In an hour or so bidding on Marcel Proust’s letters to his housekeeper will begin in an auction house in Paris. The lot contains 173 items Proust sent Celeste Albaret, who worked for him during the last nine years of his life. Among the items for sale is a brief poem Proust composed for her. Another piece is a note Proust wrote to her in his final illness, the paper stained with what the action house claims is drippings from the coffee cup of the great writer himself. The coffee stain is expected to fetch 8,000 euros at auction.
Presuming the coffee stain isn’t from Celeste’s taxi driver husband Odilon, who sounds like the kind of guy that would thoughtlessly set his coffee cup on a note from a dying master of modern literature, the interest in the insignificant traces of Proust’s life is understandable. Proust famously spun 80 pages of prose fiction out of the act of dipping a cookie in a cup of coffee. He seemed to be aware that the minutiae of would one day become very valuable. This was the man who once wrote a letter to a friend requesting the return of his cane, which he had left at the friend’s house the evening before. The cane turned up in Proust’s house, but Proust sent the letter anyway, noting in a post script that the cane had been found after all.
Then again, Celeste toiled for the fussy writer for nine years, yet she appears in his highly autobiographical fiction only once, in the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past. She was, however, the subject of a 1982 film called Celeste, which mostly shows her tiptoeing around the kitchen trying to keep quiet while Proust writes.