PARIS – I find one of the books in Part 4 of the R. & B. L. Collection, offered at Sotheby's Paris on 7 October, to be particularly moving: the fourth volume of La Recherche du Temps Perdu, complete with a handwritten dedication from Marcel Proust to his governess Céleste Albaret. Although the book is only cloth-bound, the message it contains lends it unique value. It reveals a hidden facet of Marcel Proust, as he expresses his affection for the woman who also served as his secretary, nurse and confidant:
“To my dear Céleste, my faithful friend for eight years... to Céleste, for whom my moods have been a cross to bear, to Céleste the Cross of Honour.”
Céleste entered Marcel Proust’s service in 1913 after marrying his chauffeur Odilon Albaret, and remained devoted to the author until his dying breath in 1921. She was with him on a daily basis, accepting the odd hours he kept and adapting to his eccentric eating, clothing and social habits, becoming his sole link with the outside world. Proust, by now, was living as a recluse in his Paris apartment, and rarely left his bed; he was obsessed with his novel, working on it like a madman in his cork-lined bedroom throughout the night. Yet Céleste was always at hand to wait on this exhausted man who, despite being weakened by illness, never ceased to prompt her respect and admiration.
Proust sometimes gave her orders on scraps of paper, messages which Céleste was proud of her ability to decipher, as she knew how to anticipate her employer’s wishes better than anyone. The famous bibliophile Jacques Guérin was a fervent admirer of Proust – he managed to recuperate his belongings from a second-hand dealer before donating them to the Musée Carnavalet in Paris – and considered Céleste Albaret a key witness of Proust’s little-known domestic existence. After Proust’s death, he urged her to write down her memoirs; her Monsieur Proust was published thirty years later. In her own way, this discreet woman, who frequented one of the greatest figures of French 20th century literature on an intimate basis, took part in the creation of a unique literary work. Marcel Proust paid her the ultimate tribute, by taking her character as the inspiration for the unforgettable figure of Françoise in À La Recherche...
Dominique Courvoisier is an expert and a book seller.
The Library of R. & B. L.: 20th Century Manuscript Autographs & First Editions
Exhibition: 3–4, 6 October
Auction: 7 October, 2:30 PM