Some writers do their best work when they withdraw from society, working in a kind of fevered isolation. Marcel Proust was so sensitive to overstimulation that he wrote his great masterpiece, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (first translated as Remembrance of Things Past) from his bed, in a cork-lined room. The material was designed to keep noise—and pollutants like dust and pollen—to a minimum. In The Guermantes Way, he muses about the nature of sound:
Proust may fall into the category of “highly-sensitive people,” (HSPs), a term coined by Dr. Elaine Aron to describe individuals whose brain and nervous system is more fine-tuned. HSPs have a higher sensitivity to the stimulus of sound and light, and can be easily fatigued or stressed by their surroundings. Science writer Kayla Mueller adds that they may also be more likely to experience synethesia — the ability to combine the senses — for example to “taste” sound, as Proust did, recreating the conversations of 19th century Paris, while savoring a madeleine. Proust was overwhelmed by daily life, but his cork-lined room also allowed him to hear the voices of his childhood, and essentially slip back through time.
His writing den has been reconstructed and is now on display at the Musee Carnavelet in Paris.
In The Paris Review, Sadie Stein describes Proust’s 15 fountain pens, laid out like surgical instruments, on a bedside table. The novelist was as meticulous with his writing implements as he was with the choice of a phrase. This is the scene he envisioned after his aunt Leonie had given him the madeleine, soaked in a concoction of lime flowers.
“Immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents…and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.”
Anna de Noailles, a Greco-Romanian princess, was among the first Parisians to line her walls with cork. In fact, it was she who convinced Proust to do the same.
Stein notes that her space “is lighter, prettier—the Louis XV furniture is attractively covered, and several of her own still lifes brighten the walls. But it has a similar feeling of claustrophobia, of monomania. And indeed, for all her productivity, de Noailles was plagued with debilitating fears and neuroses.” Another HSP!
When not cloistered in her soundproof room, she could be a lively conversationalist. Among her friends were the sculptor Auguste Rodin and poets Paul Valery and Jean Cocteau.
De Noailles wrote about sex, female liberation and art, posed for the greatest artists of her time, and was the first woman to become a Commander of the Legion of Honor. Her work is described as “Dionysian–ecstatic, sensual, erotic, playful, sometimes violent, and marked by a tragic undercurrent.” All this sensory stimulation sprang from a room with the silence of a nunnery!
When in Paris, don’t miss the homes of these other literary immortals. Here’s how their homes reflect their more expansive personalities:
6 Place des Vosges, the house of Victor Hugo
The walls of “Le Salon Chinois” are lined with delicate porcelain plates and the entire room is an homage to the years Hugo spent in exile in Brussels and the Channel Islands. The rooms are pleasing, but the real surprise is the writer’s astonishing gift for furniture design. Hugo employed local craftsmen to execute the motifs he had sketched out, and also carved certain pieces himself.
According to The Smithsonian, “Hugo would find various pieces of furniture he liked and would work with carpenters to combine them into single pieces. The results were stylistically eclectic and, as evidenced by his stand-up writers desk, which seems to be made from a standard desk and a coffee table, seemed to be uniquely suited to accommodate his own habits and eccentricities.”
In his lifetime, Hugo did over 4,000 drawings–using everything from pen and ink to children’s paints—which he kept from the public eye, not wanting his art to overshadow his writing. His strong visual sense is apparent in every corner of the home.
67 Rue Reynard, the house of Honore Balzac
While writing the 90 novels that comprise his Comedie Humaine, this writer drank an astounding amount of coffee, nicknaming his kettle “the screech owl” for its constant service.
Balzac lived in 11 homes, but this is the only one still standing, and he came to view his writing desk as an extension of his personality.
Of his chair and table, he said, “I possessed it for ten years, it saw all of my misery, wiped away all of my tears, knew all of my projects, heard all of my thoughts. My arm almost wore it out moving back and forth over it as I wrote.”
Balzac was a coffee aficionado–and credited that beverage for his literary output of the day.
“This coffee falls into your stomach,” he observed, “and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensign to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.”
Gazing at a coffee cup, Balzac conjured up the flow of history.