Readings — From the July 2017 issue

Churl Next Door

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From letters that Marcel Proust wrote to his neighbors Marie and Charles Williams between 1908 and 1916, while he lived at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, in Paris. Charles Williams owned a dentistry practice on the floor above Proust. Letters to His Neighbor will be published in August by New Directions. The book in its original French was published in 2013 by Gallimard. Translated from the French by Lydia Davis.

Monsieur,

I so often expose you to the effects of my troubles by asking you when my asthma attacks are too intense to procure me a little silence. I implore your help for Monday the nineteenth, the day after tomorrow. I must make the great effort to try to go out in the evening and as I have attacks of asthma all night long, if in the morning there is hammering above me it’s all over.

Madame,

A plumber has been coming every morning from seven to nine; this is the time he had no doubt chosen. I cannot say that in this my preferences agree with his! 

Madame,

I have always thought that noise would be bearable if it were continuous. As they are repairing the Boulevard Haussmann at night, as they are redoing your apartment during the day, and as they are demolishing the shop at 98 bis in the intermissions, it is probable that when this harmonious team disperses, the silence will resound in my ears so abnormally that, mourning the vanished electricians and the departed carpet layer, I will miss my lullaby. 

Madame,

I hope that you will not find me too indiscreet. I have had a great deal of noise these past few days. I have learned that the doctor is leaving Paris after tomorrow and can imagine all that this implies for tomorrow concerning the nailing of crates. Would it be possible either to nail the crates this evening, or else not to nail them tomorrow until four or five o’clock in the afternoon? (If my attack finishes earlier I would hasten to let you know.)

Or else, if it is indispensable to nail them in the morning, to nail them in the part of your apartment that is above my kitchen, and not that which is above my bedroom. I call above my bedroom that which is also above the adjoining rooms.

Madame,

I thank you with all my heart for your beautiful and good letter and come to ask you to allow all possible noise to be made starting now. I had a shortness of breath so severe that it prevents me from trying to sleep. Noise will therefore not bother me in the least. Don’t speak of annoying neighbors, but of neighbors so charming—an association of words contradictory in principle since Montesquieu claims that most horrible of all are (a) neighbors, and (b) the smell of post offices—that they leave the constant tantalizing regret that one cannot take advantage of their neighborliness. 

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