The Philosopher and the Window Cleaner

In my first novel, Glass, my main character strikes up a friendship with his live-in landlord, a man known only as the Steppenwolf. The Steppenwolf is a recluse, who shuts himself away in a cork lined room most days, in the hopes of writing a book which contains all life. He is a philosopher; my main character is a window cleaner.

It might not seem like the most realistic part of the novel, but it is actually inspired by a real life friendship between Marcel Proust and his maid, Céleste Albaret. In the last eight years of his life, Proust never left Paris, preferring instead to shut himself away and work on his great novel, In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his chauffeur’s wife, and turned out to be the only person who could keep up with Proust’s endless requests. From the moment he woke up at around 4pm, she did everything for him: delivered parcels and flowers, took dictation, changed his linen, prepared his foot bath, disinfected his incoming mail. At his request, she would put lime blossoms and a bottle of Evian by his bed every night. In the eight years she served him, he didn’t drink a single drop.

She recalls in her memoirs, Monsieur Proust, that his room was ‘kept hermetically sealed and daylight never entered.’ He would rarely leave the house, and seemed not to need anyone but Céleste. ‘He had enough in his memory not to need the actual presence of people,’ she writes.

In fact, Prince Antoine Bibesco, one of Proust’s greatest admirers, once wrote that Proust had only really loved two people in the world – his mother and Céleste. They would stay up talking until dawn, and she would indulge him by talking about his writing (she preferred sewing lace). ‘You know, Céleste,’ he told her once, ‘I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature. That is why it is never finished… There is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up.’ That was his aim: to write a book that would last centuries.

In the last seven weeks of Proust’s life, Céleste didn’t sleep in her own bed; she barely slept at all. She cared for him constantly as he worked to finish his novel. In the end he was too weak to continue and entrusted the last amendments to her. With her help, the last volume could finally be finished.

In the week after Proust died, Céleste passed a window display of his books, arranged in threes. She suddenly remembered a passage he’d finished years before, in which the writer Bergotte dies: ‘They buried him, but all night before his funeral, in the lighted windows, his books, set out in threes, kept watch like angels with outspread wings, as if they were, for him who was no more, a symbol of the resurrection.’

First published on the Serpent’s Tail blog.