for the Nouvelle Revue Française and its associated publishing house, Gallimard – a year later he said this rejection was ‘the gravest mistake ever made by the NRF’, and the house took on all the other volumes of A la recherche. Other publishers, Fasquelle and Ollendorff, also said no to Swann, on the basis of comments which have now become perverse literary treasures. ‘At the end of this 712-page manuscript … one has no notion – none – of what it is about. What is it all for? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading to? It’s impossible to know! It’s impossible to say!’ (Jacques Normand for Fasquelle). ‘I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may, I fail to understand why a man needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep’ (Georges Boyer for Ollendorff ). As Tadié crisply says in his biography, Proust was not part of these people’s world, ‘and he doesn’t write like them, since he doesn’t write like anybody’. Proust published the book at his own expense with Grasset – the first of two volumes theoretically (in some schemes three), although the series finally expanded to seven, and Proust had been dead for five years when the last volume appeared in 1927.

And the question looks quite different if we have even glanced at the work Proust put in along the way to A la recherche du temps perdu, the result of what the Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon calls Proust’s ‘gigantic subterranean labour’. This includes the early novel Jean Santeuil, the novelistic essays collected as Contre Sainte-Beuve, the wonderful drafts found in the notebooks and published as Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes, and all the supplementary materials to be found in the second Pléiade edition of the novel (1987-89). But none of these texts was available before 1952, and Proust’s contemporaries understandably found it hard to shake off the image of the fragile hypochondriac dandy.

When the first volumes of Proust’s letters were published, in 1930 and 1931, they were thought to ‘perform a disservice to his memory’, because they reinforced, in Compagnon’s words, the writer’s reputation as a ‘socialite, flatterer and hypocrite’. It’s a long way from that perception to the assumption that Proust’s letters are masterpieces to set beside his fiction. ‘These letters,’ Tadié says of the new collection, ‘are those of a great writer. We must change our minds about Proust’s correspondence.’ They are the letters of a great writer, and we probably should change our minds about the correspondence. But he is not a great writer in his letters, and the change in our minds might be subtler than piety can comprehend.

It’s not that there were no early signs of Proust’s talent, the labour was not entirely subterraneous. There were the translations of Ruskin, a great essay on reading, and several of the stories in Les Plaisirs et les jours were deeper and stranger than people discerned at the time. But the signs of the social butterfly were even more abundant and didn’t cease to appear. Proust lived an intense and hyperbolic worldly life even when he didn’t leave his bed. And the breakthrough – there certainly was a breakthrough some time in or after 1909 as he began to see, in the critical essays that were meant as a substitute for the novel he couldn’t write, the path to that novel itself, the one that would occupy the rest of his life – was hidden among illnesses and a continuing preoccupation with the vanities of the world. As he was elaborating the astute essays in Contre Sainte-Beuve he was also composing coterie reviews like his piece on Lucien Daudet’s collection of stories Le Prince des cravates. In his opening paragraph Proust manages to name and praise works by the whole Daudet family, father Alphonse, mother Julia, brother Léon as well as the author under review. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘a moving example of the mysterious transmission of a great literary power by the “way” of blood.’ A little earlier, about a new book by the Comtesse de Noailles, he was telling readers of the Figaro about the grace of ‘poet-women’, and pointing out how sadly lacking in this quality mere ‘poet-men’ were. It was not perhaps entirely desirable to be on the receiving end of these compliments.

M. Williams the dentist appears here and there in Proust’s 21-volume Correspondance. A friend of Proust consults him, there are questions about the administration of the apartment building and a comic phantasmagoria in a 1910 letter to Reynaldo Hahn where three practitioners are called on to put Proust out of pain by aiding him to find a phrase: ‘Help Darcissac! Quicker Frey! Williams, don’t let me suffer!’ But Mme Williams doesn’t show up anywhere. The biographies make no mention of her (or of him).

The dentist, Tadié’s introduction tells us, was Marie’s second husband. Her first was Paul Emler, a man who worked in maritime insurance, and whom she divorced in 1908. Some time after Proust and the Williamses left boulevard Haussmann in 1919, she divorced the dentist and married the pianist Alexander Brailowsky. She committed suicide in 1931. There are three photographs of her in Lettres à sa voisine (as well as a previously unpublished photo of Proust and quite a few facsimile pages from the letters). In the first she is leaning on an apartment balcony wearing a feathered hat; not a beauty but there is something discreetly, stubbornly attractive about her gaze. In the second she sits by her harp, her hands folded over the top of it, a mop of hair falling sideways, her eyes heavily made up, and a distinct look of Fin-de-Siècle gloom on her face; a portrait of the artist as at best lost in thought, at worst plotting murder. In the third she sits on a bench with Brailowsky, as if they were both waiting for an interview. She wears a smart suit and shoes, a cloche hat, and now looks both composed and a little haggard – the slight chubbiness of the first photo and the dark mood of the second equally gone.

