Marcel Proust is a literary giant whose shadow is as long as his record-setting output. (Guinness claims À la recherche du temps perdu is the heftiest novel ever, which it may or may not be, but after 3,000 pages who’s up for arguing?). With its influence as extensive as its word count — Conrad, Woolf, Benjamin, and writers of equal stature proclaimed it the most important novel of the twentieth century — no doubt its own verbiage is now exceeded by that of its exegeses. No need to add more to that category, thank you. So a newly discovered cache of letters, as slender as Proust’s great creation is fat, gives occasion not to resubmit Proust’s talent to the artistic calipers for yet another measurement, but to discuss the writer’s need for quiet.
The letters Proust wrote to his upstairs neighbor on boulevard Haussmann in Paris come to us as a one-sided conversation, as we have none of her replies. Yet mysteriously they collectively form a work every bit as rich as an epistolary prose poem, or a novella, or the singular form of brief story of which translator Lydia Davis (Man Booker winner, MacArthur Fellow, translator of Swann’s Way, and author of Break It Down and Can’t and Won’t) is herself originator and master practitioner. Richer still, they make a catalog of the peculiar physical conditions a writer requires in order to write in the first place.
Proust hosted a gala of afflictions, including asthma and very possibly his own iteration of what we now call social anxiety, but he almost certainly was a prisoner of misophonia. (And probably the related phonophobia, a symptom of which is a debilitating fear of future noise.) This syndrome, in which certain sounds send the sufferer around the bend, disproportionately affects artists, as confirmed by a study published in the journal Neuropsychologia in 2015. Haunt online forums devoted to the disorder, and the same complaints turn up again and again: sporadic concussive sounds incite annoyance even unto rage. It might be the person you love most in the world, but when he sucks his teeth, crinkles the chips bag, or noodles on his harmonica, you want to murder him. You don’t. Instead, you can’t write.
It is obvious that Proust admired Mme. Williams, the erudite French wife of an American dentist whose office was directly above Proust’s apartment. But that did not stop him from expressing gorgeously veiled hostility to the sounds that emanated from her quarters, including those of workmen, movers, and the servants who “with violence” beat her rugs in the adjacent courtyard. Not to mention the dental patients who mistakenly rang his doorbell thinking they were on the verge of relief at last. Cork-lined bedroom notwithstanding, the writer’s exquisite sensitivity to noise chronically bedeviled him. How much more might he have written had he not had to war with the sounds that drove him to distraction?
“But you have bequeathed to me so many workers . . . [ordered] violently and perhaps sadistically to start banging at 7 o’clock in the morning above my head, in the room immediately above my bedroom . . . that I have no strength to write and have had to give up going away,” Proust complains — here forced to a directness he otherwise avoids — to a woman he has never met though they live at the same address. Usually he is oblique, backhanded, or delivers his pleas for quiet with flowers both actual and literary. He expresses sorrow for some recent trouble of Madame’s by writing, “I would like even more not to ask you for this silence.” He tries yet another tack by enquiring if he causes any similar discomfort to her; of course he knows he doesn’t. “I also wonder if the voice of my housekeeper, very sharp, does not rise to you. She stays with me very late and does not make any noise when she moves about. But if her voice could be heard, I implore you to tell me.”
Interestingly, sufferers of misophonia — and Proust was in good company, likely including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, and Gustav Mahler, according to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — only mind noise that’s sporadic or concussive. “What bothers me is never continuous noise, even loud noise, if it is not struck,” Proust explains for the second time. Any writer who can’t put down two words in succession while someone is practicing drums or preparing a meal in the kitchen but easily enters a state of flow against the steady background hum of a café or bar understands.
Worth noting is the fact that Proust was conducting his white-gloved battles with household noises heard from inside a bedroom while the First World War was blowing life apart with unprecedented fury in other parts of France. As a military audiologist reports of a war whose din was not recorded and can hardly be imagined, “Artillery rounds created noise levels of 140 dB or more, which were often heard in London some 200 miles from the front . . . During a bombardment the noise was loud enough to split the eardrums and it quite commonly caused permanent hearing loss, especially among gunners.” The condition that during the conflict became known as “shell shock” was in part a response to the effects of repeated, horrific noise.
The Great War’s destructiveness, if not its noise, was indeed a frequent subject of the letters – those from 1914 to 1918 could hardly avoid it. Yet even when they touch on the combat death of a friend or the leveling of a landmark like the cathedral of Reims, they exude aestheticized distance like faint perfume. The writer’s suffering and solitude make a far more resounding clamor on the page.
Proust’s work and its legacy is a tangle of paradox, not to mention syntax. His weighty masterpiece, for example, is full of fleeting delicacy. This deceptively slight collection of letters, recently unearthed in a Paris archive, evokes similarly lavish wonders. How can such a vibrant picture of a life emerge from only twenty-six missives, some quite short? The translator’s fascinating afterword, full of sensate detail, reads like a detective story. All of a sudden it occurs that Proust’s friendship with Mme. Williams is an online relationship avant la lettre: imbued with intensity and imperative disclosure, despite their never meeting (or because of it). Their letters arrived from two flights of stairs away by way of a distant server — I mean post office.
Lydia Davis’s elegant translation, too, begets complex considerations. Primarily about the weird project that is taking a work made from specific materials — strings of particular words with their own sound, nuance, rhythm, diction — and replacing all its parts with different materials, then calling it the same thing. Germaine Greer holds a contrarian view of the writer Davis obviously reveres as well as finds a kindred spirit (“If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill”) but she is technically right that “all translation is mistranslation.” Because Davis’s own genius is akin to Proust’s — and because she does not so much translate as inhabit — her mistranslation is as like to the original as it may be possible to get.