Marcel Proust’s Last Three Days

November 16, 1922

Marcel listened to his neighbor’s grandfather clock striking the end of one more November day. Celeste had assured him that it was impossible to hear any clock in his room, but his heightened sense as an insomniac picked up the sounds—even the muffled ones—of his home and those next door.

His bed was strewn with papers and notebooks, and his inkwell balanced unsteadily on a board that served as his writing desk. He had been working for more than three hours, concentrating intensely on revising his original manuscript. His labored breathing took tremendous physical effort and the board tottered, uncertain, but aware of its duty.

Proust knew that Celeste was seated at the kitchen table, waiting for him to ring for her to bring the cup of coffee and croissant that would fortify him. He avoided eating because of the discomfort it caused him. Coordinating ingesting and breathing was a more difficult task than fleshing out the plot that was keeping him alive. Suffocation bore down on his chest, and with a full mouth he ran the risk of choking and reducing his lack of air even further. This was the only reason he ate so little, less and less every day. In truth, he had always been a glutton. When he was a boy, he couldn’t resist an éclair, especially if it was coffee, or the flavorful dishes prepared by the peasant girl Félicie. His prodigious memory brought back the taste of strawberries and cream that his uncle used to mix for him. His room took on the scent of fresh asparagus, then was warmed by the heavy aroma of boeuf à la mode, in which his mother took great pride.

“We may not have a chef in our kitchen, but Félicie’s boeuf à la mode could be on the menu of any fine restaurant in Paris. It’s real French cooking: the spices merely enhance the fine ingredients, and the preparation follows tradition to the letter, without innovations to take away the character…”

Raising his eyes, he saw his mother, her face swollen by illness, but with a smile that tried to seem unconcerned.

“I know you were waiting for your goodnight kiss so you could rest, my love.”

With a solemn step, his mother drew close to the bed. Marcel shivered from the cold; the poorly heated room was almost colder than the Parisian midnight.

“It’s still early,” he moaned. “I haven’t finished the revision yet.”

“Nonsense, my son. Your book is done; you rewrite it like Penelope, afraid of facing decision. There’s nothing left to add, just redoing, expanding, revising. You need to muster up courage to give your creation over to its fate.”

His mother leaned over the bed and placed her cold lips against her son’s burning forehead. He resisted the urge to pull away and bent his head, eyes closed, giving in to the kiss that would seal his fate. His lungs felt more congested than ever, and he opened his mouth with effort, straining to fill his chest with air. His breathing sounded like a high-pitched scream. His mother shook her head, disheartened.

“Don’t fight it, Wolfie. Close your eyes and rest. The book is done, you don’t need to work on it anymore.”

She gently removed the pen from between her son’s ink-stained fingers.

“I’m going to let you sleep now. Rest, my son. Rest in peace.”

Marcel opened his eyes, startled. The pen had fallen out of his hands and made a purplish stain on his white linen sheets. His eyes searched for his mother, but she wasn’t in the room; she had been dead for years. From the shadows, a pair of eyes watched him complacently. It was Blanche’s portrait, which kept him company and witnessed his struggles. The cold was bitter; he trembled on the disheveled bed. He rang the bell and Celeste opened the door right away, as if she’d been waiting just behind it.

“Nice hot coffee and a croissant worthy of a prince!”

Too tired to talk, the writer waved away the tray. Between gasps, he ordered:

“Not now . . . Cold, Celeste . . . It’s very cold . . ..”

“Would you like me to heat the hearth? You keep this room so cold, it can only make your breathing worse.”

“No, Celeste. You know the smoke fumes do me more harm than the cold. Bring me another blanket. Cover my chest with another layer.”

Head hanging back and eyes half-closed, he appeared unconscious. With able hands, Celeste fetched the requested covers and straightened the ill man’s bedding. She gathered the papers and removed the writer’s instruments from the bed. Then she offered to bring another, hot, cup of coffee. Opening only one eye, he fixed his gaze on her.

“Do you think my book is ready, Celeste?”

“Oh, Sir. Many times I’ve thought so and you always find something to correct or improve. But there’s no longer anything new in what you add. You’re retouching, like a painter who can’t consider a portrait complete because he’s in love with the model.”

