‘Albertine disparue’ by Marcel Proust (Review)

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but a task I did set myself for 2018 was to finally complete my read of Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), and having made it through the sixth of the seven parts, I can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Today’s post, then, looks at the penultimate slice of the work, and while plot isn’t exactly a primary Proustian concern, the review will be looking at certain developments in the story.  Therefore, if you’d rather not know what happens, look away now.

Still here?  Then I’ll begin…

Albertine Disparue (The Fugitive) picks up seamlessly where La prisonnière (The Prisoner) left off, with Marcel stunned to find that his hostage lover has finally decided to spread her wings and fly away.  Reading her goodbye letter, the young man struggles to come to terms with his loss, despite the fact that in recent times he was the one hoping for a bloodless end to their relationship.  Left alone with his pain (and his housekeeper…), he struggles to come to terms with Albertine’s decision, wondering how best he can persuade her to return.

Unfortunately, though, our young friend has overplayed his hand for once.  Another letter arrives, this time informing him of a more permanent separation: Albertine, who was considering returning to Paris, is dead as the result of an accident.  The news plunges Marcel into even greater desperation, and we all know that can mean only one thing, dozens of pages of detailed laments. This is going to get ugly…

The last couple of books have mainly focused on the slightly twisted connection between Marcel and his young lover, culminating here in the definitive end of their on-off relationship.  Now that it’s over, and our hero has the time to reflect, he’s left with a whole heap of regrets:

…je compris combien, ce soir où en quittant Brichot, j’avais cru éprouver de l’ennui, du regret de ne pouvoir aller me promener et faire l’amour ailleurs, je compris combien je m’étais trompé, et que c’était seulement parce que, le trésor dont les reflets venaient d’en haut jusqu’à moi, je m’en croyais la possession entièrement assurée, que j’avais négligé d’en calculer le valeur, ce qui faisait qu’il me paraissait forcément inférieur à des plaisirs, si petits qu’ils fussent, mais que, cherchant à les imaginer, j’évaluais.
p.77 (Gallimard, 2016)

…I understood how much, that evening when on parting from Brichot I had believed myself to feel boredom, regret, at not being able to go for a stroll and look for love elsewhere, I understood how wrong I was, and that this was merely because, believing myself to be assured of its complete possession, I had neglected to calculate the worth of that treasure whose gleams reached me from up high, which meant that it appeared unquestionably inferior to those pleasures, however trivial they might be, which, seeking to imagine, I did evaluate. ***(my translation)

What follows is an examination of how and why he loved Albertine, realising too late the importance she had for him.  He starts to develop theories on love and life, and explores the concept of our changing nature; rather than having a constant character, people are actually made up of a multitude of ‘I’s.  Marcel claims that each moment brings a different ‘je’, all of whom love Albertine in a slightly different way.

A logical extension of this theory leads Marcel to realise that the person we love is not the person, but a collection of images, sensations and experiences attached to a core we would hardly recognise.  It’s not really Albertine herself that he was in love with, but the picture he’d built up of her.  This is nicely shown in a scene at Marcel’s apartment after Albertine’s death, when his friend Robert de St-Loup is stunned on seeing Albertine’s photo – this is the girl his friend has spent so much money, time and energy on, the cause of all his anguish?  For St-Loup, she’s just an average-looking teenager, but in Marcel’s mind, she’s been built up as the epitome of alluring womanhood.

While Albertine the person is dead, Marcel isn’t yet free of her influence – she lives on in his memories, meaning the pain is always fresh.  The bitter irony here, though, is that over the course of Albertine disparue, Marcel does his level best to destroy these images.  Unable to leave things alone, he can’t help but investigate her past and her possible sexual tendencies, like a schoolboy working away at a healing scab.  The news he receives from his spies confirms his worst suspicions (possibly because they know that this is what he secretly wants to hear), destroying the image he has of her.  There’s certainly no resting in peace as long as the bitter young man has a pocketful of money and people willing to go in search of dirt on his unfortunate lover…

The penultimate part of the writer’s mammoth project has the usual Proustian flaws and merits.  Slow moving and beautiful in places, the story is a detailed examination of an obsession.  Marcel goes over conversations with his dead lover, replaying their encounters in his dreams, and initially everything he sees reminds him of Albertine.  Yet slowly (everything’s slow in this work…) the pain and memories fade.  As time passes, Marcel himself evolves, meaning he longer needs to grieve:

On ne peut être fidèle qu’à ce dont on se souvient, on ne souvient que de ce qu’on a connu.  Mon moi nouveau, tandis qu’il grandissait à l’ombre de l’ancien, l’avait souvent entendu parler d’Albertine; à travers lui, à travers les récits qu’il en recueillait, il croyait la connaître, elle lui était sympathique, il l’aimait; mais ce n’était qu’une tendresse de seconde main. (p.176)

It is only possible to be faithful to what you remember, you only remember what you have known.  My new me, while growing up beneath the shade of the old one, had often heard him speak of Albertine; through him, through the stories he gathered, this new me believed he knew her, he liked her, he loved her; yet it was nothing but a second-hand emotion. ***

In this way, Marcel gradually recovers from the shock, and we suspect that it won’t be long before he’s able to go back to his usual (self-absorbed) way of life.

Although Albertine disparue is one of the shortest parts of the cycle, there’s a lot going on in the second half of the book, with a sense that Proust is getting ready to wrap things up.  Gilberte, Marcel’s childhood crush, reappears in a storyline bringing together her mother, the Guermantes family and St-Loup.  We have a couple of marriages, some deaths and even the long-promised trip to Venice.  Perhaps the most significant development here, though, is related to the idea of the subjectivity of people’s characters. In earlier parts of the novel, Marcel is blind to others’ views, believing his own hype; here, he begins to get wise to reality.  There’s the small matter of Albertine, of course, and the realisation of how she fooled him, but he finally (belatedly) starts to wonder if society loves him quite as much as he thought it did.  Certainly, the lack of real interest shown in his long-awaited debut in the Le Figaro newspaper comes as a bit of a wake-up call.  Yet perhaps the greatest revelation is what he learns about his friend St-Loup.  Several surprising events in the book reveal a hidden side to the amiable aristocrat, leading us to suspect that his adoration for the young writer might have been faked (or of a different nature to what Marcel thought it to be) all along.

As a whole, Albertine disparue provides the usual wonderful and infuriating mix of insight and dull minutiae, but at this point I feel the need to take a step back and be a little more critical.  It’s important to make allowances for different times and cultures, but that doesn’t mean that readers should overlook a character’s loathsome nature – and it’s hard to deny that Marcel can be a complete shit at times.  A few examples for the prosecution:

1) Despite his distress at being dumped, the moment Albertine shows the slightest signs of changing her mind, he completely loses interest.
2) Unable to leave the poor woman alone, he dispatches spies to dig up dirt about her both before and after her death.
3) He shows his grief by roaming the neighbourhood and picking up a young girl in the street, an adventure that he’s fortunate to get out of without a spell in police custody.

The novel as a whole is undoubtedly great literature, but a modern reader can’t help but be disgusted by the writer’s alter-ego at times (and I’m not entirely convinced that it’s always intentional…).

Having got that off my chest, it’s time to catch our breath; the tale is almost done.  However, there is one book to go, Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained), before we can leave Marcel in peace.  I’m already wondering how Proust will manage to bring it all together, how the old man reflecting on his youth will manage to put all his trials and tribulations into perspective.  Yes, there’s just one last hurdle to overcome, but if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that reading Proust isn’t an experience to be rushed.  I think I might just gather my strength a little before embarking on the final leg of this very, very long journey 😉

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