Sunday, October 02, 2005

Monsieur Proust, by Celeste Albaret

Patrick White confessed to finding Proust a tad on the boring side, and after having ploughed through In Search of Lost Time (commonly translated as Remembrance of Things Past, which is actually a line from one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets), he said he doubted he’d ever attempt it again.

I think Patrick White to be one of the most unreadable authors of all time, and so I was amazed that he found the longwinded Proust a chore. I presumed that some of those long, obscure Proustian passages would have been right up Patrick White’s alley.

True, Proust can be dullsville. Plus his never-ending sentences (some go on for pages) actually used to make me mad! Virginia Woolf, whist acknowledging his genius, found his prose to be a bit too feminine. Proust admits as much himself: in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, he says how he wanted his book to be like a dress.

When I was reading Proust, I kept a book of favourite quotes. That was around 1995. Here are a few favourites that I wrote down:

"It is the tragedy of other people that they are to us merely showcases for the very perishable collections of our own mind."

Ah, what a beautiful little sentence, one that surely only the solitary Proust could conjure. Be sure not to quote it in company!

Here’s another:

"Falsehood is essential to humanity. It plays as large a part perhaps as the quest of pleasure and is moreover commanded by that quest. We lie in order to protect our pleasure or our honour if the disclosure of our pleasure runs counter to our honour. We lie all our life long, especially, indeed, perhaps only, to those people who love us. Such people in fact alone make us fear for our pleasure and desire their esteem."

And:

"As soon as one is unhappy one becomes moral."

I’ve always felt that maybe I was too young or immature when I read Proust, and that I might go back to him one day. Recently I read the first volume again, but without overwhelming enthusiasm. Nevertheless, because of the quotes above mentioned, he does fascinate me. More than that, I’ve always been fascinated by the way he wrote. Famously, he stayed up till all hours of the night writing, living on coffee, and never getting out of his bed.

Celeste Albaret was his housekeeper during the years he wrote In Search of Lost Time. In 1972, at the age of eighty, she finally gave up her long silence on the subject of her former employer and spilled the beans to Georges Belmont. Mr Belmont interviewed Madame Albaret for some seventy hours. The result was the memoir, Monsieur Proust.

I’ve read nothing about how this book was put together, but having read it, I now have lots of questions. The book doesn’t seem like it was edited together from 70 hours worth of conversations. Madame Albaret’s conversation (if we believe that’s what it is) is so elegant and refined, with just the right words added here and there, not to mention his bon mots, and intricate descriptions of his conversation, it beggars belief that all of what is contained in Monsieur Proust simply fell with such ease from her lips.

Having said that, this is quite an amazing little literary curio, giving a view onto a strangely unreal, almost perverse world of literary creation. Madame Albaret gives us all the mundane day to day descriptions of domestic life, how he liked his food cooked, his fastidiousness and general peculiarities. Then of course there are the descriptions of how he did all his work in bed, how he liked fresh sheets every day, how he wrote for such long stretches. You marvel at how such a literary masterpiece was created out of such an unhealthy environment, with Proust himself rushing against death. Nature surely is cruel, with no time at all for our artistic endeavours, or our highly idealised versions of ourselves.

In fact, in the book you can see how Proust organised his entire life around writing. The walls padded with cork to minimise outside sound, cutting off all relationships, only socialising in order to study other people. There’s something terribly inhuman about all of this, inhuman even to Proust himself. So obsessed was he with his work that his major fear was dieing before he finished it.

I can’t imagine that this is the sort of book everyone would enjoy. It’s very rich and strange, almost unbelievable. I’d love to see those 70 hours of tape recordings authenticated.
If the following quote does not appear anywhere in Proust’s long, continuous novel, then Madame Albaret’s recollections must surely be accurate, because it is so Proustian. (I am suspicious that she may have pinched the quote from In Search of Lost Time.) When discussing with Albaret the possibility that his work could be banned, due to some of his risque subject matter, Proust said, explaining why he believed this would never happen:

"Because if you know how to say things, you can say anything. And Marcel Proust knows how to say things."

A great piece of advice to aspiring writers, or those wanting to dodge censorship laws.

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Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your comments.I too found vast amounts of Proust to be boring, and yet I have read through it once in English and just now--finally--in French. And I still think it one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. One of these days I hope to read it again. There is a wonderful and touching video of Celeste Albaret recounting her memories of Proust on
Dailymotion.com (the video is titled: Proust 3). It is in French but her words flow as beautifully as do Proust's.