The writings in Lettres à sa voisine are undated, and have been notionally sequenced according to internal evidence. There are 26 letters – 23 to Madame Williams, three to Monsieur – and in this arrangement they run from 1908 to 1916. The letters to the dentist are brief and polite – ‘Please be so kind as to offer these flowers to Madame Williams on my behalf’; ‘I absolutely rely on you to tell me how much I owe you for the expenses I have caused you by these changes in the workmen’s hours’; ‘I am sending you my little (and very old) book Portraits de peintres’ – but even they manage quite a bit of firm complaining: ‘The fog today produces such attacks [of asthma] that I scarcely have the strength to trace these words’; ‘I am having such bad days at the moment’; ‘I have asthma attacks all night.’ What is missing here is any inkling of the rhetorical dances Proust performs for Madame.

He keeps evoking her letters, for example, which is why Tadié can think of stylistic rivalry. He thanks her for ‘the beautiful artistic letter’ (‘la belle lettre d’artiste’). He expresses his appreciation of a gift of flowers and pretends to confuse the physical bouquet with its accompanying note. He cites a few famous literary roses in d’Aubigné, Verlaine, Nerval, ‘not counting the innumerable “ripe roses” of two poetesses who are my great friends and whom I no longer see since I no longer get up, Mme de Noailles and Mme de Régnier’, and says that Mme Williams’s roses seem to him ‘worthy of being added to them, and [her] prose worthy of standing alongside their verse’. Some thank-you note. He writes that her letters are ‘delicious, delicious in their feeling, their wit, their style, their talent’. He sets up a counterpoint between the pleasure of this correspondence and the rhythm of his asthma. ‘Alas when I came home in the midst of the most violent attack I found your charming letter. The letter affords me the most delicious pleasure, the attack pitilessly takes it away from me.’

Above all this is a correspondence between people who could easily talk to each other but don’t. A single letter suggests Proust dropped in on the Williamses at least once. He writes of ‘renewing a visit that made such a charming impression on me’. Well, more precisely, he writes of not being able to renew such a visit, and perhaps there really wasn’t more than one. Essentially these letters mark an elaborate absence, a missing of true minds in all but textual space. In the first letter Proust accuses Mme Williams of firing Parthian shots because she writes to him only when she has left town. In the second he speaks of the ‘Tantalian regret’ of a person who can’t enjoy the presence of his charming neighbours. And then of course sometimes he is away: from 1907 to 1914 he spent his summers in Cabourg. The general effect is of one of those friendships sustained by phone calls made at the airport when the friend is about to depart – except that these letter-calls offer such prodigies of ingenuity that we can’t really tell whether the tropes are meant to serve the friendship or the friendship is an excuse for the tropes.

This is all a rather fancy form of uncertainty when the continuing, crass matter of the letters is the noise upstairs. It’s the crassness that Proust’s rhetoric is designed to dilute. He wants more than anything not to be rude. Well, not more than anything. More than anything he wants the noise to stop when he needs to try to sleep. There are several mysteries here. The submerged serious person in me is concerned about Marie’s suicide and would like to know more about her life. The more active frivolous person would like to be told how the Williamses could be having work done on their apartment more or less continuously for seven years. What didn’t they like? What was wrong? Did they have a perpetual plumbing problem? Such a thing is not unknown.

*

Proust’s footwork on the topic of the noise is amazing. He thanks Mme Williams for her ‘kindly concern for his rest’. He invites her at one point to make all the noise she wants because he can’t sleep anyway. He thanks her for thinking about the noise, and says it’s moderate so far, ‘and relatively close to silence’. This is not quite what the ensuing details suggest: ‘A plumber has been coming every morning from 7 to 9; this is no doubt the time he chose. I can’t say that his preferences in this matter are the same as mine! But he [or it, plumber or noise] has been very bearable.’ Proust wonders if the Williamses could possibly not make ‘too much noise tomorrow (Saturday), as I have to go out for a while in the evening’. And again: ‘May I ask you and the doctor to think of me tomorrow (Tuesday) in respect of the noise?’ In one of the letters it’s clear that the noise has to do with beating the carpets: ‘May I beg to be reprieved tomorrow?’ In another, it has to do with packing: ‘I learn that the doctor is leaving Paris the day after tomorrow and I am aware of all that this implies for tomorrow in terms of nailing of crates. Would it be possible to nail these crates this evening, or not nail them tomorrow until 4 or 5 in the afternoon (if my attack ends earlier I shall tell you immediately).’

Proust writes a pastiche of an old sonnet, poetically complaining about the agent of the noise, one Mme Terre – lots of jokes about her name – who is in charge of the works at the Williams apartment. He concludes the same letter with a brilliant fantasy about noise and silence becoming interchangeable:

In any case who knows? I have always thought that the noise would be bearable if it was continuous. Since they are mending the road on the boulevard Haussmann at night, fixing your apartment during the day and knocking down the shop at 98 bis in the intermissions, it is likely that when this harmonious ensemble is dispersed, silence will resound in my ear in such an extraordinary way, that weeping for the vanished electricians and the departed carpet-layer, I shall miss my lullaby.

