Proustians can’t get enough of Proust, no matter how often they return to A la recherche du temps perdu – not, probably (certainly in my case), embarking on the journey from the first sentence and continuing to the terminus, but rather dipping into the novel to read one or two hundred pages, an experience that is in itself, if you first read Proust when you were in the eager flush of youth and capable of unbridled enthusiasm, a recapturing of time lost. Somerset Maugham, who claimed to have read the whole novel five times, three times in French and twice in English, or perhaps the other way round, once said he would rather be bored by Proust than delighted by lesser writers. As we grow older, some of the philosophical and analytical passages are likely to be skipped. An essential truth one may have missed in the first impassioned reading, however, is that Proust, like the Joyce of Ulysses, is essentially a comic novelist, and that some of the dialogue that one first took to be serious is as gloriously exaggerated and funny as anything in Dickens. Proust is without doubt wonderfully intelligent, but he is also comic and charming.
Comedy and charm are the characteristics of Proust’s recently discovered ‘Letters to the Lady Upstairs’, now published by Fourth Estate in a deft translation by Lydia Davis, who supplies an afterword (the foreword is by Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust’s best French biographer). Madame Marie Williams lived two