Celeste (1981)

dir. Percy Adlon

starring: Eva Mattes, Jurgen Arndt

genre: Drama, Foreign


The practice of writing necessitates creating surroundings and an ambience that is specific to this purpose. Earlier in this chapter I mentioned Virginia Woolf's well-known treatise A Room of One's Own, which was her brilliant feminist account of the probable life/fate of Shakespeare's imagined sister "Judith Shakespeare." In the mid 19990s I was fortunate to see an off-Broadway dramatized production of A Room of One's Own starring the English actress Eileen Atkins. Atkins bears a striking physical resemblance to photographs of a gaunt, melancholic Woolf taken during the years -- the late 19920s -- when she would have written and presented the series of lectures upon which A Room of One's Own is based. Fortunately for posterity, Atkins's performance was filmed; and, although it was not a feature film, it was shown on the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre. As close to a reenactment of Woolf's lectures as we ever will see, this filmed adaptation is well worth the effort of finding on videotape.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is a woman who took to heart Virginia Woolf's behest that women should have "five hundred [pounds] a year each of us and rooms of our own" -- at least the room of one's own part. Cross Creek, directed by Martin Ritt in 1983, is loosely based on Rawlings's semi-autobiographical tales of her years as a writer in the backwoods of Florida's untamed Everglades. Rawlings is portrayed by Mary Steenburgen, an actress whose guileless sensitivity, even high-strung nature, suit her character well. As the film opens, a married Rawlings has been working for ten years as a journalist in Wisconsin, unhappily trying to write fiction and find publication for it. On a chance visit to Florida she is instantly enchanted with the lush landscape and wildlife, and, in 1928, leaving the financial security of her marriage, moves to Cross Creek, Hawthorn, Florida, where she hopes to create a writing sanctuary for herself and write a Gothic romance. Here she remained for nearly thirty years, devoting herself to writing fiction. The novel for which she is best known, of course, is The Yearling, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939.

Although Cross Creek may be overly sentimental, it simulates a near holy natural environment as Rawlings must have perceived it and provides a sensory feel for the picaresque local characters and their goings-on about which she wrote. It also captures the sheer will one must call upon if she or he wishes to call writing their vocation. Peter Coyote is Norton Baskin, who (after several arguments with Marjorie about preserving her independence) becomes Rawling's loving second husband; and Rip Torn (one of the great American actors) is Cracker, a wild, rampaging, moonshining backwaters personification. A real treat is the inclusion of a brief portrayal of Maxwell Perkins -- by Malcolm McDowell (whom Steenburgen would soon marry in real life) -- the famed literary editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, who both discovered and edited, and then convinced Scribner's to publish such then-unknown American writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, among others. McDowell dandies him up a bit and, on his arrival at Cross Creek, Perkins says that he just thought he'd stop by as he has been visiting "Ernest in Key West." How's that for name-dropping?

Although not regarded as a writer herself, we are fortunate to have the memoir of Celeste Albaret (an uneducated farm girl) of her nine years of devoted service as housekeeper, cook, secretary, confidante, companion, and surrogate mother, to the French writer Marcel Proust. Based on this winsome memoir is the equally entrancing German film Celeste, 1981, directed by Percy Adlon. It seems odd to have the life of a writer of such flamboyant prose made by a German rather than a French director, but perhaps the spartan setting and inhibited sensibility serve its subject well.

When we meet Celeste, the housekeeper, she is rigidly sitting at a wooden table in a small kitchen. We wonder what she is doing until a voice-over explains that she is waiting for "Monsieur" to ring for his cafe and croissant. The moments seem barely to proceed as the camera oscillates from the face of the large-handed wall clock to the emotionless face of Celeste and back again. The only sound is a confusion of the exaggerated tick . . . tick of the clock which subtly becomes what we perceive as the flagging staccato of Celeste's heart. We are shown, actually placed in this claustrophobic environment until we feel its suffocating effects and, like Proust, who suffered from asthma throughout his life, we find ourselves gasping for air.

Having said this, Celeste is also one of those rare films to successfully portray with insight, wit, and poignancy the creative and emotional life of an artist. We are shown Proust as he is overcome with the feverish passion for finding words for his thoughts putting them down on paper. During the last ten years of his life, an increasing invalidism and what previously had been Proust's gradual disengagement from social life now became a self-imposed confinement to his bedroom and, like Colette and Truman Capote after him, he wrote exclusively from the sanctuary of his bed. He had ingeniously devised a way to add new sections of writing to those that had already been written: writing on a scrabble of papers, Celeste, the secretary, then took them and tenderly glued them together in the order Proust had indicated; she then folded them in an accordion fashion. Thus, into the cohesive "manuscript," additional annotations could easily be inserted. This is fascinating movie-watching for any writer, especially those of us who were writing during the pre-computer era when "cut and paste" actually meant with scissors and glue.

However, the film is less successful in its attempt to demonstrate through the camera the workings of Proust's writing style which is by turns psychological, allegorical, and often stream-of-consciousness. For although we become privy to certain scenes about which he is thinking or even writing, Proust's verbal and literary acumen do not translate well into a visual medium.

Nor does Celeste endeavor to recreate that singular moment in literature in which, during a real-life incident, an involuntary childhood memory was revived through the sensory pleasure of tasting tea and a biscuit. In Remembrance of Things Past the biscuit of course metamorphosed into the mnemonic madeleine.

But in Celeste we experience the palpable intimacy between this middle-aged homosexual author and his virtual life support, Celeste. Proust shares with her his profuse anxieties about his health, his vitriolic gossip, his genuine concerns and uncertainties about his writing, and, on the rare occasion, his deep affection for her. Every writer needs a Celeste.

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