Letters to the Lady Upstairs by Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis

Well. Proust. There’s a lot of Proust on the TBR, most of it very long. However, I was recently in the middle of reading several very loooooong books and as I hinted in my last post, I was suddenly hit with the urge to read something short and finish it quickly. And once I’d read “Nagasaki”, this little collection of letters by Proust perfectly hit the spot!

Between 1909 and 1919, while he was living at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Marcel Proust exchanged letters with his upstairs neighbour, a Madame Williams. This was during the period when he was working on his magnum opus, “A La Recherche de Temps Perdu”; even at the best of times he seems to have been a sensitive man, and any disturbance or noise whilst working sent him into a flap! So the letters began as eloquent requests for silence on a particular day or time; but as they went on, a friendship developed between the two neighbours and led to gifts of flowers or some of Proust’s writings. Both Mme Williams and Proust had to leave the building in 1919 on its sale; the writer died in 1922, with his neighbour taking her own life in 1931.

Only some of the letters have survived, 26 in all, and none of Mme Williams’ letters to Proust. Additional complexities arose when the letters were discovered, owing to the lack of dating; however, much study and scholarship has gone into putting them into what is thought is the correct order. And despite their brevity, they amazingly really do bring Proust to life; the little glimpses of his daily routine, the health difficulties he faced, his sadness and worries during the First World War, all seen through these sweet, formally written yet engaging little notes.

The book is enhanced with illustrations: a couple of reproductions of the letters; a photograph of Mme Williams; a plan of Proust’s apartments. And the supporting material is excellent; an index, supporting notes and a wonderful afterword by translator Lydia Davis where she not only discusses the letters themselves, but also describes the current state of the old apartment (now part of a bank’s premises). The book is less than 100 pages long yet really took me into Proust’s world.

Reading “Letters to the Lady Upstairs” was a real joy, and unexpectedly moving. The letters only came to light relatively recently and only represent a small part of his correspondence with his neighbour; I do hope more are discovered one day. And now I really ought to get on to reading some of his longer works…..