“Mademoiselle Albertine has gone!” These are the words that open A La Recherche du Temps Perdu‘s sixth book, La Fugitive. M. has often contemplated terminating his relationship with Albertine. This morning, finally determined to do so, he is greeted with the news that his mistress has fled.
A moment before I believed that this separation without having seen each other was precisely what I wished […] but now these words: ‘Mademoiselle Albertine has gone,’ had produced in my heart an anguish such that I felt that I could not endure it much longer…
Love dies hard, especially in the Proustian universe. M. has rationalized the separation from Albertine many times in his mind: now he must live through the very real agony of the break up.
M. resolves to bring Albertine back. He dispatches Saint-Loup to Albertine’s home in Touraine, with the plan of offering Albertine’s aunt and guardian, Madame Bontemps, 30,000 francs for Albertine’s return to Paris. When this is unsuccessful, M. writes to Albertine, rather indirectly offering her a yacht and Rolls-Royce if she will return. This ploy also fails. He finally sends her a desperate telegram, begging her to come back. He is too late. He receives a wire from Mme Bontemps: “My poor friend, our little Albertine is dead […] She was thrown by her horse against a tree while she was out riding.” M. will never see Albertine again. Any possibility of reconciliation is gone for ever. Regret is now added to his despair over the separation.
This launches a lengthy meditation by Proust, through the thoughts and actions of his protagonist, on another of his great themes: Time and Habit (his capitalizations). These two forces have the ability to cure the disease of love, yet they fade the events of our life, leaving only pale, barely remembered shadows.
At first, M. is inconsolable over the loss of Albertine. He spends his days thinking of her, of what might have been. And yet, as if picking a scab formed over a slow-healing wound, he cannot help making inquiries into her secret life. He sends Aimé, the headwaiter at the Grand Hotel, to make some inquiries into Albertine’s behavior at Balbec. Aimé sends back a letter confirming M.’s suspicions: Albertine carried on clandestine lesbian affairs in the bathhouse at Balbec, not only with younger girls, but also with a lady in gray, with whom she spent many hours shut up in one of the bathing cabins. He then dispatches Aimé to Touraine, and Aimé reports back that Albertine carried on an affair there with a young laundry-girl.
Slowly, with the passing of time, these revelations lose their grip on him, and he begins to forget Albertine. Even though Andrée later admits to M. that she and Albertine often made love, and that Albertine was involved in orgies organized by the depraved Morel, his love and jealousy subside and pass into forgetfulness:
the black tunnel in which my thoughts had lain dreaming so long […] was suddenly broken by an interval of sunlight, bathing in the distance a blue and smiling universe where Albertine was no more than a memory, insignificant and full of charm.
M. starts going out again. One day he encounters a group of three women leaving the entrance to his building, which also houses the palace of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes. One of the three, a fair-haired woman, gives him a furtive glance as she passes, and then another over her shoulder, this one arousing his passion. He inquires of the concierge as to the identity of these women, and is given the erroneous information that the fair woman is Mlle d’Eporcheville, who had come to call on the Duchesse de Guermantes. The concierge further informs him that she will call again in two days, at the same time. Naturally, M. decides to pay a call on his old friend the Duchess on this same day as well.
The fair-haired woman is there when he arrives, and M. has the impression that he knows her quite well. However, the Duchess introduces her as Mlle de Forcheville, a familiar name that he does not associate with the young woman before him. He is astonished to find out that Mlle de Forcheville is Gilberte Swann, his first love. Charles Swann is now dead. In an ironic turn of events, Swann’s old rival for Odette’s affections, the Baron de Forcheville, has married Mme Swann. Gilberte has taken the Forcheville name. In addition, one of Swann’s uncles had recently died, leaving his entire fortune to Gilberte. Gilberte de Forcheville, née Swann, is now one of the richest young women in France. And, with the aristocratic name of Forcheville masking the Jewish origins of her father, she is also highly eligible for a brilliant marriage.
Swann’s one wish was for the Duchess de Guermantes to recognize and receive his daughter, something that she would never do while he was alive. Now, Gilberte is welcomed under the name of his rival while the name Swann passes into oblivion.
M. has by now almost forgotten Albertine, and a trip to Venice with his mother hastens the transformation of his feelings to complete indifference. M. is enchanted by Venice. He meets new women, although no lasting relationship forms. At night he roams the streets “like a character in the Arabian Nights”. On the train back to Paris, M. opens a letter given to him at the hotel. The letter announces the marriage of Gilberte to Robert de Saint-Loup. M. tells his mother the astounding news. She in turn has just read a letter with equally astounding news: the son of the Marquis and Marquise de Cambremer will be marrying Mlle d’Oloron. M. gives her a puzzled look. Who is Mlle d’Oloron? His mother informs him: she is the niece of Jupien, Baron Charlus’ procurer and factotum. The Baron bestowed upon her one of his many titles and arranged for her marriage as a reward for Jupien’s faithful service.
Thus the Cambremers, petty nobility from the provinces, become allied with the powerful Guermantes family by way of the Baron. Saint-Loup, through his mother, is also a Guermantes. The wedding of Gilberte and Robert therefore unites “Swann’s way” with the “Guermantes way”. Things that seemed unalterable in M.’s world are now changing. Gilberte has ascended to the aristocracy. Swann, once the friend of the Prince of Wales and a member of the Jockey Club, is dead, remembered only for the insignificant events of his later years, if he is remembered at all.
In another surprising turn of events Robert de Saint-Loup, who up until now has appeared to be heterosexual, begins, after his marriage, to practice the “vice” of his uncle Charlus. He deceives Gilberte by feigning affairs with other women, but in fact he has taken up with Morel! All this puts a strain on M.’s friendship with Robert, and causes Jupien to pass judgment on Morel: “No, however despicably – there’s no other word for it – he deserted the Baron, that was his business. But to take up with the nephew! There are some things that just aren’t done.”
More amazing change is coming. Society is passing from the Belle Époque truisms of M.’s youth into the vagaries of the modern age. In the final volume, we will see how Proust’s cast of characters fare during the First World War and beyond.