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.
Karl Ove Knausgaard lives in the Swedish countryside, in a house that was converted from three small cottages (two red-painted wood, one whitewashed brick and plaster) and is separated by a lawn from another house (two bedrooms, one loft), which serves as his writing studio. He has four children. In some circles in New York, anything more than two looks like a status symbol, but real estate is cheaper in Glemmingebro. “Out here there are vacant houses for sale everywhere at depressed prices,” he writes in AUTUMN (Penguin Press, $27), a new memoir translated by Vanessa Baird.
The land is still cultivated, but with low margins and by only a small number of farmers. . . . Almost everything I see is more or less the same as it must have been in the nineteenth century. Churches, villages, far-flung fields, great leafy trees, the sky, the sea. And yet everything is different.
The book takes the form of a letter to Knausgaard’s daughter Anne, who at the time of its writing was in utero. “I want to show you our world as it is now,” he explains. “Showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.”
My Struggle, Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel (the final section will be published in the United States next fall), is filled with dramatic set pieces. Autumn is what that book has often been mischaracterized as: an assortment of random observations and noodlings. There are exegeses on apples, loneliness, flies, and ambulances; infants, van Gogh, and oil tankers; silence, drums, and eyes. Though Knausgaard is a significant and provocative novelist, his unmoored philosophizing is by turns charming, irrelevant, and patently false (“The world doesn’t change, only our conceptions of it”). And there is more to come. Autumn is the first of a new autobiographical quartet.
Children, Knausgaard remarks, do not ask what makes life worth living — they are too deeply immersed in life to question it. Then “a distance appears between what they are and what the world is.” He refers to the “longing for authenticity, for the real, which is simply the place where one’s notions about reality and reality itself are one and the same thing,” but he is far more interested in the flow of experience than in the workings of recollection. Many of the objects in Autumn have a liminal quality — toilet bowls, mouths, chimneys, piss, vomit, labia. This interest in the gap between the world and the individual is a version of the problem he describes in A Man in Love, the second installment of My Struggle: his desperate attempt, and failure, to inhabit his own life.
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. . . . I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
Autumn is the work of a man at ease. The author is as famous as he ever will be, and his major accomplishment is behind him. Knausgaard is no longer lashed by demons or alienated from his quotidian existence. His days are filled by rambles in the woods, dropping the kids at school, and the odd, leisurely chore. His life is one of abundance and comfort. “That’s the experience I’ve gained from working in the garden,” he explains to Anne. “There’s no reason to be cautious or anxious about anything, life is so robust.”
The most exciting bit in Autumn occurs during a visit to a German friend who is staying in a nearby fishing village. Knausgaard, who chews whole packs of gum while he writes — his favorite is Juicy Fruit — has forgotten to remove the “huge wad” in his mouth.
I let it lie on one side of my mouth and tried hard not to chew on it while he showed me around the house. It was very beautiful, renovated and furnished in the modernist style, not a single object awry.
When coffee is served, Knausgaard holds the antique porcelain cup with thumb and pointer and hides the gum in the other three fingers. Finally, fearing an imminent handshake, he asks for a bit of paper. His host’s face betrays “partly surprise, partly reproof, maybe also contempt.” It would have been better, Knausgaard thinks, to have shot heroin in the bathroom; that would at least be conduct befitting an artist. But he is a gum freak, not a drug addict. I could have read a whole novel about this encounter, with its choreography of faux pas and social anxiety. But Knausgaard wraps it up quickly and moves on to ruminations about the resemblance of the gum-encrusted sidewalks to the night sky.
A man’s home may be his castle, but whether that castle is an old farmhouse, a glass hut, or a compact unit built to the specifications of the “minimum dwelling” will determine the kind of king he is. Iñaki Ábalos’s The Good Life: A Guided Visit to the Houses of Modernity (Park Books, $39), translated by Paul Hammond, tours dwellings real and imagined: Heidegger’s Black Forest cottage; the Midtown loft where Andy Warhol had his Factory; the modern California house in David Hockney’s painting A Bigger Splash; the floating tents that Toyo Ito designed for the hedonistic, shopaholic “Tokyo nomad girl” of the 1980s; and the white suburban fortress of the Arpel family in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. What matters most to Ábalos, a Spanish architect and professor, is the kind of inhabitant, and philosophy, that each one implies. Picasso’s homes — La Californie, the Château de Vauvenargues, and the property on the Notre Dame de Vie — inspire a mini-seminar on phenomenology; the hypothetical owner of Mies van der Rohe’s House with Three Patios is imagined as a Nietzschean superman. Ábalos has a keen sense of what he would wear: “In all likelihood the Miesian subject sports magnificent, elegantly hand-stitched leather shoes. It’s the attire of someone accustomed to walking well-paved sidewalks, to strolling along.”
The Good Life was first published twenty years ago and has been out of print for a decade. Ábalos’s passing remark on glass — that it has “enormous prestige” as a building material — has only become truer with time. The twenty-first-century city is shadowed by overgrown glass-and-steel monoliths built for wealthy people who let the light shine through their transparent walls. Is this because the digital age has eroded their desire for privacy, or because they like to look down on the little people dodging construction zones? Or could it be that they don’t think they have anything to hide? Perhaps they are too busy using their private gyms and pools, or sunning on their green roof decks, or shopping at the retail spaces below, to order curtains. The utopian communitarian foundations of loft living — Ábalos’s chapter on the Factory conjures Marx and Reich — are buried so deeply beneath these “live/work spaces” that they have turned to dust. After Warhol, Ábalos writes,
The formula for living developed in SoHo would give status to the Reaganite yuppies of the 1980s, who like him aspired to material success without forsaking an attractive non-conformity.
Today, luxury lofts are occupied not by artists but by “creatives,” who do not have to worry about papering the walls in cork — they never take out their earbuds.