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Reading Proust — Volume V: The Captive

Life is too short, and Proust is too long. — Anatole France (likely apocryphal)
Giotto, “Envy”

With La Prisonnière (The Captive or The Prisoner), Proust’s literary epic takes an unfortunate behind-the-scenes turn (you can find all of my Proust articles here). The author had died in 1922, before he could finish the editing and revision of the last three volumes. It is one of those great literary tragedies that we can never truly reconstruct the climaxes of his work, even if a century of scholarly pursuit has at least brought us closer to understanding the intentions behind them. The Captive, published in 1923, is, if anything, all the more fascinating because of this, but unfortunately I think it is a noticeable step down from the previous four volumes.

Giving this book a star rating seems like an exercise in absurdity. At his heights here, Proust’s writing remains a rhapsody of social discovery, with scythe-like descriptions of people from all works of life (the social-climbing Madame Verdurin and the simple, superstitious Françoise have nothing in common except that they are perhaps the two most delightful character sketches in all of the Recherche) and utterly gorgeous reflections on the challenges of creating art, and the responsibility of artists to the greater society. There is less humour than in the previous volumes, due to the narrator’s agonised state, but when Proust wants to, he can really throw a zinger in the works. Nevertheless, I’m afraid a lot of this review is going to be… if not negative, at least ambiguous.

At only 450 pages, this is a novella by Proust’s standards, but the work feels overlong and repetitive, in the extreme. A lot of this no doubt comes from the incomplete status of the work but I believe some of it can be ascribed to cultural differences between 1920s France and the 2010s of the English speaking world, and even perhaps a certain myopia on Proust’s part while writing this particular instalment.

“We love only what we do not wholly possess.”

The narrator finally has Albertine, but domestic bliss is anything but — and not just because it appears they aren’t going “all the way”. He seems to have to resort to getting Marcel Jr out for some daytime creeping while his girlfriend is having her naps. It’s… awkward. Like a bird that has lost its colours in captivity, the narrator is finding that the bloom is off the rose. He spends half his time daydreaming about Albertine’s friends or wondering what it is about her that has made him lose interest. Not having read the last two volumes yet, I’d venture a guess that the real problem is that the younger version of the narrator (the book is being narrated from 1922 but we’re around the end of the 19th century, or the start of the 1900s) doesn’t yet understand that relationships mature. The first, heady days of love must naturally give way to the next stage of contentment. Having said that, it’s not all the narrator’s fault. Albertine doesn’t seem to have a very mature vision of mutual love (what Proust here calls “reciprocal torture”) either, as she seems to enjoy keeping him out of the loop half of the time. She reminds me more of the carer of a mental patient than the willing live-in lover of a handsome young man on the fringes of “society”.

I’m going to outline the problems with the novel, as they’re primarily confined to the first half, namely “Life with Albertine”.

Problem I: The narrator’s jealousy is an endless repetition, most of which we’ve already experienced ad nauseum in previous volumes. He’s convinced that Albertine’s a secret lesbian, and spends his days fuming over all of the little clues, primarily nonexistent although with the occasional genuine red flag. His possessiveness and envy are decidedly unattractive traits, and not in an interesting Flaubertian way. A lot of the self-pity is deliberate evidence of his relative youth but, to be honest, the 200+ pages of watching Albertine speak and suspecting that she’s still a citizen of Gomorrah (“In reality, alas, Gomorrah was disseminated all over the world”) don’t pack the same level of subtlety and literary worth as the equally long single-issue ruminations of the previous instalments.

Problem II: and this is a big one, Albertine remains a cipher. This is in part intentional. To the young narrator, Albertine is a blank, representing different things to him depending on where he is at in his life. And of course, for the jealousy to work from a literary perspective, he can’t know all about her. There are obvious parallels between the pair and that of Charlus and Morel, who spend the entirety of this book growing apart without realising it, as the latter fumes over his role deceiving both his sugar daddy and his young female intended, while the former frets and stews over his own jealousy. But, to be honest? It’s not good enough. Even moreso than in previous books, Proust here breaks every convention of first-person narration, dictating the thoughts and intimate moments of Charlus, of the dying Bergotte, and the Verdurins among others. The fact that Albertine is the only major character to lack any particularly interesting traits is distinctly upsetting, and speaks to the fact that Proust was a sheltered and increasingly hermit-like gay man. She is never once real here, and I found myself hoping that the narrator would hook up with Andrée just to give them something worth talking about. It doesn’t help either that their relationship is so complicated and psychological that we need someone like Flaubert to make the nuances believable. Here, it just doesn’t quite work.

