I had a very slow start to my read of Marcel Proust’s classic seven-part novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The first few parts took me several years, and I had my doubts at times that I’d actually keep going. However, earlier this year, on finishing the fourth part (Sodome et Gomorrhe / Sodom and Gomorrah), I felt for the first time that the end was, if not in sight, then at least somewhere not far over the horizon, which meant I was keen to try some more before too long. That was back in March, and just a few months later, I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to get through another slice of the novel – and while there was a dinner party, in contrast with the last few parts, this one was a far more personal affair…
La Prisonnière (The Prisoner) picks up where Sodome et Gomorrhe left off, with our narrator Marcel and his partner Albertine now back in Paris, having left Balbec behind. So is this happily ever after? Not quite. Our friend is as jealous as ever, and if he does shower Albertine with gifts, the price she pays for her luxurious lifestyle is a heavy one. Surrounded by spies and forced to reveal every detail of how she spends her days, she is little more than a plaything kept in a gilded cage. This part of the novel isn’t called the prisoner for nothing.
While his girlfriend is left back in her room at the family apartment, the narrator catches up with some old friends, including Baron Charlus, at the latest of the Verdurins’ parties. Here it’s time for another fraught relationship to take the spotlight, that of the Baron and the musician Paul Morel, with the esteemed aristocrat taking advantage of his connections to provide his ‘friend’ with a useful leg-up in society. This time, however, the Baron overplays his hand, and in ignoring the feelings of those around him brings about a disastrous turn in his fortunes. There’s a lot here that Marcel could learn from in terms of the danger of trying to control human emotions, but by this stage of his relationship, we suspect that it might already be too late…
La Prisonnière is a fairly claustrophobic book, with its 400 pages separated into three (unmarked) main sections. The first is devoted to a few days in the life of the secluded couple, with the middle part providing an interlude at the Verdurins’ musical salon. Then, we return to Marcel’s stuffy chambers to witness the aftermath of the previous 300 pages, in which Marcel and Albertine slowly grow apart. I’ve never found Proust’s young narrator particularly sympathetic, and he’s even less so in La Prisonnière, keeping his young partner captive and paying others to spy on her. Perhaps even creepier is his desire to possess her at all times, exemplified by his habit of watching her sleep:
Puis, voyant que son sommeil ne serait pas troublé, je m’avançais prudemment, je m’asseyais sur la chaise qui était à côté du lit, puis sur le lit même. J’ai passé de charmants soirs à jouer avec Albertine, mais jamais d’aussi doux que quand je la regardais dormir.
p.63 (Gallimard, 1989)
Then, seeing that her sleep would not be disturbed, I approached carefully, I sat down on the chair beside the bed, then on the bed itself. I spent many charming evenings in Albertine’s company, but none were as sweet as when I watched her sleep.
*** (my translation)
While she may have private reservations about her life, publicly at least Albertine plays along, perhaps through fear of losing the rich young man’s favour (he might be her best chance of making a successful life for herself).
The power games don’t all come from one side of the relationship, however, and there’s a sense that the narrator is being played every bit as much as he is playing her. Despite his desperate efforts to prevent Albertine from seeing women he suspects (probably rightly) of being bad influences (i.e. being lesbians…), he’s fairly naive to place his trust in those around Albertine. He attempts to turn her best friend Andrée into a full-time spy, as well as bribing his chauffeur to keep him up to speed on Albertine’s movements. Yet there’s only so much he can do from his dark room, and there’s a suspicion that they’re all taking his money and deceiving him, laughing at him behind his back.
The title of this volume has obvious connotations. The French original uses the feminine form of the word, so naturally the reader is led to connect it to Albertine, but she’s far from the only character in the novel feeling constrained. Morel is caught between his true feelings (both sexual and professional) and his perceived need for Charlus’ social and financial support. Because of his sexual preferences, Charlus himself is forced to lie to friends and society, and while he’s managed to have his way so far, he’s about to suffer a fall after his patronising of the Verdurins backfires spectacularly.
Surprisingly, though, the title could also describe Marcel himself. His health issues keep him cooped up at home most of the time, and his dreams of visiting Venice make for a cruel contrast with his dull home life (even the cries of itinerant salespeople outside his window make him long for a freer life). But his jealousy also keeps him captive, not allowing him to leave Albertine alone for long:
De sorte qu’en levant une dernière fois mes yeux du dehors vers la fenêtre de la chambre dans laquelle je serais tout â l’heure, il me sembla voir le lumineux grillage qui allait se renfermer sur moi et dont j’avais forgé moi-même, pour une servitude éternelle, les inflexibles barreaux d’or. (p.318)
To such an extent that on looking up one last time towards the window of the bedroom in which I would soon be, I was almost able to see the shining grill that would close behind me, and whose solid golden bars, to keep me in eternal servitude, I had forged myself. ***
There are times when you almost feel sorry for him, a tortured youth without the emotional capability to trust the woman he claims to love, doomed to sabotage his relationship. And then he opens his mouth again, and all that sympathy melts away…
As is always the Proustian way, the writing is beautiful, intriguing and mind-numbingly slow in equal parts. It takes the narrator two-hundred pages to get through the first couple of days, and on arriving at the dinner party, when he happens to bump into the Baron on the street, we must endure a further twenty pages before they actually make it into the house. In other ways, though, we’re starting to see some progress in the wider story. Yes, it’s the same old friends and a number of recurring themes (among them, Vinteuil’s ‘petite phrase’ at the salon), but in La Prisonnière, more than in previous parts of the novel, we have the sense of time passing off-stage, with a number of characters (including Swann) having passed on while Marcel and Albertine have been cooped up in their ‘lovenest’.
Another difference is far more personal as this was the first of the books that I read on paper. Previously, I had been using free Kindle versions, and predictably the switch to a paperback made for a far better experience, not least thanks to the added extras. The notes and preface shed light on the history of the text and its real-life influences and inspirations, all making for fascinating reading. The font was, unfortunately, a little small, but you can’t have everything, and overall I was happy with my decision to splash out. The next in the series is already making its way to me, and as I’m sure I’ll be spending more time with Proust in the years to come, it’s accompanied by a copy of Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), too 🙂
Overall, La Prisonnière could be characterised as a book of lies. Albertine’s web of untruths expands even as they’re uncovered, Charlus makes feeble attempts to veil his true relationship with Morel, and Marcel conceals his true feelings regarding Albertine in an attempt to keep the upper hand in the relationship. However, this is the part of the novel where they’re all called out on their deceptions. The lies are now out in the open – it’s time to see what happens when everyone knows the truth…