Proust’s Sister Soul

In April of 1984 both The New York Times and Le Monde ran obituaries announcing the death of Céleste Albaret. News of the death of the ninety-two-year-old Frenchwoman who had attained world fame in her early eighties for her memoir Monsieur Proust* brought woeful reminders to literary communities on both sides of the Atlantic that an era had indeed come to an end. Céleste Albaret was not only one of the very few remaining individuals who had actually known Marcel Proust, but, in her capacity as his housekeeper from 1913 to his very dying day in 1922, she had become the writer’s most trusted conduit to the world beyond his reclusive, cork-lined bedroom. From the tireless and sprightly gal Friday and Jeeves-of-all-trades—she was his errand girl, cook, seamstress, secretary, nurse, chambermaid, and cut-and-paste genius whose handiwork is the focal point of any exhibit devoted to Proust manuscripts—she had become his staunchest confidante. “It will be your beautiful little hands that close my eyes,” he would say to her. Elsewhere she scolds him, “[There’s] no reason for always talking about dying…. You’ll live longer than I will.”

Monsieur Proust was not the sort to trust his eyes, much less his body, to anyone. Nor was Céleste the sort to quip with her perennially fastidious employer. Between them hovered a middle mist that neither would have dared cross and which stayed in place by something they both had an inexhaustible amount of—tact:

We were both orphans—he with his parents dead and his friends scattered, and I with my parents dead, my family far away, and my husband in the army. So we created our own sort of intimacy, though for him it was chiefly an atmosphere within which to work, while I forgot about my own tasks and could see nothing but a magic circle.

One needed to be resourceful, quick-witted, and have more than a strong backbone to serve an ailing workaholic like Proust. But even that was not enough. One had to be as dutiful, as scrupulous, and as selfless as a mother. Céleste anticipated every one of his needs. He grew to expect that she would do no less. They spoke in silences, exchanging secrets and pleasantries, confident that both would never for a moment forget their place. Monsieur Proust did not need reminding that he was the boss. Céleste was too self-effacing to presume that he gave her a second thought. If over the years they developed a certain affection, neither would ever have dared call it love. But love it must have been. Not the love of a servant or of a master, nor the love of equals, but of people who are thrown together in one apartment and who, to their complete surprise, discover that they have achieved a degree of intimacy without ever finding the other unbearable.

Céleste stole in and out of Monsieur Proust’s day-to-day life, ministering to his tiniest whims: his very hot coffee, his croissant, his second double-boiled coffee,…

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