(Proust, incidentally, quite liked Flaubert for a different reason, as this wonderful quote shows: “Flaubert is a master at rendering a sense of Time in his works. In my opinion the most beautiful feature of L’Education sentimentale is not a sentence, but an empty space (un blanc)”)

I still think [Proust] insane. The structure must be sane & that is raving. — Evelyn Waugh

Problem 3 is the toughest to talk about, but necessary. The narrator’s reflections on sexuality are problematic to say the least. While he was more sympathetic to the gays in earlier volumes, the narrator here seems to see them as genuinely degenerate, and at times it feels like Proust himself speaking. I’ve read conflicting thoughts on the subject: is this supposed to be the narrator, gradually developing the prejudices of his era? Is this Proust trying to cover up his sexuality as he became more famous, and thus unable to be as open-minded as he had in his earlier novels when he was just a young wannabe struggling to find a publisher? Or was he trying to be “cool” because the social elite were reading his volumes and this was the prevailing attitude of the time? Frankly, if it’s supposed to be satire, it doesn’t feel like it. Baron Charlus, initially so refined that dim readers wouldn’t have picked his homosexuality, is now a walking YMCA advert, and Morel is just a scheming little flirt. There’s a lovely line in which Proust defends his “weird characters” arguing that weirdness happens all around us, and we should stop expecting all of our literary characters to do the most likely thing, as those who act surprisingly are just as interesting. But it doesn’t go far enough to convince me. Also, apparently homosexuality was okay in Ancient Greece because it was a social norm, but now that’s now how we do things, and so one of the problems is that these “inverts” have based their actions on a society they admire but are in fact being idiots by refusing to play by the rules of the current game. Meanwhile, lesbians are known for adopting male children just so they can torture them because it’s the purest form of hating men. Yep. Seems legit.

And Problem 4, which is perhaps just in my head: I feel as if our culture, our collective intelligence, has matured past the point of some of Proust’s revelations. Not all of them, or even most! But some. Much as the audience of the 2010s implicitly understands what an establishing shot in a film does, even when we are kids, compared to an audience in the ’40s when such shots were essentially unheard of, so too are some of the narrator’s revelations a little basic for our tastes. His realisation that love isn’t just an endless pancake party is frustrating because it doesn’t lead to anything. (I compare my ambiguity about Anthony Powell — who writes of characters gradually realising the world isn’t ideal — and my adoration of Barbara Pym, whose characters usually start the novel that way. ) The way that the narrator and Albertine act on Page 1 is how they act on Page 445, just before their relationship takes a significant turn.

Anyhow, let’s veer away from the negative, shall we?

In abandoning that ambition [of becoming a writer], had I forfeited something real? Could life console me for the loss of art?

The second act of The Captive is much more successful, as Proust returns to his true métier. Before heading off to an important salon at the Verdurins, the narrator learns of the death of Bergotte, in a brief but deeply moving episode. The old artist, living half in exile and unable anymore to create the greatest of his masterpieces, nevertheless provides some humour in the hot young women whom he lures back to his studio with his fancy celebrity money, seduces, and then uses as temporary muses for more art: “he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold”. His final moments, gazing at Vermeer’s View of Delft and at last realising the importance of true simplicity in art, are a powerful statement in the midst of Proust’s many, many ideas. And a good place for me to again recommend Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time which contains most all of the artwork mentioned in the Search.

Several formerly important characters die in The Captive, but the remainder happen offscreen and are treated with such disregard that it’s almost surprising. Proust seems to be clearing house, giving an indication of a new generation rising up as an older one falls (although he couldn’t have predicted it when he began writing, Europe had been devastated in WWI, and he seems to have been thinking ahead to the grim post-war landscape we will see in the final volume). The deaths and endings are murky, and one feels this would have been edited for clarity before the book was published. In fact, there are numerous continuity errors here, with at least one character’s death revealed just pages before he engages in conversation at a dinner party! The struggles of posthumously-published works — just ask Puccini and Dickens.

Anyhow, the salon at the Verdurins’ allows Proust to again delight in his social anatomising, with another delicious description of the lady of the house as “aloof, a deity presiding over the musical rites, goddess of Wagnerism and sick-headaches, a sort of almost tragic Norn, conjured up by the spell of genius in the midst of all these ‘bores’”. As they prepare for the long-awaited premiere of Vinteuil’s posthumous septet (with Morel among the musicians), the narrator discourses at length on great artists, with whom “we really do fly from star to star”, reminding us of the importance of the late Bergotte but also of the narrator’s other artistic role models we have met: Elstir, Vinteuil, Berma. And at last, spearheaded by the greedy Verdurins, Charlus’ social undoing takes place in a grand sequence that is, admittedly, a bit surprising in how willing the Baron is to let loose with a string of half-truths about his homosexual decadences (is he slipping into senility?), but ultimately very satisfying. Morel and Charlus have been shaded in far more deftly than Albertine and the narrator, so the development of their relationship feels genuinely earned. And the rudeness of the Madame’s guests is truly chilling, as we know just how she feels about the situation! Finally, what a sublime moment, as the disgraced Charlus is compared to terrified nymphs in ancient art: a suggestion that human society may have changed, but humans themselves haven’t. Perhaps in this way, Proust is undercutting the narrator’s own allegations about the role of homosexuality? Perhaps.

