Pondering Proust V: The Prisoner

(We’re nearing the end — two more installments to go, after this one — of Michael Norris’s slow walk through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The painting, once again, is by David Richardson. — Levi)

Volume five of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is titled La Prisonniere (in English, The Prisoner). This title is more apt than the common translation The Captive, for the book is about how M. keeps Albertine as a prisoner in his house in Paris, to “protect” her from her lesbian tendencies.

This chapter is perhaps the most the most puzzling, the most dismal, and finally the most infuriating in the entirety of A La Recherche.

Puzzling, because the narrator’s actions seem strange and unnatural. This chapter explores to the very depths Proust’s major theme of jealousy, of the desire to possess another being. M. has ceased to love Albertine, and in lucid moments, he vows that he will break with her, and resolves to do so the next day. But then a whiff of suspicion that Albertine is seeing someone else, or making an assignation behind his back stirs up his jealousy, which he identifies as a rekindling of love — a stirring of his old feelings for her — and the whole idea of breaking with her is abandoned.

Given this constant swing between indifference and jealousy, M.’s nighttime seem actions a bit strange, even a bit creepy. When Albertine is sleeping, he lies down next to her, and though he doesn’t fondle her outright, he holds her and lies all night listening to her breathe. When she wakes up, she seems innocent and devoid of guile and deception. But in struggling to understand this behavior, two things that Proust is trying to illustrate become clear.

First, in Proust’s world, love is an illness, a disease. Thus M’s behavior is that of a diseased person — one who is unable to act normally but rather acts out the patterns of behavior that the disease dictates. Second, when Albertine is sleeping, she reverts to an innocent state and cannot deceive him. He thus has the illusion of power over her, which is in fact what he is looking for: complete control of her life.

The chapter is dismal, because we live the jealousy and illness of the narrator, and jealousy is a dismal emotion. In Swann in Love, we observed the same behavior in Swann: the desire to possess, the insane jealousy; but the story was recounted in the third person, so we were somewhat removed from the feelings, from the action. But in The Captive, recounted in the first person, we live the entire affair along with the narrator. He has completely given up his social and creative life. He rarely leaves the house. He assigns their mutual friend Andree the task of chaperoning Albertine during the day, and then interrogates Andree mercilessly when the two of them return. He imagines all sorts of trysts and lies on the part of Albertine, some far-fetched, some right on target, and he tortures himself by replaying events of the past where Albertine may or may not have been eyeing or flirting with some woman or girl. Then he has a moment of lucidity, and decides to break with her, only to have his jealousy flare up and restart the whole cycle. And we the reader live this claustrophobic existence along with the narrator, almost unable to continue reading because it is so painful, so pointless.

And yet we are infuriated. We want to grab the narrator by the lapels, slap him, and say “Wake up! You don’t love this woman! She is not that beautiful, she is not that smart. Just send her packing and get on with your life! Who cares if she likes other women? Break off this ludicrous relationship and go to Venice. Get started on your writing career and stop moping around the house!” And surely his friends and relatives have thought of doing the same. But we realize that M. cannot break with Albertine, cannot free himself, because he is trapped in the cycle of the disease that his love has become. In this way, Proust not only describes jealousy and the desire for possession, but makes us live it along with his hero.

Right in the middle of this uncomfortable saga of diseased love, Proust places the most brilliant set piece of the entire book. Our protagonist decides one evening to go out, without telling Albertine, and pay a visit to the Verdurins at their salon, which is now located in the Quai de Conti, in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germaine. The evening coincides with an event that the Baron de Charlus has been planning to advance the career of his lover, the violinist Morel. Ostensibly in collaboration with Mme Verdurin, Charlus has arranged for a newly discovered, never performed masterpiece by the musician Vinteuil, he of the petit phrase that so haunted Swann, to be performed at the Verdurins for the first time. The event is to have a two-fold effect: the elevation in status of Mme Verdurin through her introduction to Charlus’ aristocratic friends, and the elevation in status of Morel, by having him play such an important work in front of such a distinguished audience. As icing on the cake, Charlus has invited the Queen of Naples, with “the same noble blood that had flowed in the veins of her sisters the Empress Elisabeth and the Duchess D’Alencon.”