He closed the eye that was studying her and remained with his head tipped back, panting. After a moment, he dismissed her. The sound of the clock next door indicated that time, unstoppable, was slipping away without his noticing. It was so late. Soon the sounds of daytime would begin anew and lull him into a fitful and sickly sleep. Perhaps Celeste and his mother were right and he could consider his work finished. It was time to rest. He felt a slight pressure over his constricted chest. A warmth came over his body. Without opening his eyes, he let himself be embraced, trying to guess, from the smell, who was there. A mildly hoarse voice, with deep, sensual tones, soothed his ears. “Are you sleeping?”

“Agostinelli?”

Body cloaked in a loose coat and head covered by a long shawl, the figure’s gender couldn’t be determined.

“Albertine?”

A raucous laugh stirred the air in the room, like a wave that crashes on the beach. Marcel thought he could smell the salt of the sea, hear the sharp cry of a gull. “You weren’t expecting me, were you? But I like to turn up this way, without announcing myself . . .”

Marcel’s breathing sped up and the tightening intensified. He felt pain and a burning in his chest. He reached out with ice-cold fingers and rang the bell forcefully. Celeste didn’t delay in entering and immediately perceived the gravity of the situation.

“I’m going to call your brother.”

He gave her a sad smile.

“It’s still early, my friend. And you need to promise me one thing: don’t let them give me any injections. It doesn’t matter what they say; don’t let them.”

Celeste vowed with compunction to do as he wished. Then she lit the fumigation powder to afford him some relief. She stayed by his side until he finally calmed down and fell asleep. Even though dawn had broken, the room remained dark, thanks to the heavy curtains that kept out the brightness. A paler swath appeared between the two drapes and then, suddenly, a faint, damp ray of light came in at an angle and lit the emaciated face, shadowed by a dark beard. The housekeeper took the opportunity to tidy the room; she removed dirty clothing and dishware, brought in a pitcher of fresh water, filled the inkwell, organized the piles of paper and notebooks. She left the room quietly, worried that her master had not eaten anything that day. “An empty bag can’t stand upright. Tomorrow I’m going to make him eat something. This can’t go on.”

 

 

November 17, 1922

The sound of voices woke him. He waited a few seconds before calling out.

“Who’s there?”

Celeste started; no one was there besides her and Odilon, her husband. And it was already well after midnight; no one—other than her master—paid visits at that hour. Distrustful, she looked at him, thinking his fever must be making him delirious. Proust, meanwhile, seemed fine. He asked her to help him with his bath routine; he wanted to wash up, comb his hair. The bedding should be changed immediately, he complained. He loathed sleeping in wrinkled sheets, especially ink-stained ones. After settling in, he accepted a cup of coffee but refused the croissant. Then he asked for his manuscripts and, with all the room’s lights on, he began to work with enthusiasm. His breathing was still heavy and loud, but he looked better. Celeste left him working. A few moments later, she heard his laugh and, soon after, the bell rang.

“Celeste, ask Odilon to go to the Ritz or the Lipp to buy beer. Hurry, woman. We’re thirsty. And tell Odilon to bring plenty of beer, liters and liters.”

When the door closed behind the servant, Marcel looked at his friends, smiling. Dr. Cottard approved of beer as a kind of bronchodilator. “And as a drink, it’s unsurpassed,” assured the smiling Monsieur Verdurin. Reynaldo Hahn offered to play the piano: “The only thing I can’t play is Vinteuil’s sonata, because that will sadden our beautiful Odette.” “I don’t care; play it if you want. But we would prefer to hear one of your successes, Ciboulette, perhaps,” she replied with her usual indifference.

The party picked up around him, and he had the impression his friends had organized the masked ball in his honor. He was Molière’s imaginary invalid, in his nightshirt and sleeping cap. Although dressed in normal clothes, the others were disguised with powdered wigs and heavy makeup. The duchess of Guermantes conversed with Madame Lemaîre. The listless Anna de Noailles, seated beneath a canopy, exchanged ideas with the Bibesco brothers. He heard strident laughter but couldn’t see who guffawed—Charlus or Montesquiou? Only they laughed like that.

The door to the room opened and Celeste came in carrying a tray of beer.

“Serve my friends first.”