(It’s interesting here that there’s a hint Charlus has a young friend in the military; I’ve been calling it since Book 2 that Saint-Loup might have some man-loving tendencies and I hope yet to be proved right!)

Manet, “Asparagus”, 1880
My darling Marcel… — Albertine

Okay, before we move on to the last few pages, it’s worth noting that twice in this volume, Proust goes way beyond meta. At one point, the narrator pens a jeremiad to Swann, suggesting that he has — since his death — become justly famous because of the publication of Swann in Love. Written by whom? The narrator? Or Proust? Does Marcel Proust exist in the Recherche universe? It’s all very out there. And then there’s the moment which we’ve known about since we were first introduced to books, in which Albertine calls the narrator “Marcel”. Although she doesn’t. Not really. Proust clearly indicates this is for simplicity’s sake, to give the narrator the author’s name. That’s not to say he isn’t being all quirky and suggesting the comparison, but it’s clearly a placeholder (“she said my name, let’s say ‘Marcel’”, kinda thing), like the moments in Goodfellas when the lead character’s narration cuts in on the story, or a Woody Allen voiceover. Regardless, it’s fascinating, and suggests the turns this book could have taken had Proust decided to invent the 21st century novel before David Foster Wallace got around to it.

“Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart.”

It’s haunting to think of Proust, in the last year of his life, feverishly editing the final volumes, doomed to fail. Apparently he would summon musicians to his bedroom in the wee hours to play Beethoven’s late quartets and other such sombre and complex pieces. It’s a great pity he didn’t live to complete the work, because a large chunk of The Captive remains fascinating, even if it doesn’t live up to the promise of the previous volumes.

The final section is promising at least in that it suggests more exhilarating developments are to come. After a winter of reasonable content with Albertine, “Marcel” continues to doubt, continues to watch her sleep, and — despite the joyous presence of an aeroplane, still enough to delight someone at the turn-of-the-century — finally catches her in a lie too big to be stepped around. There are some more authorial problems here, partly due to a seemingly unavoidable translation issue (you know when the translator has to include the original French in brackets that something’s not quite right) and partly due to further signs of a draft, centered around this very important lie. The final ten pages finally progress the relationship and leave us hanging for The Fugitive to come.

David Wesley Richardson, “The usher recognizing the Duc de Châtellerault on the reception hall stairs”, from his series of Proust portraits

I wasn’t enamoured of this book, whereas I have been of the first three and vast chunks of the fourth. I can’t help feeling that The Captive is a bit of a stumbling block in its draft form. Proust had originally intended the intriguing maid of Mme Putbus, over whom the narrator has spilt much… ink in previous volumes, to become a character, but it seems Albertine overshadowed the author’s plans. To be honest, I think Proust’s interest in the subject of jealousy was greater than his ability to write complex heterosexual relationships, and the single-minded focus on this subject takes away from his many, many strengths. The narrator’s possessiveness will be vital to the next volume, and I’m looking forward to reaching the conclusion of it all. I still have faith in this most fascinating of writers. It’s just a shame that the distasteful approach to homosexuality is so prominent, and that Albertine herself — intentionally or not — is placed at the centre of the novel and yet given not one ounce of character.

Still, that great disenchantment at the centre of the novel remains hugely resonant. At first, it was place-names: the illusion dissolving into reality as the youthful narrator visited each one, and discovered how quickly truth drains the colour from art (something it took Bergotte until his final moments to realise). That revelation then spread to society and to modernism, and now to individual people, to entire emotions, and even to the status of being an adult. I wrote earlier that some of Proust’s 1920s revelations seem less surprising to us, four generations later, with a century of additional “social intelligence”. But there are some revelations that remain just as poignant. Perhaps it helps that I’m roughly the same age as the narrator is at this point in the work but, ye gods, do I empathise. Still, we can never go back, as Daphne du Maurier would say. So, on to the future…

For reality, even though it is necessary, is not always forseeable as a whole.”

Next time: shall we learn the truth about Albertine? Volume Six: The Fugitive.