Proust, from the time he started his novel, told everyone that he was in a race against death. He was amused when Céleste suggested that he just write “The End” and take a rest. But one day…
As I came up to the bed he turned his head slightly toward me, opened his lips, and spoke. It was the first time he’d ever spoken to me immediately on waking up and before having had his first cup of coffee. And it never happened again. I couldn’t help looking surprised. “Good morning, Céleste,” he said. For a moment his smile seemed to savor my surprise. Then: “A great thing happened during the night.” “What, monsieur?” “Guess.” He was enjoying himself….So I said: “I don’t see what it can be, monsieur, I can’t guess. It must be a miracle. You’ll have to tell me.” He laughed like a boy who has played a trick on someone. “Well, my dear Céleste, I shall tell you. It is great news. Last night I wrote ‘The End.'” And then he added smiling, and with that light in his eyes: “Now I can die.” (336-337)
A few months later Proust contracted influenza which lead to an infection in his lungs and the final descent. He continued working until hours before is death.
So I sat down and didn’t leave him for hours, and then only for a few moments. At first we talked a bit: then he started adding material to and correcting his proofs. He started by dictating to me–until about two in the morning. But I couldn’t have gone very fast, because I myself was reaching the end of my tether, and the room was terribly cold. At one point he said: “I think it is more tiring for me to dictate than to write, because of the breathing.” So he took up his pen and went on his own for over an hour. The hands of his watch, when he stopped moving the pen across the paper and put it down, are engraved in my memory. It was exactly half-past three in the morning. “I am too tired, Céleste,” he said. “Let’s stop. I can’t do any more. But don’t go.” (352)
He went on looking at me and said: “My God, Céleste–what a pity. What a pity…” (353)
“You won’t switch off my light, will you?” “Monsieur, you know I’d never take it upon myself to do a thing like that. It’s you who give the orders.” “Don’t switch it off, Céleste. There’s a big fat woman in the room…a horrible big fat woman in black. I want to be able to see…” “Don’t you worry, Monsieur. Just wait–I’ll chase her away. Is she frightening you?” “Yes, a bit,” he answered. “But you must not touch her…” (355)
I went back into the room and stood beside Professor Proust. There were only the two of us there now. M. Proust never took his eyes off us. It was terrible. We stayed like that for about five minutes, and then the professor suddenly moved forward, and bent gently over his brother, and closed his eyes. They were still turned toward us. I said: “Is he dead?” “Yes, Céleste. It is over.” (359)
Tags: Céleste Albaret