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Instants of eternity

Spending time with Proust was to attain an intensity that Céleste could not otherwise have imagined

I have just read a fine book: Monsieur Proust, the memoir of Céleste Albaret, who was the novelist's servant during the last nine years of his life. But it may not have the same effect on those who are less Proustian than myself. It is an intimate, delicate, perceptive portrait of a singular personality, infirm both in reality and imagination, who seldom got out of bed and lived on coffee and croissants; a sick man dismissed as crazy and a freak, and who, against all prognosis and expectations, created an amazing, colossal, revolutionary work, which is still unique. À la recherche du temps perdu has had no emulators. It is a summit in the history of literature that stands alone, like a huge shining iceberg in the midst of the ocean.

In fact, the memoir is the story of a strange couple, for she was also quite a character. Aged 21 and just married when she began to work for Proust, she was an innocent, ignorant peasant girl, who, with incredible generosity, soon adapted to the extraordinary demands of her master, an iron tyrant in silk gloves. Poor Céleste came to live by night like Proust, going to bed at 9am and rising at 1pm at the latest, working ceaselessly, without vacations, without Sundays, always hanging upon the maniacal needs of the writer. An exhausting regime that only her strength and youth enabled her to endure. Besides, Proust paid her little and unreliably, and was so improvident or mean that he left her nothing in his will. It was a life of hard labor.

But there was compensation. To be with Proust was to attain an intensity, a complexity of life that Céleste could not otherwise have imagined. "My week beats your year," sang Lou Reed, and Céleste's nine years with the writer seem to have been the most important ones of her existence. Intelligent and sensitive, Céleste could develop these qualities in Proust's company. She died at 90, still missing him. Her book is a story of love, of esthetic and intellectual discovery, of devotion, struggle and wonder; it is, above all, the story of a ferocious struggle against death.

Her book is a story of love, of esthetic and intellectual discovery, of devotion, struggle and wonder; it is, above all, the story of a ferocious struggle against death

For Proust was a neurotic, terrified and obsessed from infancy by death; all his work is a tenacious battle against time, against the corrosive flow of days that carries us to nothing. But this battle multiplies in the final years, in the time of Céleste, when Proust was well aware that, indeed, death was approaching quickly and he still had a great deal of his book to write. He managed to put the final page to Temps perdu just a month before he died.

In fact Céleste's moving text sets forth to perfection the ancient dilemma between life and work. Proust is one of those authors who, like Kafka and Pessoa, lived existences that were arid, deprived, routine, impoverished. But their heads had room for universes. The case of Marcel Proust seems especially extreme, because he lived the life of a snob; he was a flatterer who frequented good society and would go to any length to be noticed by a variety of quite insipid, vacuous titled people. But then all that time spent hanging out in salons, which indeed might seem "time lost," he transformed into Temps perdu in letters of gold, into the very substance of life, because every existence, however minimal or mediocre, if seen in the right light, may appear as the very tragedy of life, moving or grotesque.

Proust died in 1922, at the age of 51. Céleste, so young then, died in 1984, aged 92. Her moving words were put together in 1973 by the French writer Georges Belmont, who died in 2008 at almost 100. All dead. The battle against death and oblivion that we see waged in the fragile lifeboat of Proust's bed, the fight for survival against the storm of time, ended in shipwreck. But on that occasion Proust stole a few instants of eternity from the storm.

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