Céleste Albaret : La Prisonière


Céleste Albaret’s “as told to” book on her life with Proust is a remarkable account of  devotion. Moving from her family home in the provinces to Paris with her new husband, Odilon Albaret, this was her first employment. She joyfully changed her entire mode of existence to be of service to Proust, like the moon altering its rotation to face the Earth at all times.

 What still astonishes me is the ease with which I submitted and adapted myself to a way of life for which I was absolutely unprepared. All my childhood had been spent in the freedom of the country and the affection of my mother. We went to bed with the hens and rose with the roosters, or nearly. And here I was, taking quite naturally to living at night as he did, as if I’d never done anything else. And I not only lived in the same rhythm as he did, but twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week I lived entirely for him. I have nothing to do with the book he called La Prisonière, but it would have been a good name for me. (45)

“You see how it is monsieur. Here I am, I don’t budge; I never go anywhere except do something you want done and don’t want to write about. And yet my mother brought me up to go to Mass every Sunday. But not only do I not go–I hardly even think of it.” I said this without any resentment, just eagerly, like a little girl. He looked at me from the bed, with magnificent serenity. “Céleste,” he said, very gently, “do you know you are doing something much greater and nobler than going to Mass? You are giving up your time to look after a sick man. That is infinitely more beautiful.” It was true. And I think that was the only time I ever made him think I was complaining. (46)

For we soon fell more and more into the habit of talking. And then I had no more regular hours at all. The time I got up depended on the time I’d gone to bed; the only item that had to be taken into account was his coffee when he woke up. So usually I didn’t get up until one or two in the afternoon, and when he eventually woke up and we were talking about his plans, I got into the habit of saying quite naturally: “Well, yesterday evening you said…” “Yesterday evening” had sometimes been eight or nine o’clock that same morning. (49)

Now I realize M. Proust’s whole object, his whole great sacrifice for his work, was to set himself outside time in order to rediscover it. When there is no more time, there is silence. He needed that silence in order to hear only the voices he wanted to hear, the voices that are in his books. I didn’t think about that at the time. But now when I’m alone a night and can’t sleep, I seem to see him as he surely must have been in his room after I had left him–alone too, but in his own night, working at his notebooks when, outside, the sun had long been up. And I think how I was there, not suspecting up till the end, or almost, that he had chosen that solitude and silence, though he knew it was killing him. But then I remember what Professor Robert Proust said to me later: “My brother could have lived longer if he’d been willing to live the same way as everyone else. But he chose what he did, and he chose if for the sake of his work. All we can do is bow our heads.” And above all I hear the voice of M. Proust himself: “I am very tired, dear Céleste. But it has to be like this. It has to be…” (50)

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