As can be imagined, Charlus is in his element in staging this event. He has overruled Mme Verdurin’s guest list and has packed the concert with his own favorites from the Faubourg Saint Germaine. His haughty manner mixed with lapses into campy effeminacy is in evidence as the guests file in, bowing to the noble Charlus and snubbing Mme Verdurin, although she is the hostess. Mme Verdurin fumes silently and bides her time, while Charlus glories in his social triumph.

The musicians then assemble for the playing of the Vinteuil septet, which was discovered and rescued from oblivion by the lesbian lover of Vinteuil’s daughter. Morel plays brilliantly, and M., overcome by the beauty of the music, compares it to the earlier sonata by Vinteuil: “it was an ineffable joy which seemed to come from paradise, a joy as different from that of the sonata as some scarlet-clad Mantegna archangel sounding a trumpet from the grave and gentle Bellini seraph strumming a theorbo [long-necked lute]. I knew that this new tone of joy, this summons to a supra-terrestrial joy, was a thing that I would never forget.”

The concert is a triumph, and the guests begin to leave, all congratulating Charlus on this triumphant musical evening, and ignoring Mme Verdurin. The last straw for Mme Verdurin comes when Mme de Mortemart makes plans with Charlus to have Morel play at one of her soirees, thus attempting to “steal” Morel from the Verdurins, who discovered him and made him an integral part of the “petit clan”. Mme Verdurin goes into action. She has Brichot pull the Baron aside to distract him, while she and M. Verdurin go to work on Morel. Mme Verdurin wants Morel to immediately break with the Baron, and says “I feel that you cannot possibly persist in this degrading promiscuity with a tainted person whom nobody will have in their house.” And, as the coup de grace, she adds “You’re the talk of the Conservatoire.”

The only thing Morel cares deeply about is his status at the Conservatoire de Musique, and he vows to instantly break off with Charlus. Morel confronts him and repudiates him in public. “Leave me alone. I forbid you to come near me,” he shouts to the Baron. “You know what I mean all right. I’m not the first person you’ve tried to pervert.” Charlus, who would normally react to such an outpouring with rage and insolence, is struck dumb. He looks around, speechless, “measuring the depths of his misery without understanding its cause.” He his led away by the Queen of Naples, his triumph turned to disaster. Once again, Mme Verdurin shows the power with which she rules her clan.

M. returns home from the soiree in the company of Brichot, and the following days bring more proof of Albertine’s unfaithfulness and deception. He attempts a break and reconciliation, the result of which is that Albertine will no longer kiss him goodnight. He vows to break with her for good. He gets up one morning and rings for Francoise to buy him a guide book for Venice. He has resolved to travel there, and to let Albertine go. But Francoise informs M: “This morning at eight o’clock Mademoiselle Albertine asked me for her boxes” … “She left this letter with me for Monsieur, and at nine o’clock off she went.”

Albertine is gone! The ramifications of this unforeseen event will unfold in the next volume, in which Albertine’s disappearance becomes permanent.

3 Responses

  1. Michael, I’m so glad that
    Michael, I’m so glad that your series of essays helps keep Proust’s writing alive for us. I’m a fellow Proustian as well. His sentences may be too long for impatient readers expecting a Hemingway approach to style. But his introspection into how the mind works is incomparable. And the Albertine series is, in my opinion, even better than the more famous Swann’s Way in exploring the tortured peregrinations of a mostly solipsistic love.

  2. Michael – great to see
    Michael – great to see another installment! Can’t wait to read it. Now, if John Richardson will just complete Volume 4 of his Picasso biography!

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