In another letter, though, he almost dispenses with the niceties and just moans:

At 8 o’clock, the small light knocks on the floor above were so precise that the Veronal was of no use and I woke up, only too soon for my attack to have calmed down … What bothers me is never continuous noise, even if it’s loud, if it’s not struck, on the floor … And everything that is dragged along the floor, that falls on it, that runs on it.

Even in this letter, though, he manages to add a sentence about his ‘gratitude’ for Mme Williams’s letters, ‘truly adorable in their wit and their feeling’.

There are other subjects, not connected to noise and not really part of the verbal dance. Proust writes about the war, commenting in detail on a book Mme Williams has lent him about the destruction of the cathedral at Reims. ‘The Bible of Reims,’ he says, glancing at Ruskin and his own translation of The Bible of Amiens, ‘is no longer intact … the stones of Reims which make real the prophecy: “And the stones themselves shall cry out for justice.”’ But then he thinks perhaps there is no crime here, because war is war, and ‘we are not weeping only for a humanity of stones’ – ‘nous ne pleurons pas qu’une humanité de pierres.’ The thought is a little cryptic. He means, I take it, that these stones are among the finest images of what humans can do, but we also have actual humans to weep for. And indeed in the next letter in this volume Proust’s hesitation is justified. He evokes the death of his friend Bertrand de Fénelon, killed in battle in December 1914, and offers his condolences to Mme Williams on the death of her brother, a dragoon who died of a disease contracted during a military campaign in February 1915. ‘I did not believe God could add to my sorrow,’ Proust writes, ‘and then I learned of yours.’

He has the publisher send Mme Williams copies of the NRF where portions of his novel are appearing, and finds a marvellous metaphor for his sense of structure and suspense. He is thinking at this time (somewhere in 1914) that A la recherche will finally consist of three volumes. Will these excerpts give her any idea of volume two? ‘The second volume doesn’t mean much on its own. It’s just that when one writes works in three volumes in an age when editors want to publish only one at a time, one has to resign oneself to not being understood, since the set of keys is not in the same building as the locked doors.’ This precise and funny image is itself an answer to the early readers of Swann who didn’t think Proust knew one building from another, or had thought that doors might have keys.

There is also, in another letter, a perfect instance of what we might think of as Proust’s comic conceptual plotting. He reminds Mme Williams that in Swann the neighbours of the title character think he is a man of casual morals because he allows his wife’s lover, M. Charlus, to hang out at his country house. Not only that, readers might be surprised that an author would be trotting out the old vaudeville story of the blinkered husband. Proust says he didn’t want to contradict this view in the first volume by telling the reader that Charlus was gay (Proust says the reason for Swann’s apparent complaisance was ‘quite different’), ‘preferring to resign myself to banality, so that one could get to know the character as in life where people reveal themselves only gradually’. This was very much Proust’s method, and he used it brilliantly with the composer Vinteuil, who is presented as a doting provincial dad before he turns out to be one of the novel’s great artists – Proust actually invented this double perspective on the page proofs of Swann. Here is what he said in a letter to Lucien Daudet:

We often say of a great artist that apart from his genius he was an old fool who had the narrowest ideas, but since we have the idea of his genius in our minds we don’t think of him as narrow and ridiculous in reality. So I found it more striking to show Vinteuil first as an old fool without letting anyone suspect that he was a genius, and in the second chapter to speak of his sublime sonata which Swann does not think for a second of ascribing to the old fool.

But then in the letter to Mme Williams Proust describes another switch, which didn’t survive: Charlus was gay but at one time he had been Odette Swann’s lover, so Swann just might have been the vaudeville idiot after all. ‘M. de Charlus had had relations with only one woman, and it was precisely Odette.’ This move too, even if it was cut, is entirely characteristic of Proust’s sense of the shifting world. It’s not that there is no truth. There is plenty of truth, too much truth. This is why the point of a correction is for us to learn that it could be corrected again.

The writing in Lettres à sa voisine tells us nothing about Proust’s breakthrough into the novel, and does nothing to unravel the image of the socialite, reclusive or not. But it does prove, as so many of his other letters do, that he could easily be the garrulous complaining aesthete everyone thought he was, and also someone else. This was his version of the death of the author. Proust thought that Sainte-Beuve with his method of biographical criticism failed to see ‘the abyss that separates the writer from the man of the world’: ‘A book is the product of a different self (“un autre moi”) from the one we display in our habits, in society, in our vices.’ Henry James’s story ‘The Private Life’ makes the same argument and Yeats says something very similar. But Proust gives the argument a particular twist. He doesn’t bridge or deny the abyss, he lives on both sides. He became an ascetic by pretending not to give up the world. His dead author is not silenced or inactive, he is still an author, he writes all the time, reams of letters and articles. But this intelligent Dr Jekyll is not going to manage anything like the difficult, obsessive, eerily comic writing of his secret lodger Mr Hyde.