How I’d love to hear the 70 hours of recordings of the conversations of Céleste Albaret and Georges Belmont that resulted in Monsieur Proust, by Céleste Albaret, as told to Georges Belmont. Belmont was a literary translator, and it might be truer to say this is Céleste’s recollections of her ten years as Proust’s housekeeper/confidante ‘translated’ by Georges Belmont. I find it hard to imagine Céleste, who was a country girl with a limited education, saying
By dint of analysing himself he’d left himself with nothing but motives and explanations
The fact is, he wasn’t just painting a set of portraits. There was a whole world, a whole society and way of living that he’d once known that was crumbling gradually, in the midst of a new world coming into being.
However it happened, the combination of Céleste’s memories and Belmont’s deep knowledge of Proust’s life and work makes for fascinating reading. Céleste knew the people we know as Albertine, Baron Charlus and the Duchesse de Guermantes – some of them a combination of several people, some, like Charlus, a close rendition of a man Proust found both fascinating and frightening, the Comte de Montesquiou. She tells of Proust’s working habits in these last ten years of his life – he spent most of his time in bed, eating very little, writing in a notebook propped up on his knees, waking mid-afternoon and going to sleep towards dawn. She tells of the severe asthma that he kept at bay by “fumigations”. She tells of his kindness, but also of his avoidance of close friendships and the way he viewed people essentially as figures for his art. And though he seems to have loved Céleste he used her too, mercilessly. She would jump up from sleep at any hour of the day or night if he rang for some trivial reason, would wait up till all hours for him to come home and tell her about his sorties into high society, hanging on his words as he analysed and critiqued its great personages.
What was it in the combination of these two personalities that created this unique relationship, as Angus Wilson said, at once so intimate and so deforming? Through all this time, Céleste was married, but her husband Odilon barely gets a mention, and after Proust’s death, when she was only in her early thirties, she says, I couldn’t get used to commonplace life…Secretly I took refuge in the memory of the marvellous nights.
In passing, she mentions that she and Odilon had a daughter, Odile, the only other person in the world beside M. Proust to whom I’d have given the world if she asked for it.
Céleste was 82 when she finally spoke about her years with Proust, but she still found the entire meaning and purpose of her life in those long-ago years. It’s a life of Céleste even more than it’s a life of Proust. I’ve never read anything quite like it.