Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

  1. Desiree B. Silvage
    November 18, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    Reblogged this on LITERARY TRUCE.


  2. November 18, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    I agree, Emma! I read this several years ago and found it absolutely delightful.


    • November 19, 2017 at 9:44 pm

      Delightful is the right word for it. Of course she’s very loyal and won’t tell any dirt but she still gave important informations about his quotidian.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. November 18, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    Very interesting, particularly your comments on its suitability for Proust virgins as well as readers with a degree of familiarity with his work. You’ve given me some food for thought there…


    • November 19, 2017 at 9:46 pm

      It’s interesting for any lit lover, I think. Plus there’s Paris at the beginning of the century, the end of a world.


  4. November 19, 2017 at 1:32 am

    I have this one from New York review Books


  5. Jonathan
    November 19, 2017 at 3:03 am

    I had intended to read this after my ‘Year of Proust’ in 2014 but still haven’t read it. I’m glad to hear of its quality.


    • November 19, 2017 at 9:52 pm

      If you’ve read La Recherche as we call it in French, you’ll probably enjoy this. A lot. After you’ve heard of all his preferred shops and suppliers, you’ll read about his acquaintances, who was used for which character… fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. D Octavia Willis
    November 19, 2017 at 4:38 am

    I’ve only read (listened to) Swann’s Way. However a teacher introduced him to me years ago and everything about him is fascinating. I’m grateful to Celeste for sharing her memories and plan to read this book.


    • November 19, 2017 at 10:00 pm

      I’m also grateful that she changes her mind and shared her memories. That her “Remembrance of things past” My favorite volumes are Le côté de Guermantes, for the high society and the Dreyfus affair and Le temps retrouvé.
      Sodome et Ghomorre is very daring for the time, more scandalous than Lady Chatterley’s Lover in its content and yet it was published.
      I hope you’ll come back and let me know what you thought about Monsieur Proust when you’ve read it.


  7. November 19, 2017 at 9:32 am

    This sounds wonderful. I had never heard of it until now, I must get a copy.


    • November 19, 2017 at 10:01 pm

      I bet you’ll like it and I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.


      • November 19, 2017 at 10:34 pm

        I should re-read Proust first, to get the most out of it…
        (But first I must finish Finnegans Wake, two chapters to go!)


        • November 19, 2017 at 10:37 pm

          No need to reread Proust first. I bet you already remember all the characters and that’s all you need to have the enhanced experience.
          You have my total admiration for reading Finnegan Wake…


          • November 20, 2017 at 9:32 am

            *chuckle* Wait till I’ve actually finished it before you say that…

            Liked by 1 person

  8. November 21, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    Lovely! Have to get my hands on this one! And I just read a review of Proust’s letters to his neighbour in Asymptote Journal – I think I could happily read anything and everything about Proust. Athough he might have annoyed me in real life.


    • November 21, 2017 at 11:12 pm

      I’m sure you’ll like it and I totally agree with you, he must have been hard to live with.


  9. November 21, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    Beautiful post, and a reminder to get back to reading Proust myself. This sounds excellent, though given I’m much of the way through now I think I’d save it to read after.

    Remembrance as cathedral is exactly right. Nice image.


    • November 21, 2017 at 11:13 pm

      Thanks, Max. It is touching to hear her talk about Proust. Like I said in my billet, this master/servant relationship is hard to define.


  10. November 21, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    How wonderful. I absolutely must read this ….thanks for the v informative review .


    • November 21, 2017 at 11:15 pm

      This is a book to read while having tea at the café in the Musée Jacquemart André. Perfect setting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 21, 2017 at 11:22 pm

        I thought of that lovely place ( which you introduced me to ) when reading your review !


        • November 21, 2017 at 11:29 pm

          It’s lovely indeed. Her memoirs really show a world that was dying when Proust captured it on paper.


  11. December 22, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Much as I love Proust’s writing, I always thought he must have been insufferable to luve with. Glad to see the truth is much more nuanced than that.


    • December 22, 2018 at 10:32 am

      I agree with you, he must have been difficult to live with.
      From what she says, he was considerate which made up for all the nightly errands and whims.


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