Today, November 18th, is the anniversary of Proust’s death in 1922. He was born on July 10, 1871 and so was 51 years old when he died. Not a very long life, but it lasted as long as he wanted it to- until he finished his work. He’s buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France and when Proustians make their pilgrimage there, they leave madeleines, lilies and stones. Why stones? Because Proust’s mother was Jewish. His father was Catholic, though, and Proust himself never really embraced any religion. Writing was his life and his religion.
In the summer of 1922, the Paris newspaper “L’Intransigeant” published a questionnaire that included this question:
“An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in this last hour?”
Marcel answered. He had answered a couple of these questionnaires when he was younger as well, at parties where this was done as part of the festivities, and Marcel apparently enjoyed answering them. Anyhow, Marcel answered and the paper printed his answer:
“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it- our life- hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”
Marcel did not die that evening. But not long after, he “took a chill” and it became pnuemonia, followed by secondary infections, then an abcess in his lung which became septicaemia. This took place over several weeks, during which time Marcel exhausted himself editing and correcting his manuscripts. Earlier, in the spring of 1922, he’d announced to Celeste Albaret, his housekeeper and confidant for ten years, that he’d finished his work, that during the night he’d written “The End”. To which he then added, “Now I can die”.
Four months after answering the L’Intransigeant questionnaire, Marcel died. His brother, Robert, had to finish editing the final manuscripts for In Search of Lost Time. But Proust was already gaining fame and a reputation after the publications of Swann’s Way (1913), In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919), and The Guermantes Way (1920-21) and so he died knowing that he’d accomplished what he set out to do. Two days after his death, the photographer Man Ray came to take his death portrait.
A poignant confession from Celeste stays with me in relation to Proust’s death. Sometime before he dies, Marcel said to Celeste, “…it is awful to think doctors can torture a sick person by injecting serums. And for what? To give his patient ten more minutes, twelve more hours perhaps, of a wretched life? Celeste, promise me you won’t ever let them give me an injection.” She promised.
Fast forward to the day it is obvious that Marcel is going to die. Against Proust’s wishes, she calls his doctor and begs him to give Marcel an injection, something to give him strength, to save him. When the doctor does so, Proust reaches out and grabs Celeste’s wrist, pinches it and says, “Oh, Celeste…oh, Celeste!”
Celeste writes that this is impressed on her forever, and that even if she wanted to, she could never drive that final cry of his out of her ears.