Other people’s letters

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(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.

Forgotten pleasure

Every weekend since she’s gotten here, my mother has commented on how lucky I am to have the garden to return to after a week in the city. I had been looking at the whole arrangement differently, seeing it more as an exile from the garden. Last weekend, I decided to try on my mother’s way of looking at things instead, and found it much more agreeable. Thank heaven for optimists!
The mornings are cool now, about 8 C (high 40s F). The first thing we do is start a fire in the water heater and then head out to the kitchen to make coffee. On Saturday morning as I was carrying the coffee pot over to the kitchen, I came across a letter I’d received on Friday, sitting in the box if cloth diapers we’d brought along. It was actually better than just a letter; it was a surprise package with a letter inside: the mail trifecta. A dear friend had sent us a little wooden Christmas tree from Muji.

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I stood reading it and was instantly absorbed. For me, reading a hand written letter is completely immersive, a far more intimate experience than the typed word. And as I read it, I realized that although this was a letter from a very dear friend whom I have known for almost 20 years, this was the first time I had seen her handwriting. I felt I had somehow gotten to know her better in the moments that I has stood there, one hand still on the coffee pot, reading her letter.
It is of course literally an intimate experience to read or to write a letter. You hold one person on your mind and you can pour your heart out without fear of interruption, or you are the lucky recipient of such focused attention. Having taken up this blog as a form of wholesale correspondence, it seems an extravagantly generous act to write a letter (not to mention taking the trouble to post it). To think that we once performed these acts without a second thought; I have boxes of letters from my school days, some of them from only passing acquaintances that I struck up correspondence with. Here’s to the forgotten pleasure of a handwritten letter, and to being reminded of it.