Fixing to Die


Proust’s description of the last days of Bergotte is written with much personal authority. First, Proust was perpetually cold and covered himself with all manner of clothing, giving little or no attention to his appearance. Regardless of the season, all windows had to be shut wherever he visited. And Bergotte…

I have said that Bergotte never went out-of-doors, and when he got out of bed for an hour in his room, he would be smothered in shawls, rugs, all the things with which a person covers himself  before exposing himself to intense cold or going on a railway journey. He would apologise for them to the few friends whom he allowed to penetrate to his sanctuary; pointing to his tartan plaids, his travelling-rugs, he would say merrily: “After all, my dear fellow, life, as Anaxagoras has said, is a journey.” (V,240)

Proust self-medicated himself with barbituates and opium to sleep and caffeine and adrenaline to stay awake.

Bergotte tried them all. Some of these drugs may be of a different family from those to which one is accustomed, by-products, for instance of amyl and ethyl. When one absorbs a new drug, entirely different in composition, it is always with a delicious expectancy of the unknown. One’s heart beats as at a first assignation. To what unknown forms of sleep, of dreams, is the newcomer going to lead one? It is inside one now, it is in control of one’s thoughts. In what way is one going to fall asleep? And, once asleep, by what strange paths, up to what peaks, into what unfathomed gulfs will this all-powerful master lead one? What new group of sensations will one meet with on this journey? Will it lead to illness? To blissful happiness? To death? Bergotte’s death came to him the day after he had thus entrusted himself to one of these friends (a friend? an enemy?) who proved too strong. (V,243-244)

On May 1, 1922, Proust accidentally took too strong a dose of adrenaline, which burned his digestive tract. From then on he consumed only ice cream and cold beer, a diet that left him weakened. He died of pneumonia on Nov. 18.

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