Celeste wavered, looking around, not seeing the ghosts. Pained, she realized he was delirious. “They’re having champagne, they don’t want beer,” she responded shrewdly. And she poured the golden liquid into a tall crystal glass, serving her master.

“It’s as if I’m swigging down the sun…. Look at this color. This drink was invented by the Egyptians, did you know that? And in a sun-drenched place like Egypt, it’s no surprise that a beverage they created should have this color and taste. This is the last sun I’ll take in, my friend . . ..”

Celeste withdrew, her eyes brimming with tears. She had never seen her master in this state. He was completely deranged, agitated, his cheeks flushed. She remained within earshot, worried. She heard bits of phrases, laughter. After a while, the unusual sounds stopped. She was already nodding off when the bell rang once more.

“Celeste, I’m finished. Here is the manuscript, you see? Can you read the last words? Read aloud.”

“The end.”

“That’s right. The end. It’s all done, I no longer have anything to worry about.”

His face was no longer flushed, and he lay back heavily, his head propped up on several pillows, expending effort with each breath. With eyes half-closed, he watched Celeste gather the papers, pull the covers up over him. His demise was near; they both recognized the symptoms. Diligently, she prepared his medicines, the fumigation powder.

“Celeste, the laudanum.”

She obediently placed the recommended number of drops into a cup with a little water.

“Leave it there, I’m not going to take it just now. But I want you to promise me one more time that you won’t let them give me injections.”

“I already promised, Sir. And I promise again. But how many times are you going to want me to repeat the same promise?”

“Three.”

“OK, then. I promise one more time.”

With a bittersweet smile, he ordered her to leave him alone. Daybreak had arrived and the muffled sound of rain could be heard against the closed windows.

 

 

November 18, 1922

Despite the laudanum, his sleep had been restless and erratic. Celeste had had to hold him up various times. His shortness of breath worsened. Finally, she called his brother, who spent the remaining hours at the head of the sick man’s bed. When Marcel awoke, and came out of the lethargy brought on by the laudanum, Robert told him he intended to hospitalize him.

“Absolutely not!”

A doctor, Robert knew his brother’s illness had worsened over the last two days; his final hope was to take Marcel and subject him to a rigorous treatment, with injections that might be able to save him. He ordered that an ambulance be called.

“Robert, you can’t do this! Don’t take me away; don’t give me any injections!”

Marcel was only a year older than his brother, and much weaker and feebler, but Robert was overwhelmed by his brother’s intense and penetrating gaze. Agitated, the sick man experienced greater difficulties breathing. Robert ordered oxygen brought in, to help with breathing. Marcel would not allow the mask to be put on him, he fought, and ended up even more winded. Celeste watched everything, suffering, crying, worrying. Suddenly, there was a shout of terror.

“Don’t let this horrible woman near me!”

Celeste and Robert understood that he was hallucinating. They listened patiently to the description of an ugly—very ugly—woman dressed in black.

“Celeste, our only chance is an injection.”

“But he doesn’t want one, he made me promise I wouldn’t let them give him anything like that.”

“He’s dying, Celeste, it’s the last resort.”

“Then I consent.”

“Help me, Celeste, hold his arms still so he doesn’t move.”

The sick man let out a moan, almost a howl.

“Oh, Celeste. You betrayed me. And you, Proustovich, how did you have the courage?”

Already filled with regret, the housekeeper cried, sobbing. She asked forgiveness, tortured by remorse.

“Does it hurt?”

“It hurts a lot.”

For a few moments, all that could be heard was the sound of his breathing, an overpowering sound. Then silence took over the room. Celeste started to cry again. The smells that hung in the air became stronger, almost unbearable. Robert opened the curtains and the room’s windows, which refused to budge after years without use. Then he ordered Celeste to remove the items that were offending his sense of smell.

“Clean everything thoroughly and air out the room. I’m going to call the photographer, the portraitist, and make the necessary arrangements. Oh, and give me these manuscripts so they don’t disappear. Their publication must go on.”

Half-closed, the dead man’s eyes appeared to take in the scene.

Translation of “Os três últimos dias de Marcel Proust.” Copyright Lúcia Bettencourt. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Kim M. Hastings. All rights reserved.