All I know is asthma

Happy Birthday Marcel Proust

Had he not died in 1922—or at any moment between then and now—Marcel Proust would be celebrating a record-breaking 150th birthday today. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d lower the tone and send you a letter from 1919 in which he complains of the sex noises coming through the walls of his apartment. This letter can be found in the book, Letters of Note: Sex, signed copies of which can be bought directly from our little bookshop.

It’s fair to say 1919 began badly for Marcel Proust, the influential French writer responsible for the classic multi-volume novel In Search of Lost Time. Bedbound with laryngitis and seriously asthmatic, Proust received the unwelcome news that the building in Paris in which he had been living for more than a decade had been sold, leaving him with just a few months to find a new home and move his belongings. In May he accepted an offer from his good friend Jacques Porel to relocate to Rue Laurent-Pichat and settle for a few months in the same building as Porel’s mother, the famous actress known simply as Réjane. Much to Proust’s dismay, the walls were paper-thin and the noises were loud. By October, he had moved on.

15 July 1919

My dear Jacques,

I shall have left the rue Laurent-Pichat by the time you get back. I’ll miss the black-and-white flowers on the red background. But I’ve written a description of them which I’ll send you as soon as I’ve moved …

Kindly inform your Mother that I keep neither piano nor mistress at rue Laurent Pichat, and I’m not to blame for the noises that bring complaints from every floor in turn. Whereas my neighbours on the other side of the partition make love with a frenzy which makes me jealous. When I think that this sensation has less effect on me than a glass of cold beer, I envy people who are capable of uttering such cries that, at first, I thought someone was being murdered, but I realized what was happening when the woman’s cries quickly resumed an octave below the man’s, and was reassured. This racket, which must be audible over distances as great as the cry of those mating whales described by Michelet as rising like the twin towers of Notre Dame, is no fault of mine. All I know is asthma.

No sooner is the last cry achieved than they rush off to take a Sitz bath, their murmurs fading into the sound of water. The complete absence of any transition exhausts me on their behalf, for if there is anything I loathe afterward, or at least immediately afterward, it is having to move. Whatever the selfishness of preserving the warmth of a mouth that has nothing more to receive.

Your devoted

Marcel Proust

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