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Letters to His Neighbor


Marcel Proust (Author), Lydia Davis (Translator)

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Brilliantly translated by Lydia Davis, here are Proust’s tormented, touching, and often very funny letters to his noisy neighbor.

Marcel Proust’s genius for illuminating pain is on spectacular display in this recently discovered trove of his correspondence, Letters to His Neighbor. Already suffering from noise within his cork-lined walls, his poor soul was not ready for the fresh hell when his neighbor Dr. Williams married a widow with small children.

Chiefly to Mrs. Williams, these ever-polite letters (often accompanied by flowers, compliments, books, even pheasants) are frequently hilarious—Proust couches his fury in a gracious tone. In Lydia Davis’s hands, the digressive brilliance of his sentences shines: “Don't speak of annoying neighbors, but of neighbors so charming (an association of words contradictory in principle since Montesquiou claims that most horrible of all are 1) neighbors 2) the smell of post offices) that they leave the constant tantalizing regret that one cannot take advantage of their neighborliness.”

Proust makes fine distinctions among his auditory torments: “The valet de chambre makes noise and that doesn't matter. But later he knocks with little tiny raps.  And that is worse.”

Lydia Davis has written a generous translator’s note, tracing much of what we can know about Proust’s perpetually dark room; she details the furnishings as well as the life he lived there: burning his powders, talking with friends, hiring musicians, and, most of all, suffering. Letters to His Neighboris richly illustrated with facsimile letters and photographs—catnip for lovers of Proust.

With an Introduction by Jean-Yves Tadié and a translator’s note by Lydia Davis.


“I imagine someone discovering these letters and wondering where to put them—too quirky, too crazy, too minor, too marginal. But, as we all know, it’s the minor and marginal that are often the most interesting. And here the marginalia—the addenda and notes—are as essential as the letters. The foreword by Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tadié and the afterword by celebrated French translator Lydia Davis serve as codes to these letters, through which we catch a glimpse of the writer’s idiosyncratic domestic life...” — Jeanine Herman, 4Columns

“Proust elevated grumbling to an art.” — Jessica Leigh Hester, City Lab

“"A collection of letters to the neighbours about noise would seem unpromising material for a book, unless they were written by Marcel Proust, who was so sweet, kind, funny and charming that his letters of complaint, written between 1909 and 1919 to Marie Williams and her husband, are a delightful surprise."” — Daily Telegraph

“Amusing.” — Elle

“One wonders if the headaches of apartment living might even have inspired him, as a worthy enemy might goad one to action.” — Harper's

“Even literary greats, it turns out, are not immune to the vagaries of apartment living, as proved by this slim but enchanting volume of recently recovered letters. While living at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, Proust found his already-frayed nerves and delicate health strained to their breaking point by an office directly overhead belonging to an American dentist. Proust thus embarked on a charm offensive against his neighbors, writing primarily to the dentist's French wife, Marie, who lived with her husband elsewhere in the building. Though born of frustration, the correspondence also brought rewards, as Proust found himself in empathetic accord with this artistically inclined woman, seemingly constrained by her life as a dentist's wife. Proust and Marie also suffered from frequent illnesses, a topic over which they seem to have bonded. The letters start in approximately 1909 and continue until 1916. Though the overall picture is fractured by the fact that we do not have Marie's side of the story, Proust's letters brim with wit, grace, and reflection. Context is provided by an introduction by Proust biographer Jean-Yves Tadié and a translator's note by Davis, who previously translated Swann's Way.” — Publishers Weekly

“Like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran... twenty-six of Proust's letters to his upstairs neighbor, written over a decade during the composition of In Search of Lost Time, will delight any Proustian and will tide the faithful over until new relics come to light.” — David Wiley, Rain Taxi

“Entertaining.” — Kevin Canfield, Star Tribune

“If you have suffered from noisy neighbours, you will sympathize with Marcel Proust.” — The Times Literary Supplement

Letters to His Neighbor, brilliantly translated by Lydia Davis, is inadvertently hilarious in hyper-genteel poise; we see Proust at his most desperate, charming to the extreme, an effect no doubt amplified by Davis’s elegant prose.” — The Village Voice

“Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level Lydia Davis is the best there is.” — Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm

“A trove of charming correspondence from literature’s most famous 'noise phobic.'” — Kirkus

“In true Proustian fashion, the prose is winding, musing on everything from the properties of imagination.” — Caitlin Youngquist, The Paris Review

“A sensitive and direct translation. Lydia Davis does us a great service in bringing back Proust.” — Claire Messud, Newsday

“Thoughtfully curated in English by New Directions with a scholarly and rigorous afterword by translator Lydia Davis, the letters are inflected by fine observations and moments of deep empathy. They are suffused with the intimate textures of daily life—flowers and fragrance—and allow us an insight into the larger social context of the time, with reports of the wounded returning from war. Thematically, they are often concerned with art, poetry, and ruins. As a collection, they obliquely chart the passing of seasons as well as the publication history of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.” — Saba Ahmed, Asymptote

“Proust whining rhapsodically about the sounds of frolicking children on the other side of his bedroom wall, as translated by Lydia Davis — what’s not to love here?” — Evan Lavender-Smith, HTMLGiant

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