Other people’s letters

(bees drunk on last year’s lotus)

Perhaps because I grew up writing and receiving letters, and because I became (and remain) completely obsessed with mail, I love to read books of writers’ letters. Isak Dinesen’s letters written while she was in Kenya and Janet Flanner’s letters from Paris are among my favorites. A letter is such an intimate piece of writing, with its intended audience of one, and as such I consider them to be acts of great generosity.
A while back, the New Yorker published excerpts of notes that Roland Barthes had kept after his mother died. They were short entries, mapping his course through a period of grief, and the last entry was an excerpt from a letter written by Proust.
A friend of Ali’s recently lost his mother, so Ali asked me to copy the letter into an email and send it to him. Typing it out, I was, once again, so moved by it that I thought I would share it here. I feel sure it speaks to many forms of loss.

Letter from Proust to Georges de Lauris, whose mother had just died (1907)

Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will be forever cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power… that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that will constantly remember her more and more.

(Translated from the French by Richard Howard.)

Madeleines are all well and good, but this is what lionizes Proust for me.

14 thoughts on “Other people’s letters

  1. I am also a big fan of paper mail. I think that it makes you “think” differently because you can’t really go back, cut, paste, and re-arrange. Plus there is something so much nicer about having a tactile message in your hands. I just wish people wouldn’t sacrifice the importance of a more human touch for the sake of convenience.

    1. Oh, I so completely agree! I also think that there’s something so much more immersive about reading someone’s handwriting. It’s like being in their head for a moment, and seeing the words as they do.

  2. I used to write a lot of letter and grew up with that thrill of coming home to find a letter in the letter box addressed to me. It is such a shame we are losing that art of writing letters. Emails just aren’t the same xx

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