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I write this month from my parents’ home in New Jersey, to which I have escaped, with my baby son, from the jackhammers tearing down the parapets of our apartment in New York. The loudest sound here is the clacking of the keyboard; occasionally a school bus hums by. No such auditory respite was available to Marcel Proust when, after his mother’s death, he relocated first to a sanatorium, then to the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles, and at last to his uncle’s old rooms at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris. The occupant of the entresol below, Dr. Gagey, was renovating when the bereaved writer took up residence. As Lydia Davis explains in the wonderful note accompanying her translation of LETTERS TO HIS NEIGHBOR (New Directions, $22.95), Gagey had scarcely finished his improvements when new devilments arrived; next door, one Madame Katz was “installing a new bathroom just a few feet from his head.” But the constant, the unceasing, interruptions came from above — a sonic bombardment from the dental office of an American named Charles Williams. It was to Mrs. Williams that Proust directed his pleas:

Tomorrow is Sunday, a day which usually offers me the opposite of the weekly repose because in the little courtyard adjoining my room they beat the carpets from your apartment, with an extreme violence. May I ask for grace tomorrow?

As long as there are apartments, there will be walls to paper with cork; neighbor will be set against neighbor. But Proust — who visited Mrs. Williams upstairs at least once — was always charming and gracious, his humor seasoned with just a dash of passive aggression. “How right I was to be discreet when you wanted me to investigate whether the morning noise was coming from a sink. What was that compared to those hammers?” He has the most humble request: If crates must be nailed, might they possibly be nailed in a section of the apartment not directly above his bedroom? “I confess that it bothers me very much to speak to you of such things and I am more embarrassed by it than I can say.” He makes up for it with pheasants and flowers; Mrs. Williams, a harpist whose correspondence Proust praises as “admirable and touching in mind and heart,” sends flowers back. He offers condolences on the death of her brother. He apologizes when a friend visits from the front and makes a racket after midnight. When his asthma is so bad that he has no hope of either working or sleeping, he begs Mrs. Williams to “allow all possible noise to be made starting now.

Letters to His Neighbor, which contains notes written between 1908 and 1918, is a trifle overpriced — twenty-three dollars for two dozen of the briefest missives! A certain kind of person will purchase it for her bathroom. But it is, in at least one instance, enlightening. In 1914, Proust sent Mrs. Williams the excerpts of his novel in progress that had been published in La Nouvelle Revue Française. He explained that those readers of Swann’s Way who assumed M. de Charlus was having an affair with Swann’s wife would be surprised by the revelation of Charlus’s homosexuality. “I had not wanted to announce it in the 1st volume . . . so that one might come to know the character as in life where people reveal themselves only little by little.”

Life goes on, even in wartime, but that the “little tiny raps” of the valet de chambre did not prevent Proust from writing is extraordinary. One wonders if the headaches of apartment living might even have inspired him, as a worthy enemy might goad one to action. In any case, the noise agreed with him more than moving. In 1919, his aunt announced that she was selling 102 to a banker, and the next few months, according to Proust’s biographer Benjamin Taylor, were “a torment of breathlessness, sleeplessness, angina, slurred speech, worsening eyestrain — and bafflement as to where he would live.” He relocated to the Rue Laurent-Pichat, and then to the Rue Hamelin. He was dictating revisions the night he died of a pulmonary abscess — he had made it to the moment when the great novelist Bergotte is permitted champagne on his deathbed. As for Mrs. Williams, after she left the Boulevard Haussmann she divorced the dentist and married the pianist Alexander Brailowsky. In 1931 she committed suicide.

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