Céleste Albaret: Charlus

Céleste Albaret writes perceptively about Proust’s research for his novel. She confirms the unimportance of friendship for Proust; the dinners and meetings she arranged for him were simply research for the novel. If he got what he was looking for, he returned to the apartment jubilant. If not, he return dejected, fuming that he had wasted an evening instead of writing. She also shows that the novel’s characters are usually a melange of characteristics found among several members of his circle. Not so with Charlus, who is closely modeled on Robert de Montesquiou.

“And do you know what, Céleste? In the little silence at the beginning of the meal, as people were picking up their knives and forks, suddenly Monsieur de Montesquiou’s voice was heard blaring out to his hostess: ‘Madame, why in the world have you put me next to such an awful old cow?’ I need hardly describe the effect. The hostess nearly passed out and couldn’t think of anything to say. The count’s neighbor wished the floor would open and swallow her up or that the chandelier would crash down on the middle of the table. The worst of it was, the whole thing was gratuitous. The count’s unfortunate neighbor was one of his own circle and had never been anything but pleasant to him. The strange thing is that even when he was being coarse he still had such lordly manners that everyone overlooked his whims. (259)

His voice tended to be shrill. When he recited his own poems he used to stamp his foot; he’d do this even in conversation in a salon or in the street. He always stood pompously erect, with his head thrown back. This was all the more striking as he was tall and thin, with a very high-bridged nose and a thin,curled wax mustache. “Just like a cobra about to strike,” said M. Proust, who did an excellent imitation of him. (259)

[At the death of Montesquiou’s brother:] “I found Count Thierry de Montesquiou, the father, in the garden, stricken with grief. I tried to comfort him, but he was inconsolable. And yet he was a proud man, well-known for his harsh and rather cynical wit. Count Robert was with us, and suddenly, as I was speaking, seeing there were tears in his father’s eyes, he said, ‘Cheer up, Father! You will soon be frolicking about in paradise yourself!” No one else could have carried cruelty to such an extreme.” (260)

It had been years since M. Proust had last seen him. For one thing, he’d got as much as he wanted for the character, and for another, he didn’t hide that he was somewhat afraid of Montesquiou….”I don’t want to see him, Céleste. absolutely not. We must manage to prevent it. I know he goes to bed early now. So you telephone him at the Hôtel Garnier and say you haven’t seen me yet and you don’t know when you will. Say that when you left me this morning I said I wanted to rest….Oh no, that won’t work–if you telephone him he will know I have seen the telegram….No, tell him I am in the middle of a bad attack and I don’t know how long it will last. Say I could not possible see him before two or three in the morning.” I phoned. The count came to the telephone. He listened to my tale, and then he said: “Two o’clock in the morning. I shall be there.”….At the end of the conversation the count had shown his perverse side. “Do you know what he asked before he left, Céleste? ‘Marcel, do tell me how your Baron de Charlus is getting on.'”….The strange thing is, and it shows the real fear he could inspire, that after his death M. Proust said one night when were talking about him: “There are moments when I don’t really believe  he is dead. I know him; he is perfectly capable of pretending to be dead and adopting another name just to see whether his famous and people still remember him.” (262-265)

Recall Charlie Morel’s mortal fear of Charlus.


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